Hippie hippie shake

28 January 2010

Written by: Tom Cowie

Richard Neville is one of those enviable people who did something with their youth.

You might recall Neville from the 2006 internet hoax where a clone of John Howard’s official website published with a fake apology to indigenous Australians, or from his social commentary in the 80s and 90s. But it is as the founder and editor of seminal 60s counter-culture magazine Oz that he has had the most cultural influence. Neville and his gang of ambitious – but more importantly, now famous – riff-raff challenged establishment views and pushed the limits of the mainstream and as a result, Oz and its staff were tried for obscenity – and charged – in two countries; first Australia, and then Britain. Hippie Hippie Shake is the fantastic story of the life and time of Oz from Neville’s rather jaundiced perspective, featuring events like early Isle of Wight Festivals, the break-up of the Beatles and a colourful cast of hundreds of the 60s’ brightest young things.

Hippie Hippie Shake offers two unique things to its readers: a dizzying who’s who of characters that once lived for revolution but are now sadly aged and mostly irrelevant, and an insider’s look into the subculture of one of the twentieth century’s most socially dynamic periods. In Hippie Hippie Shake, Neville teases out the matted strands of a proverbial hippy coiffure, as only one who was there really could, to expose the roots for your edification; the politics, the drama, the fads and the gossip, with himself as the dorky yet somehow successful and influential All-Seeing Eye.

 The introduction of Neville’s friends, such as artist Martin Sharp, pioneering feminist and academic Germaine Greer, entrepreneur Felix Dennis, and one-time “midnight poke” Jenny Kee (p. 54) does much to make up for the unapologetic dullness of the author’s recollections of his own actions during this time, though as one of the least ultimately successful and memorable figures from his set, one can only imagine that the warts-and-all accounts of these famous individuals is one of the major justifications for the book being published. Germane Greer certainly thinks so, saying “As one of the least talented people on the London scene in the 60s, it was probably inevitable that Neville would be constantly revisiting it in search of the fame and fortune that continue to elude him.”

While Neville may not be famous or fortunate, he was there; a fact that stands in his favour. And despite having (nearly) convinced us that he is a loser, Neville was responsible for nearly a hundred issues of Oz being produced during his time editing the Sydney and London publications as well as one of the most coherent, comprehensive and controversial books on the underground, 1971’s best-selling Playpower.

It could be argued, in any case, that Neville’s failure to find riches and renown makes him a more approachable guide to this era than some other former hippies who’ve written memoirs, as does his status as an anti-hero amidst geniuses. By his own account, he lived the hippy dream; with a gorgeous girlfriend who knocked back sitting for famed photographer Helmut Newton to warm his bed and make him tea, regular appearances on TV as an authority on the Youth Quake and two successful publications to his name.

But what makes Neville’s commentary more authentic is his honesty about his deep-seated sexism and relationship insecurities, his memories of being old and ‘square’ in a city full of the young and uninhibited and his reflections on the humanity of the hippy movement where others only discuss the magic and mythology. One passage about a night watching underground films at the London Arts Lab sums up Neville’s (adult) position on this particular time and the position the book takes in general: “With a hundred hippies sprawled on the floor, shoeless in the dark, this realm of the senses was dominated by the olfactory – the incense overpowered by sock pong,” (p. 95).

Aside from the drama of the time and the draw of juicy details of the lives of celebrities, Hippie Hippie Shake a compelling read thanks to Neville’s  unsentimental yet still emotional approach to his past. The frank discussion of his own awkwardness and sometimes callousness as he sought fame and recognition is interspersed with regrets and reflections about his treatment of his girlfriend Louise and disgust at establishment views and attitudes in a time of such intense international upheaval. This is a vast improvement on Playpower, the supposedly only faithful chronicle of a emotionally super-charged era, which was notorious for the author’s blunt and unaffected  admission to having sex with a 14 year-old when he was nearly 30 himself (p. 74 of the 1971 Jonathan Cape edition). The social commentary of Neville’s 1971 work is also infected with clumsy attempts at political and ethical sophistication through strangely flat coverage of the major news of the day that shows it to particularly ill advantage next to works by his sister Jill from a similar time, including her wonderful 1969 novel The Love Germ, which is set against the Parisian student riots of the previous year.

Nearly 30 years on, Neville is still trying a bit too hard to win respect and adoration through his writing, though in the intervening period, it is clear he has mastered the expression of his feelings through his words and has maybe grown up enough to see the appeal in doing this as simply and truthfully as possible. Hippie Hippie Shake is a bit like talking to the most nondescript and boring-looking guy at a party, only to discover that he is quite possibly the most interesting person there.

Despite what the blurb of the book might suggest about Neville being a hip and really urbane and witty guy with the power to “demythologise the 1960s”, his own words show him to be a reformed jerk and life-long try-hard who doesn’t have all the answers about what the 60s meant and achieved but will still have a go at telling you what it meant to and achieved for him. Neville wants us to like him; to believe him and be changed by his experiences and perspective where many of those in the 60s and 70s weren’t. And by the end of the book, it is hard to avoid being won over by this earnest man and having your mind blown wide open.

Hippie, hippie, shake: the dreams, the trips, the trials, the love-ins, the screw ups — the Sixties, is published by William Heinemann Australia, 1995, 376pp. A film based on the book, starring Cillian Murphy and Sienna Miller, has been completed and will be released in the UK in May 2010.

Meaghan van Loenen is a Bachelor of Arts and Graduate Diploma of Media Studies graduate of La Trobe University. She is also the fiction editor of the online literary magazine Cerulean Rain.

Upstart is collating the essential list of #topjournobooks. See what else has been reviewed so far here, and feel free to send in suggestions and your own review pitches.