Oz Magazine: Tuning In and Staying Woke 07/07/2017 – Posted in: Explore

Cover-of-Schoolkids-Oz

In 1967, London was introduced to Oz, the psychedelic, pseudo-anarchistic magazine from Australia.  Within months, its pages of protest-art and political satire had gained enormous popularity amongst a young audience.  It was anti-Vietnam, anti-globalisation, pro-narcotics and uncompromising on the subject of sex: a political migraine for any member of the older generation who might be regarded as ’Establishment’.

oz01covThe collective message behind the magazine was of ‘opening the mind’, as had been frequently described by visionaries such as Bob Dylan, Timothy Leary and Alan Ginsberg.  These cultural leaders sought to assist those who were willing to participate into a social awakening via musical and pharmacological escapism.  Crucially, the trip was not mandatory.  Oz represented absolute freedom of the press as well as the public; encouraging participation and reason over violent disruption as a means to protesting a violent government.  Over six years, 48 monthly editions led the line in counterculture, lampooned those in power, investigated the far reaches of the human mind, and carried small ads for cordless massagers.

The reaction from those in power was predictably haughty.  In 1971, three chief Oz editors, Richard Neville,  Felix Dennis and Jim Anderson were taken to the high crown court, having been accused of obscenity as well as the archaic charge of “conspiring to corrupt public morals”, which carried a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.  The charges related specifically to ‘The Schoolkids Issue’, in which genuine fifth and sixth-formers were drafted in for a month’s work.  Most of the controversy surrounded the publication of a pornographic cartoon featuring Rupert the Bear, whose head had been crudely pasted on to a Robert Crumb strip by fifteen year-old Vivian Berger.

“[the defendants] conspiring with certain other young persons to produce a magazine containing obscene, lewd, indecent and sexually perverted articles, cartoons and drawings with intent to debauch and corrupt the morals of children and other young persons and to arouse and implant in their minds lustful and perverted ideas… It dealt with homosexuality, lesbianism, sadism, perverted sexual practices and drug taking”

–   Mr. Brian Leary, prosecuting.

The Oz Trial 1971. L to R: Richard Neville, James (Jim) Anderson and Felix Dennis with their infamous Schoolkids issue, 1970. Date unknown.

L to R: Schoolgirls Richard Neville, Jim Anderson and Felix Dennis with their infamous Schoolkids issue, 1970.

The court case received a vast amount of public attention, and eventually became the longest obscenity trial in British history. Publicity surrounding the Oz trial drew from the obvious caricatures: fusty old-timers who were outraged at the taboos enjoyed by youthful tricksters.  Over the course of a month the nation was gripped by legal farce; celebrity defence witnesses were called, Justice Michael Argyle was found to have mis-directed the jury, and the defendants arrived at the central criminal court dressed in schoolgirl uniforms.  Consequently the conspiracy charges were dropped, and lesser convictions overturned, although the debacle had a lasting impact.  Two years on, Oz magazine, now £20,000 in debt and suffering a dwindling, post-sixties readership, published its final rag.

And yet, the legacy of Oz provokes not only hippie nostalgia, but also a notion of responsibility: counterculture must hold the Establishment accountable.  Modern political dissent, for all its various outlets (online, via social media etc) is facing its toughest challenge yet: a flooding of information.  The dual threat of global advertising and the recent emergence of ‘fake news’ can, and will, dilute a message.  Protest against the Vietnam War was single-minded, resulting in marches, riots, music, art, speeches and articles all co-ordinated in theme.  More recently, Black Lives Matter saw a similar outburst of public dissent.  It also spawned a plethora of unchecked online articles and an advert for Pepsi starring Kendall Jenner.

Oz magazine was singular for its artistic and political content.  Modern equivalents would only just include Private Eye and The Onion; excellent in their investigative journalism and irreverence, but lacking the kind of widespread shock value that pulls concerning issues into public recognition.  Little has changed in the way of anger – thankfully ‘tuning in’ has reimagined itself as ‘being woke’.  Yet the chasm of information that exists between those who protest and those in power remains at once massive, and somehow ignorable.

Max Hart-Walsh

Available editions of Oz Magazine:

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