Broader Issues: Verdict and After

After the trial, one of the jurors stated:

 When I first picked up Oz I thought it was a filthy magazine. I thought the swear words and drawings were obscene and completely unnecessary. But when the contents of Oz were explained to the Jury I felt more sympathy for what the defendants were trying to achieve. The trouble is they are sincere, but completely misguided. If my children had come home with such a magazine I would have been appalled and, before this trial, I would probably have torn it up. But now I would sit down with them and tell them why I think it is wrong and have a discussion on the subject. That is how the trial has changed me.

(cited in Tony Palmer, The Trials of Oz)

 

Writing in the third person, Marsha Rowe, co-founder of the feminist magazine Spare Rib, stated:

 

The issue of Oz which was put together by school kids has a cartoon of Rupert Bear with an oversized prick fucking Honey Bunch K, the US girl-momma figure. It is puerile, rebellious and not pornographic. At the Oz trial she realises the importance of Rupert Bear in the British Psyche.

(‘Up From Down Under’, in Sara Maitland (ed) Very Heaven)

 

Elsewhere, however, Rowe acknowledges the gender politics which emerged from, but finally challenged, the ethos of the underground:

 

The flaunting of a defiant sexuality provoked legal prosecution. IT was taken to court for publishing small ads for homosexuals, despite the legalization of homosexuality between ‘consenting adults in private’. Police seized Oz magazine’s ‘School Kids’ Issue’, produced by a guest editorial team of twenty young people. The charge brought, not against the school kids, but the three Oz editors, was the first time the Obscene Publications Act, 1959, was combined with a moral conspiracy charge. The three were convicted and given jail sentences. During the trial, the prosecuting barrister accused the community of which the magazine was a part of being without love. Richard Neville responded that, on the contrary, Oz was against the guilt and obsession of repressed sexuality and that "Oz was trying to redefine love, to broaden it, extend it and revitalize it, so it could be a force of release and not one of entrapment".

The irony of this was that, while this may have been true for men, it was rarely the case for women. The underground press used sex-objectifying images which had developed from being fairly romantic to stridently sadistic. The women who worked on its magazines and newspapers served the men and did the office and production work rather than any editorial work. After a time on Oz I had worked for the defence in the Oz trial, and the cover of that issue was a montage of pictures of a naked woman in erotic display. In November 1971, three months after the trial, I went to the women’s liberation demonstration outside the Albert Hall, the second against the Miss World competition, and was beginning to feel contradictions exploding inside my head.

(Marsha Rowe, Introduction to the Spare Rib Reader)

 

After the trial the circulation of Oz rose to 80,000 copies. In April 1972 the wife of the Clerk of the Court at the Oz trial was tried for having wasted 1,200 hours of police time by fabricating threatening notes to herself (Judge Argyll took them seriously and was heavily guarded against assassination). In June 1973 Oz went into liquidation. In March 1977 investigation into corruption in the Metropolitan Police Obscene Publications Squad began. It would uncover massive complicity between the police and the pornography industry:

 

Ex-Commander Wallace Virgo was… the most senior Scotland Yard man ever to be brought before the London Courts. He was also the holder of the Queen’s Police Medal. In office, Virgo had overall control of nine squads, including those specialising in drugs and porn. Over the years he contrived to block the many complaints of OPS corruption from ever being followed up. He had done this not out of comradely loyalty, but for payments (as the prosecution alleged) of up to £60,000 in all. What was even more shaming, was that this corruption had coincided with the most ferocious police assault ever against politically subversive ‘obscenity’… (John Sutherland: Offensive Literature)

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Rather topically, Oz and its context now (November 1999) provide the template for a satirical TV sitcom:

 

There are many myths about the 1960s, but none beats the myth that the hippies were a force for social change. The hippy movement was always ripe for one thing, though—a sitcom… The Defendants were the Oz publishers Felix Dennis (now the owner of a successful publishing empire), Richard Neville and Jim Anderson. In the summer of 1971 they were prosecuted for putting together a special ‘School Kids Issue’. It included a number of sado-masochistic cartoons such as Rupert Bear apparently raping the American comic character Gipsy Granny. Puerile and self-aggrandising, it was a rather feeble butterfly for the establishment to break upon a wheel.

(David Lister, ‘Call That a Revolution?’ [preview of the sitcom Hippies], The Independent on Sunday, 7th November, 1999)

 

But perhaps the final words should be drawn from the final issue of Oz itself:

 

The truth of the matter is not that The-Leaders-Sold-Out or that-something-greatly-beautious-grew-cankered, but that the underground got smashed, good and proper by exactly those forces of which it stood in defiance. It was smashed because it could not, by 1968, be laughed at or ignored or patronised any longer. The underground was able to make really painful attacks on the system’s intellectually based forms of power. Of all the intellectual property speculators of the 60s, it made the most sizeable incursions into capitalism’s ideological real estate, the family, school, work-discipline, the ‘impartial’ lawcourts and the British Broadcasting Corporation. Unlike previous movements of radical arties, it actually transmitted its mood of indiscipline to young people of all classes.

‘It is an attack on family life’, said Inspector Luff at the OZ trial, quite rightly. The popularity of OZ’s atmosphere (no matter how incomprehensible and downright boring the actual magazine) was, especially to working class kids, an index of the end of decades post war deference, evidence of a new refusal to any longer even pretend loyalty to the Queen, The Law and The Empire. Already the obscenity and dope trials of the sixties look like light comedy compared to the massive police operations around the Shrewsbury building workers’ conspiracy trial or the Winchester bombs trial. But they were the first omens of a new legal viciousness, the opportunity for the police to cut their teeth and the Special Branch to enlarge its files. They could take the Angry Young Men out to lunch, but the hairies had to go to jail.

...It was a politics of gesture, a species of street theatre, a series of provocations, The Cafe Voltair meets the Claimants Union...

What finally knackered the underground was its complete inability to deal with women’s liberation. For the underside of the underground’s romantic revolt is its treatment of women. Men defined themselves as rebels against society in ways limited to their own sex, excluding women except as loyal companions or mother-figures. From its origin in white identification with urban blues through Brando and Mailer and Dylan and Lennon, the defiance of capitalism has been intertwined with a punishment of women (look again at Blonde on Blonde or Look Back in Anger). Because the underground remained so utterly dominated by men, sexual liberation was framed in terms saturated with male assumptions, right down to the rape fantasy of ‘Dope, rock and roll and fucking in the streets’.

And because the feelings and resentments felt by women so long in the underground had been fobbed off by the standard clichés about ‘hang-ups’ and ‘hanging loose’, when the wave came it came as a devastating blow...

But it will go forward again, in different ways, because it asserts that most revolutionary force, the power of the imagination; the ability to compare what is with what could be. The underground (RIP) inflicted such damage on the system’s self-confidence before it was smothered by policemen and smoothies because it provided a possibility of releasing and expressing feelings which the system can only pretend to satisfy. It overrules for good the view that politics is simply a question of cheerleading in an empty electoral stadium. But when the fire comes next time, it will have to be a lot bigger and better organised, less myth-ridden and above all anchored in working class politics. As Tom Mann used to say ‘As we grow older, may we become more dangerous’.

(‘What Went Wrong’ by David Widgery from Oz 48, Winter 1973, the final issue)

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