‘Time! It’s passing. Oh, God. Time!’ mourned the legal adviser to Oz, transfixed by his wristwatch after his first and last joint. Who said nothing profound ever came of smoking the weed? Time was passing. It has passed. Twenty-five years after the dope, the hair, the music and the flowery rhetoric flowed free, those of us who were young enough to inhabit the land of spiked milk and honeyed hash fudge are in our forties and fifties. Which is only to be expected, although, of course, it was the last thing that anyone did, in fact, expect. There’s nothing more difficult to get a solid grip on (except perhaps the Anthropic Principle in quantum physics) than the passage of time between being young, and the discovery that, at best, you’re halfway through your allocation It feels as if an error has been made – a decade skipped by some careless calendar designer. Try and make sense of it: 25 years ago I was 23. All right, that’s not so difficult. Twenty-five years before that the date was 1945: the war had just ended, and I was two years short of being born. Twenty-five years from now it will be 2020 and I’ll be 73 (maybe). Which is ridiculous – these are altogether different sorts of 25 years, surely? Why didn’t anyone tell us about time passing, the way it accelerates, how it skitters along without so much as a pardon-me-do-you-know-you’re-in-the-way? It would be a simple enough statement: you get three lots of 25 years and then you die. It’s possible, of course, that someone might have mentioned it, but we had the music (‘The Times They Are a-Changing’; ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’; ‘My g-g-Generation’) turned up too high to hear.
It probably wouldn’t have made any difference. Unless you were listening to Cliff Richard or attending Billy Graham’s hallelujah meetings, the Sixties (not the decade, but that period from 1965 to 1972ish) were irresistible. They have been the good fortune and the curse of my generation (‘May you live through interesting times’): we thank our lucky stars that our time for being young was then and not the Eighties or Nineties, but found – or find – ourselves a little slow to get on with the getting on, hypnotised as we are by the brief period of excitement in our past.
Hippie Hippie Shake (what a title, for goodness sake) includes a multitude of photographs of Richard Neville in his twenties, but none of him in middle age; the writing, too, tells of his adventures then, even his hesitations, but there’s no sense of having moved on intellectually or emotionally, of the man reassessing the boy. The present is barely referred to beyond the fact that he lives back in Australia and has a wife and two children. Of course, what he’s up to and thinking now isn’t necessarily any of our business, and he may have actually intended to write a book that merely described the events that brought him to the dock of the Old Bailey rather than a thoroughgoing analysis of the period, but the time warped effect contributes to the slightness of the enterprise. A lot of grand thoughts were rolling around – counter-culture, revolution, alternative reality – but when all is said and done in Neville’s recollection, it appears it was little more than a hiatus, an overextended gap year between school and real life.
Certainly, it was all said and done pretty rapidly. In the already darkening days of 1970, Birgitta Bjerke wrote a heart-breaking epitaph from Ibiza, which was published in the fatal Schoolkids Oz. ‘LOVE was a wonderful word we all believed in. Where is Love now? Where is all the fantastic exuberant joy and optimism from the Flower Power times?’ Birgitte had been ‘living and learning on this beautiful island for nearly eight months. Writing, drawing and crocheting.’ Writing, drawing and crocheting. Was a life ever so idyllic? Yet it seemed to slip away before it was fully in our grasp. As early as 1967 the Underground paper IT was writing: ‘If our ideas are quashed in the future we can look back on the ball we had now.’ Joy and optimism? Or the sneaking suspicion that the game was always and already up; that we might, after all, grow old and grey and hear ourselves sounding alarmingly like those class and style enemies, our parents? Hey, let’s have ourselves a past.
In Schoolkids Oz, one of the teenage guest editors. Charles Shaar Murray (now a revered, middle-aged rock music critic), issued an interesting warning. Talking about the popularity of straight, commercial pop music (‘Sugar, Sugar, Honey, Honey’), and the often dire pretensions of progressive, underground music (‘You’re two Thousand Light Years from Home’), he noticed that the mumsy commercial stuff ‘is crap, but the people are honest. With us, half the music is good, but half the people are dishonest.’ The fractions might, in retrospect, be underestimated (the music more than half good, and the people more than half dishonest), but it’s an accurate enough analysis that applies beyond just the music of the time. Unless, that is, dishonesty is too harsh a word. According to Richard Neville all most people were trying to do was get ‘in tune with the times, wanting to make waves, to make a buck, to make a difference’. The usual mixed agenda which even Norman Normal, Oz’s straw straight man, could live with.
So how did they manage, after all, the nabobs of the underground? They did make waves for a while, though perhaps not the kind you surf to paradise on. I suppose some bucks were made (think Felix Dennis: distribution manager of Oz and now higher than Her Majesty on the richest people list; and Ed Victor – ex-editor of Ink and currently mega-agent), but only by a few, and generally not until life had got more sensible again. Some made writing careers for themselves which developed smoothly enough from their media involvement at the time – Richard Neville himself, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes, Charles Shaar Murray. Some people died, but only the famously talented (Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison) stick in the public memory. Most of the freaks, hippies and radicals recognised that youth was just a holiday, and come the end of the summer of love they bought suits, cut their hair and dropped back into regular lives, keeping only a small warm memory of the ball they had then. What was crucial was that you could drop out of school or university and know for certain that education and work would be waiting for you when you’d had enough of fun. If ‘dishonesty’ turns out to be the right word, it was only the ordinary dishonesty that afflicts all human psyches. A venal not a mortal mendacity like that of the liars who were running the Vietnam War.
Mostly, for Neville, it seemed to be about sex – lots of it with plenty of people, while his live-in lover Louise put up with it, or didn’t from time to time. Germaine Greer hadn’t yet written The female Eunuch, so for women sexual liberation meant sleeping with as many famous rock stars or radical magazine editors as possible. According to Neville (Greer was offered the manuscript but sent it back: ‘I shall not read it. Ever’), the soon-to-be seminal feminist discovered groupiedom as a radical activity. ‘Every girl should try it at least once. Groupies will be a significant element in the revolution... You know, I even find Engelbert Humperdinck hornymaking. Those high-fronted shiny mohair trousers ...’ You would think it would be for revealing this (with who knows what degree of accuracy), and not anything Neville wrote in passing about her reproductive organs, that Greer was suing him.
Felix Dennis is also suing, though not Richard Neville, but Michael Argyle, judge in the Schoolkids Oz trial, for appearing to say in a recent Spectator that Dennis used Oz as a cover to sell drugs to schoolchildren. It must have slipped the now retired judge’s mind that he told Dennis, ‘You are very much less intelligent than your two co-defendants,’ when he sent him down for nine months. Dennis clearly hasn’t forgotten. I imagine the courts will be kept very busy, as the middle-aged publish recollections of a time, by definition, hazy with mind-muddling smoke and half-arsed philosophy, and other sober citizens attempt to defend their past from the prying eyes of their children, business associates and students.
But what about making a difference? The atmosphere had changed by the time the word ‘hippie’ made you giggle with embarrassment, though it’s hard to say whether the difference wasn’t already happening and wasn’t itself the original cause of the behaviour. The times were a-changing, but times do: it’s moot whether they were changed by those who jumped in and perhaps only swam with the tide. The beginnings of change were not stimulated by the Sixties’ kids growing their hair or dropping LSD but are found somewhere further back, in the period belonging to the insupportable greyness of the post-war Fifties, with the harder types who did radically alter the course of their whole lives and who provided a space in which those to come could breathe. Kerouac, Genet, Burroughs and John Coltrane were there before Timothy Leary, Marcuse, Germaine Greer and the Beatles. I remember feeling wretched in the early Sixties that I had been born too late, the Beats had already happened, the parade, the great time had passed before I was old enough to join in: just as later generations felt deprived of the excitement of the Sixties counter-culture. And it must have been a pain to find you’d just missed out on the French Revolution. It’s not so much what a drag it is growing old, as what a drag it is finding you’re too young to have joined in the fun. The young wake up from childhood and want to be there when something’s happening, and time and history being what they are, it always seems as if it’s already happened. The world was made just before you arrived and there’s nothing left to do but live in it. It was pure serendipity that the economy had picked up enough to allow the post-Fifties kids time to play, and that those earlier loners had given the play some direction. There were no wars over here to sacrifice ourselves for, so we had the space to go to war with the grown-ups in the name of freedom and personal liberation. The battalions of the young, armed with LSD, cannabis and Little Red Books, their long hair and liberated genitals swinging in the wind, sang ‘We Want the World and We Want it Now’, as they marched on the old, who, behaving impeccably, threw up their hands in dismay and were duly shocked.
But there is a limit to how patronising I can be about our youthful self-deceit. When Richard Neville’s book starts to tell the story of the Oz trial, it is hard not to become engaged, or re-engaged. All the old astonishment and enragement at the idiocy, time-wasting and viciousness of the law and its officers comes back as strong as ever. The absurdity that put young people in prison for possessing enough cannabis to make a joint, the self-righteous hatred for anyone who chose to grow their hair or wear unrespectable clothes: the establishment terror of social and political dissent: all this still makes you shake your head in disbelief
Schoolkids Oz was edited by self chosen sixth-formers and mostly complained about restrictive rules and regulations in school, forth-coming ecological catastrophe and the sexual concerns of rampant adolescents. It was at worst naughty, but it was prosecuted for obscenity and corruption of minors, focusing especially on a Robert Crumb-like cartoon strip of a baffled Rupert Bear, massively erect, battling to break the hymen of the monumental Gipsy Granny. It’s actually a quite funny piece of iconoclasm, though not as funny as the prosecutor’s exchange with social psychologist Michael Schofield: ‘Yes, but what age do you think Rupert is?’ ‘I’m very sorry. I’m not up to date with bears.’ ‘He’s a young bear, isn’t he? He goes to school.’ Evidently, the charge of corrupting minors must have included underage bears. The pottiness of this has a certain charm until you remember that the trial went on for weeks and the physical freedom of three people was at stake. The real objections were put by Detective Luff, Neville’s nemesis and England’s moral protector. ‘Do you think that the underground press has a right to exist?’ asked Neville, defending himself and examining Luff. ‘As far as Oz is concerned, I think it’s undesirable from a family point of view. And when they attack society and try and change it, then – yes! I do have an objection.’ For this reason, before the trial, 16-year-old Vivian Berger, the creator of the Rupert Bear unpleasantness, was regularly stopped and searched on his way to school by Luff and his colleagues, and at least once beaten up.
So fearful was society of the disruption to conformity that having been found guilty of obscenity (though not of corruption), the three first offenders were sentenced to 15 months, 12 months and nine months’ imprisonment. And so incensed were the forces of law and order that while still on remand Neville, Jim Anderson and Felix Dennis had their hair shorn so that their next court appearance became a public shaming. They were not, of course, Samsons, and they did not bring the pillars of society down with them as they were shipped off to the Scrubs, but even the tabloids, who had been calling for blood, were shocked at their treatment and the excessive sentences. Justice was seen not to be done but to be revelling in revenge. It certainly wasn’t preventing anything from happening. The counter-culture’s time was already up. Neville was tired of Oz, people were putting away their beads and wondering what they were going to do with the rest of their lives. Richard Neville had already written in the End of an Era Oz: ‘The flower child that Oz urged readers to plant back in ’67 has grown up into a Weatherwoman; for Timothy Leary, happiness has become a warm gun. Charles Manson soars to the top of the pops and everyone hip is making war and loving it.’
Perhaps we do not hate our young people so much now, but then two decades have passed and the present generation are too busy wondering whether they’ll ever get a job or a place to live independently to go in for any threatening alternative lifestyles. They are troubled, but they play the game within existing parameters: they break rules which are already set, and behave in a way society can understand and deal with. They commit robbery, steal cars, do violence to themselves and others, and sink into spirals of apathy and despair: all these things dimmish them by limiting their possibilities, and comfort their elders by confirming the old virtues. The Sixties generation challenged social mores, but failed finally to make a lasting case for the destruction of the old virtues. It may be that those virtues have a lot to be said for them, but, these days, no one seems to be checking.