On Richard Neville: Unravelling Tharunka’s Larrikin

For all the words written about the life of Richard Neville I cannot scroll past a black and white image of him in his youth. With a face framed by jet black bangs, Neville has one hand casually perched in his jean pocket, wearing a jacket whose collar is lined with various-sized buttons. What is so striking about the image was that unlike the two men beside him, Neville stares directly into the camera’s chamber. He seems self-assured, brazen, staring with a controlled contempt one might give a badge-happy police officer. Beneath the image, a small caption reads:

Richard Neville, right, with his co-editors James Anderson, left, and Felix Dennis, during the Oz obscenity trial at the Old Bailey, 1971.

And so, Neville’s glare wasn’t directed at you, or me, or an errant police officer. Instead, Neville faced the very real possibility that he would spend a good part of his life in a prison cell. On his face, the smirk grows wider. To me, Richard Neville seemingly lived by this borderline spirit.

His life and works teeter on the edge between deviance and conformity, freedom and constraint, where either could take precedence at any given time. It’s this pendulum swing in his cadence and criticism that led most papers to mourn the loss of Australia’s literary larrikin upon Neville’s death in September 2016. From a “man with a deep moral vision” to a futurist who “lampooned sexual mores, revealed racism and mocked priggishness”, Neville bore the hallmarks of colonial Australia’s coveted archetype.

For someone who declared himself against all “isms”, it seemed trite for these papers to reduce Neville’s life into another ism. But it is easy to see why “larrikinism” is an apt description of Neville; he embodied the urban white man who outwardly “exceeds limits, mocks pomposity and has an above all defiance” from the very outset.

Kensington Follies

In his early life, Neville was a brazen student in what was renowned to be a great caning school. Rather than submit to the sporting prowess typical of private schools, he chose instead to play chess and enter debates, enduring his teenage years with the conviction that university would prove a respite from the conservatism of Knox. Yet UNSW in the 1960s did not prove to be a refuge of like-minded people.

After a two-year hiatus working in advertising, Neville enrolled in an Arts and Commerce at UNSW only to be dismayed by the university’s conservative atmosphere. Where Neville might have fit easily into Sydney University’s venerable bohemian scene, Neville spent his early university days stumbling over scaffolds of a developing campus whose straightedged students gawked at the hair that grew over his ears. But as Neville himself put it, the newness of UNSW meant that it had nothing to inherit and everything to invent; where the university failed to encourage intellectual expression and student activity, Neville would deftly deliver both.

In his first article Tharunka published in 1961, Neville describes the ‘nouvea riche’ atmosphere of a university whose students suffered a narrowmindedness conducive to mental constipation; a criticism which probably rings true across many faculties today. Whipping-up phrases like ‘pseudo intelligencia’ and writing his byline in lower case in a nod to the poet e e cummings, Neville wrote with the familiar conviction of a boy who knows the only way to poke the bear is not with a stick but with words. His denunciation of ‘Kenso High’ incited a flurry of snide letters from pissed-off students and a stern talking to from the Vice-Chancellor.

But on the strength of his first article, Tharunka’s then editor Ian Davison appointed Neville as features editor. Strutting around the newly built Roundhouse in tightly-fitted pants and pointed winklepickers, Neville became a pied piper of sorts whose alluring charisma and wit attracted others to his satirical salon.

They would lay out pages of typescript on pushed-together cafeteria tables and dream up headlines for Tharunka’s weekly newspaper and fortnightly magazine. And by the end of his first year as editor, Neville had garnered a strong reputation as a true media stirrer, choosing not to poke the bear but kidnap it entirely. In a bid to make their mark as a new student body in Sydney, the students of UNSW contrived a series of Foundation Day pranks.

Of all the pranks – from the pirate takeover of a Mosman ferry to the distribution of the ‘Sydney Moaning Tharunka’ amongst city-goers – Neville’s prank garnered the most media attention. Disguised as a beatnik musician, Neville waltzed onto the set of Australia’s popular live music program Bandstand, bound its charismatic host with rope, ushered him into a car headed North, and held him ransom amidst a house full of partying students and booze. The following day, a prominent newspaper agreed to pay the £100 ransom in return for an exclusive interview with Neville.

Tharunka Loses Its Marbles

When Neville took over as Tharunka’s editor in March 1962, there was a noticeable change in the publication’s direction. Neville injected new life into Tharunka, filling its pages with pictures and parodies and poetry. He made repeated calls for the ViceChancellor to resign and continued to denounce the soullessness of a new university. He replaced the publications’ footballer pin-ups with shots of children playing marbles; a sort of payback for the humiliation he faced on the high-school playing fields.

These unprecedented changes prompted one student to write a letter to the publication, claiming “this paper belongs to the students, not to the editor.” Where other student editors treated Tharunka as a mirror to reflect the multi-focal expressions of its broad student body, it seemed that Neville self-assuredly turned the mirror to himself, making Tharunka his own.   Yet Neville’s authoritarianism did not merely incite backlash for backlash’s sake; it probed at deeper taboos of his time.

Most notably, he anonymously published his own feature article titled “The City By Night”; a first-hand account of his visit to a brothel near Central Station where he described his encounter with a horsehair-wigged ‘madam’ who led him to an iron bed in a neon-lit room. Yet the taboos of having one’s dick swabbed with Dettol in a brothel were unsurprisingly refused by the Sydney Morning Herald which held a long-standing agreement with Tharunka to print its editions.

What was surprising, however, was that Neville chose to terminate Tharunka’s association with SMH; a move that was ostensibly motivated by anti-censorship principles but undoubtedly fuelled by Neville’s bruised ego.  But Tharunka would quickly find its new printing partner in the Daily Mirror; a tabloid recently acquired by Rupert Murdoch. A far cry from the current Murdoch media which struggles to acknowledge even the bare existence of the climate crisis, Murdoch then provided the much-needed capital for student journalists to pursue their craft, and the intellectual freedom that enabled the likes of Neville to publish their work.

To Oz and Back

This decisive shift in Tharunka’s publication history also marked a turn in Neville’s personal life. It was during his editorship at Tharunka where he developed a new friendship with Martin Sharp, who studied at the National Art School in Darlinghurst. While Neville and Sharp had hoped to produce a joint student publication, it wasn’t until they met the co-editor of Sydney University’s Honi Soit, Richard Walsh, where their mere hopes became more concrete. When Neville met Walsh, Walsh had been reinstated as co-editor of Honi after the SRC had sacked him for his irreverent reports on the SRC’s own activities.

At the time, Neville was close to losing his editorship too, with UNSW’s Vice-Chancellor demanding written assurances that Tharunka would cease its criticism of the university. Like Walsh, Neville felt increasing pressure to dull the edges of a publication he had worked so hard to sharpen. And so, on a road trip to a national student editors’ conference in Adelaide, they hatched their idea for a new magazine of dissent that would express the sharp-wittedness of the material they published in their respective university papers, but strictly on their own terms.

Upon their return, Walsh resigned from Honi and joined Neville and Sharp to found a new publication “beholden to nobody but [themselves].”   After a series of chaotic meetings, the group began to assemble a patchwork of ideas to produce its first issue in a grimy warehouse-turned-office space at The Rocks. Sharp drew, Walsh wrote, and Neville pulled together the modest capital required to advertise and distribute the publication. Unable to persuade newsagents to sell their publication, they relied on personable young women to sell it on street corners of Sydney, distributing the first issue of Oz on the 1st of April, 1963


Obscenity Trials

While Oz’s initial publication on April Fool’s Day may have auspiciously placed Oz on a future trajectory of sharp-witted social commentary, it also attracted a hoax of its own; Neville, Walsh and staff writer, Peter Grose, were summoned on charges of distributing an obscene publication.

Uncertain about the prospects of defending the charge, the trio appeared in court in their best suits and pled guilty, each walking out with a £20 fine and a recorded conviction.  What would have presented itself as a setback to some become an opportunity for Neville and his fellow editors; Oz would become ‘obscener’. They devised a savage parody of an unreleased report from the NSW Police Commissioner which detailed an officer’s account of a real-life bashing incident; one that was unmistakably fuelled by hate and homophobia. They wrote satirical poems about gatecrashing parties, and published images of Neville urinating on a fountain that was popular for its recent unveiling by the then Prime Minister Robert Menzies.

Unsurprisingly, Oz was met with even greater suppression; a magistrate ordered the burning of 140 copies of Oz seized from newsagents in Kings Cross while the police laid a second obscenity charge against the trio.  While the outcome of the first trial was relatively minor, it would have serious repercussions in their second trial. In April 1964, Neville, Walsh and Sharp pled not guilty to obscenity charges, only for this to count heavily towards them when a lessthan-impartial magistrate sentenced the trio to six months’ hard labour. Although their convictions were eventually quashed after four hearings, the rich subtlety of Oz’ political satire was lost amongst its headline notoriety that so captivated the public imaginary.

Freedom’s Border

At this point, one cannot help but note that Neville was able to push social boundaries in his publication because he was also armoured with a certain social acceptability that allowed him to evade the heavier hand of the law. While the consequences of Neville’s actions were far from frivolous (he did spend time in jail), his position as a young, middle-class white man with a private school education meant that his risk-taking was made possible by a net of privilege that lay beneath him.

After all, this was an Australia who denied its Indigenous people the right to vote, outlawed homosexuality, and maintained vestiges of its White Australia policy. In a colonial country that has fashioned its national myth on the ‘urban white male,’ Neville could exceed legislated limits not just because of his satirical larrikinism, but because his social position allowed it. Neville was well aware that his boundary-pushing was – for the most part – excusable, and he certainly took advantage of this, knowing that pressing the unwritten limits of social convention was an accepted passage for the working-class ’bloke’ he embodied.

While Walsh would continue to publish a reduced edition of Oz in Sydney until 1969, Neville and Sharp left for London in 1966 to launch another iteration of the magazine. Yet London Oz took on a very different character to its more staid Australian progenitor. London Oz was a magazine with wild expressions of hippiedom and drugs and psychedelia, an underground paper teeming with softcore porn. On the back of two obscenity trials, Oz’s editors now seemed to willingly stoke the fire that fuelled police reaction by inviting school children to edit one of Oz’s next issues.

The cover of the ‘Schoolkids Issue’ depicted a throng of naked women, and inside its covers, the severed head of British children’s cartoon Rupert Bear pasted on the body of an X-rated cartoon figure. Oz thus became the predictable target of the Obscene Publication Squad – a branch of the police that would later target paedophilia-related crime – and Neville along with his co-editors, James Anderson and Felix Dennis, faced five charges including the archaic offence of conspiracy to corrupt public morals.

What eventuated in the longest obscenity trial in British legal history also endowed Oz with greater infamy, with the likes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono joining the protest marches against the trio’s prosecution which carried the very real prospect of life imprisonment. Dennis and Anderson were able to miraculously secure the services of a barrister who mounted overly valorous arguments in court. The case was said to stand “at the crossroads of our liberty, at the boundaries of our freedom to think and draw and write what we please”. Yet Neville, in his stubborn defiance, chose to represent himself, appearing in court on the first day of the trial in a rented schoolgirl costume.

This image of a gangly Neville in an undersized pinafore takes on a more pernicious quality in light of Neville’s casual confession to having a “hurricane f**k” with a fourteen-year-old school girl in London. Where Neville once tested the limits of conservative society in pursuit of greater social change, it seemed that his time in London was bolstered by a newer position founded on his infamy. His previous works teemed with a noticeable charm that inspired change and undermined conservatism.

But I wonder if he lost this charm in the throes of publicised court cases and posing for pictures as a “pioneer of the war on deference”. One can grow tired of Neville’s repeated antics that became largely predictable come the third obscenity trial. But one certainly becomes scornful of Neville when his desire to exceed social boundaries involves taking advantage of an obvious power imbalance between him and a young girl. To this day, none of Neville’s friends and associates have mentioned or confirmed Neville’s confession.

In a colonial country that has fashioned its national myth on the ‘urban white male,’ Neville could exceed legislated limits not just because of his satirical larrikinism, but because his social position allowed it.

The Larrikin Unravelled

Although the trio served short prison sentences at the end of the trial, their infamy could not sustain public interest in Oz for much longer. In the two years following the trial, the publication’s popularity faded until it reached £20,000 in debt with “no readership worth the name”. While Neville would go onto work on new magazines and write for others, appear on radio and television shows, the proselytizing spirit he initially endowed Oz and Tharunka with largely withered.

Oz provided a rallying point for change, allowing the first wave of baby boomers to become acutely aware of a government that censored the arts, condoned corrupt police behaviour and supported the US invasion of Vietnam. And the same can be said for Tharunka too, albeit at a smaller scale, whose daring issues invited flurries of letters and many laughs across a student body that had yet to form its identity.   Beyond the publications, what can be said of Richard Neville himself? To elevate him to the status of unproblematic literary hero is to deny the discomfort his legacy leaves us. But rather than shy away from Neville’s gaze, we should meet it head on.

There we can find Neville in all his various iterations; the school-boy who played marbles, the brazen student who strung a ‘Beware of the Crocodile’ sign beneath the Vice-Chancellor’s office window, the daring editor of a magazine that upended the fixed ways of conservative Australia, the larrikin who transcended social boundaries in ways that were urgently necessary but, at times, harmful.