Australia’s own “ism” is larrikinism, and Richard Neville was all for it

Richard Neville, founder and editor of Oz, died last week in Byron aged 74. His wife Julie Clarke-Neville, a writer, and daughters Lucy and Angelica carry on saving the world.


I met Richard Neville in the summer of 1970 in San Francisco, when hippies were smoking joints and dancing on the grass in Golden Gate Park to Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead.

Richard was taking a break from editing Oz in London while I was taking a break from editing my pop music paper GoSet and my new counterculture paper Revolution in Melbourne and Sydney. We were formally introduced at the Rolling Stone San Francisco office by its founder/editor Jann Wenner.

Richard and I enjoyed reading each other’s magazines, but sharing four days exploring the sex, drugs, rock, and politics culture in Frisco, Berkeley, and Bolinas, we found more common ground: we shared a commitment to working for the common good, and a passionate rejection of authoritarian school principals, politicians, preachers, or parents. We both distrusted “isms” because we thought we had to reinvent everything, including dissent, since the culture we grew up in -- his in Wahroonga in Sydney and mine in Blackburn in Melbourne -- was crumbling, or already crumby.

 Rejecting “isms” was, and still is, a great Australian tradition. In the early 1900s, young Aussies who were rowdy and also mavericks were called “larrikins”, and a few years ago, on a walk through the rainforest in Coorabell, Richard and I agreed that larrikinism is one ism we could embrace.    

Back in the 1970s, our politics evolved. He shed his conviction that the counterculture was “designed for raving hippies with sparklers to wander the planet dropping acid forever,” and came to describe it instead as “a leap towards … colour, movement and tolerance.” And beneath that hippie-hippie-shake meme of his, he also knew there was a deadly serious side to politics: the drive toward war, plunder, and subjugation, which he saw in American policies as much as in those of empires never distracted by notions of democracy.

 I shared that perspective, but I noted, in my review of his book Playpower, in 1971, that “One area of liberation OZ and Neville have only gradually come to admit is women's liberation [and] with exactly half the world in this army [it’s] the biggest sleeping giant of all.”

 In 2007, Louise Ferrier recalled the Oz years, during which she was Richard’s partner, as “a new dimension opening up. But,” she told The Australian, “a lot of shit went on too – men beating their chests, putting each other down, showing off their intellect. At least there were people like Germaine [Greer]. …She could write, talk, sing, act, cook, knit and crochet. And argue!”

 On Q&A last week, Germaine said of Richard: “I used to tease him and say that he was the ad man for the revolution, because he didn't actually have any ideology. His ideology was endlessly supple, but in some ways that's important, that you are open to new ideas in that way, and not doctrinaire like me."

I would argue that Germaine was and is another great Aussie larrikin, even with her doctrines. She was, after all, like Richard, embroiled in an obscenity case in the ‘70s when she posed naked for a double-page spread in Suck magazine. Not that being obscene is essential to larrikinism – I was charged with obscenity for publishing Helen Garner’s first article in The Digger, in 1972, but I was also charged with “inciting diverse persons unknown to commit larceny in supermarkets”, and that’s clearly a larrikin act.

Let’s then remember Richard as a larrikin, a high-end one perhaps, but a fair dinkum larrikin.

 As Louise Ferrier said: “for all my ambivalence I do miss the energy and idealism of Oz. There’s no heart any more. It feels like we’re returning to a barren pre-Oz time.”


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