The OZ Trial

All my yesteryears … this was written for The Guardian in 2001. In 2011, hopefully, all I’ll have to do will be to change ‘thirty’ to ‘forty’, update the cultural references slightly and sell the same piece all over again.

Charles Shaar Murray OZ trial[At least, that was how I prefaced this when I originally posted the piece on this site. I actually did exactly that when the lovely and much-missed WORD magazine commissioned an OZ reminiscence in 2011. I must say that editor Mark Ellen was highly unamused when he saw this – and the above remarks – on the site, but kindly refrained from docking my fee.]

[And – for OZbvious reasons – this latest iteration is dedicated to Mick Farren.]

Thirty years ago this week, one of the most ludicrous trials in the history of British jurisprudence reached its climax with the Australian editor of a British underground magazine being sentenced to fifteen months’ imprisonment followed by deportation. The OZ Obscenity Trial was as much a clash of two Britains as the Lady Chatterley case of less than a decade earlier: two landmark events in a cultural war which, as the moral panics over Brass Eye, American Psycho and Crash would suggest, is still going on.

And it all started so innocently, too.

“Some of us are feeling old and boring,” began the ad in OZ 26. “We invite our readers who are under eighteen to come and edit the April issue. We will choose one person, several or accept collective applications from a group of friends.” OZ, it concluded, “belongs to you.”

Early 1970, with spring in the air, I was about to be sprung from what felt like a life sentence in Net Curtain Land (Reading, to be precise). Convinced by the images on the TV and in the movies, by the music on the radio and by the associated reporting in the underground and pop press, that there were a whole bunch of people having a way better time than I was and doing their best to change the world in the process, I couldn’t wait to join in. Now here was one of my favourite magazines virtually demanding that I do so. I wasn’t under 18. In fact, I had only a few more months to go before becoming 19. Neveretheless, there was no way that I was going to ignore an opportunity to meet and work with the glitterati of the metropolitan underground. It seemed like my last chance to escape becoming a civil servant or a librarian.

So half a dozen of us hitched up to London, and soon found ourselves in a dimly-lit and exotically-furnished basement flat in Palace Gardens Terrace, off Notting Hill Gate, alongside twenty-odd other 15-to-18-year-olds. The flat was home to OZ figurehead Richard Neville, a charmingly louche 30-year-old apex to the editorial triumvirate. Co-conspirator Jim Anderson, four years’ Richard’s senior, lived upstairs: with his lanky physique and swathes of cornsilk hair, he resembled albino rocker Johnny Winter’s slightly less freaky doppelganger. Camp, ironic and softly-spoken, he was also the first out gay person I’d ever met. Finally, there was ‘freak with a briefcase’ Felix Dennis, the youngest at 25 and the magazine’s business manager and reviews editor: his chocolate-brown pinstripe suit clashing with his Louis XIV hair and wildman beard, his manic, braying guffaw punctuating every debate.

All three editors were at least as interested in us as we were in them. As Actual (rather than notional) Kids, we were interrogated for our opinions on education, politics and society as well as sex, drugs and rock and roll. Given access to the magazine, what was it that we would want to say? Over the next few weekends, crammed into Jim’s flat, we found out through the process of saying it. Along the line, we started to learn about magazine production in the wild and woolly world of web-offset printing. When I brought in the typescript of my first piece, Richard scrawled ‘bold, unjustified’ at the top. I was quite offended until I realised that this represented instructions to the typesetter rather than a comment on the article. The assembled company included Peter Popham, subsequently a respected foreign correpondent for The Independent; Deyan Sudjic — the posse’s sole skinhead — founder of Blueprint, later editor of Architectural Digest and a front-rank commentator on architectural issues; Colin Thomas, a successful photographer; Trudi Braun, who became a senior editor at Harper’s; Steve Havers, cultural commentator turned web designer, and Vivian Berger, whose juxtaposition of the head of Rupert Bear with a characterisatically Rabelaisian cartoon strip by Robert Crumb helped generate some of the most surreal exchanges ever heard in a British courtroom.

OZ was into themed issues at the time, and issue 28, ‘Schoolkids’ OZ’, arrived between ‘Acid OZ’ — the psychedelic issue — and ‘Female Energy OZ’, guest-edited by Germaine Greer a mere few months before the publication of The Female Eunuch, and one of hippiedom’s earliest introductions to feminism. OZ 28 didn’t sell particularly well, and the OZ team had practically forgotten about it when, two months later, the Obscene Publications Squad crashed into the OZ office in Holland Park, locked the doors, disconnected the phones and began carting away everything they could find even remotely connected to OZ 28. Next stop, a year or so later: the Old Bailey, with Richard, Felix and Jim up before the beak for having ‘conspired with certain other young persons to produce a magazine’ which would ‘corrupt the morals of children and other young persons’ and was intended to ‘arouse and implant in the minds of those young people lustful and perverted desires.’

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