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Children of the revolution? The counter-culture, the idea of childhood and the case of Schoolkids Oz

David Buckingham
Traduction(s) :
Enfants de la révolution ? La contre-culture, l’idée d’enfance et l’exemple de Schoolkids Oz


On June 23rd 1971, a momentous trial began at London’s Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales. In the dock were three young men, Richard Neville, Jim Anderson and Felix Dennis, the editors of Oz, an “underground” magazine. They faced charges relating to issue 28 of the magazine, published in May of the previous year as Schoolkids Oz. The Oz Trial was the longest-ever obscenity trial in British legal history, lasting nearly six weeks, and it became one of the most notorious “show trials” of the British counter-culture. Yet while the trial focused in great detail on the parts of Schoolkids Oz that were deemed obscene, relatively little attention was paid – either at the time or subsequently – to the publication as a whole. At the invitation of its editors, Oz 28 had been produced (at least in part) by schoolchildren; and a good deal of the outrage that it provoked was to do with its affront to traditional notions of what was appropriate for children to see. As such, it raises some interesting questions about the place of “childhood” – that is, of ideas of childhood, rather than the experience of actual children – within the counter-culture of the time. This article explores some of the tensions and contradictions that were at stake in these ideas, firstly in general terms and subsequently in relation to the specific instance of Schoolkids Oz.

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Notes de la rédaction

This article is adapted from a chapter taken from David Buckingham’s latest book, Growing up Modern: Childhood, Youth and Popular Culture Since 1945, which can be consulted online here: We would like to thank him for authorising us to include this version in the special issue.

Texte intégral

1On June 23rd 1971, a momentous trial began at London’s Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales. In the dock were three young men, Richard Neville, Jim Anderson and Felix Dennis, the editors of Oz, an “underground” magazine. They faced charges relating to issue 28 of the magazine, published in May of the previous year as Schoolkids Oz. They were accused of producing an obscene publication and sending it through the mail, for which the maximum penalties were three years and one year respectively; and, more broadly, of “conspiring… to produce a magazine containing divers lewd, indecent and sexually perverted articles, cartoons, drawings and illustrations with intent thereby to debauch and corrupt the morals of young children and young persons within the Realm and to arouse and implant in their minds lustful and perverted desires…” – an archaic and rarely used charge for which the maximum penalty was life imprisonment.

2The Oz Trial was the longest-ever obscenity trial in British legal history, lasting nearly six weeks. Both at the time and subsequently, it assumed almost mythological proportions. For Richard Neville and his defenders, the prosecution was not primarily about obscenity at all: rather, as he announced in his opening speech, it was “a political occasion”. The trial represented an attack on an “entire community” – that is, on the hippies, or the counter-culture – and, he claimed, on the very idea of freedom itself. For others, looking retrospectively, it was already the beginning of the end – the conclusion of a more expansive, optimistic period, or at least a moment where the counter-culture in Britain moved into a new, darker phase.

3Yet while the trial focused in great detail on the parts of Schoolkids Oz that were deemed obscene, relatively little attention was paid – either at the time or subsequently – to the publication as a whole. At the invitation of its editors, Oz 28 had been produced (at least in part) by schoolchildren; and a good deal of the outrage that it provoked was to do with its affront to traditional notions of what was appropriate for children to see. As such, it raises some interesting questions about the place of “childhood” – that is, of ideas of childhood, rather than the experience of actual children – within the counter-culture of the time. In this article, I want to explore some of the tensions and contradictions that were at stake in these ideas, firstly in general terms and subsequently in relation to the specific instance of Schoolkids Oz.

Two counter-cultures

4The term “counter-culture” was first used by the academic Theodore Roszak in his book The Making of a Counter Culture, published in the US in 1969. Roszak and others presumed that there was a fundamental unity to the counter-culture, or at least attempted to write one into being; but in reality the counter-culture was always diverse and inconsistent – and indeed, often more contradictory than many of its protagonists liked to profess. In particular, it is important to identify a fundamental distinction here between what might loosely be called the “new left” and the hippies – a distinction that has been identified by historians such as Timothy Miller (2011).

5To put this quite schematically, the new left was primarily concerned to challenge the dominant political order, while the hippies were more interested in creating alternatives to it, by turning away or “dropping out”. Many self-professed hippies were very suspicious of organized groups of any kind – although one might well argue that hippies themselves were highly conformist in their own way. Many hippy commentators saw the new left as violent, old-fashioned and anti-pleasure; while many on the new left saw the hippies as escapist, self-indulgent and infantile. The hippies claimed to be the real revolutionaries: they were behaving as though the revolution had already happened, whereas the new left was acutely conscious that it had not. While there were overlaps here – both hippies and new left radicals opposed the Vietnam war, for example, as well as punitive drug laws – there was also a good deal of mutual hostility between them; and as the 1970s progressed, there was increasingly little in common between them.

The hippies and the idea of childhood

6These tensions were particularly apparent in relation to the idea of childhood – in ways that, as we shall see, had particular implications for Schoolkids Oz and its editors’ eventual trial. While the rise of the counter-culture can be seen as part of a broader “rejuvenation” of society that took place in the 1960s, at least in the United States (Braunstein, 2002), it can be argued that the idea of childhood was central to the hippie ethos. Hippiedom valorized a child-like state of mind, a state of wonder and simplicity. The hippies aimed to be at one with nature and the earth, in a kind of primal, pre-technological innocence: they were, after all, the flower children. They sought to live in and for the present, refusing to plan for the future, or to view their lives in terms of career or progress. This ethos was undoubtedly promoted by the use of psychedelic drugs, especially LSD: for many of their advocates (from Aldous Huxley to Timothy Leary), the psychedelic “trip” involved a return to childhood, and even to infancy.

7As Jenny Diski (2009) argues, the counter-culture enabled the Sixties generation to follow through on Peter Pan’s imperative never to grow up: this was, she says, “the longest gap year in history”. At least in the early years of the counter-culture, there was an abiding fantasy that life could be lived as a kind of permanent free rock festival, without the need to work. One could hang on to childhood, or irresponsibility, forever. Of course, this was largely a middle-class fantasy, which held a particular appeal for the growing numbers of university students. As middle-class parents emerged from post-war austerity, they were keen to indulge their children, not merely by providing copious amounts of consumer goods, but also by allowing (and funding) them to defer their eventual entry into adult life. In this context, “dropping out” could be conceived as a temporary condition, rather than a permanent excommunication.

8A central emphasis here was on the idea of play. The 1960s was a period of almost full employment, but the development of technology held out the promise of a utopian future, where most work would be done by machines. This allowed adults to imagine a world where they would be free to play – or at least where work itself would become another form of play. Richard Neville’s counter-cultural “manifesto” was the book Play Power, published in early 1971, a few months ahead of the Oz Trial. While there are some overtly political “new left” elements here, Neville’s core argument is for a kind of hedonism – a playful pursuit of pleasure. Play in these terms is about the freedom to have fun: it embodies values that adults (or at least “straight” adults) have somehow lost in the process of growing up. Play is joyful, spontaneous, innocent, and not constrained by any utilitarian considerations, or by the responsibilities of adulthood. Play is essentially anarchic; but it also contains a potentially dangerous, anti-social element – even a vein of savagery – that disrupts and challenges sexual repression and the Protestant work ethic.

9The imperative to play was to some extent apparent in changing styles of political protest: the outrageous and unpredictable antics of the “yippies” in the United States challenged “serious” ways of doing politics, and were influential internationally (and continue to be so). However, play was also evident in more widespread cultural practices. The fashion styles of the hippies were to some extent about “dressing up” games, combining outlandish articles that one’s parents or grandparents might have worn, but in a playful way. And as Jenny Diski (2009) argues, psychedelic drugs were also seen as a kind of “fascinating, magical toy”.

Children’s liberation

10However, in contrast with this view, one can identify a very different account of childhood within the counter-culture – an account that derives more from the political, “new left” side than from the cultural, hippy side. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the emergence of arguments for “children’s rights” and “children’s liberation”, in some ways as a logical extension of other civil rights movements of the time. These approaches particularly informed arguments for what is variously called “child-centred” or “progressive” education. These are loose terms, but broadly speaking these approaches challenged the emphasis on adult authority and coercion, and emphasised the educational and developmental significance of play in learning.

11Of course, these kinds of approaches had a much longer history, but in the late 1960s, many of the key ideas and approaches here were drawn from US educational thinkers such as Paul Goodman and John Holt. In his books How Children Fail and How Children Learn, and especially in his manifesto-like Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children (1974), Holt challenges the ways in which children are kept separate from the adult world, and is scathing about adults’ condescending and bullying attempts to direct their activities. Children, he argues, are much more competent that adults give them credit for: they need to learn from their mistakes, rather than being forever “protected” and controlled by adults. For Holt, childhood amounts to a kind of “prison”, from which children need to escape as soon as they can. Unlike the hippies, Holt challenges sentimental notions of childhood innocence and naturalness – and especially the view of children as “cute”. Viewing children as embodiments of wisdom and beauty, he argued, was ultimately patronizing – a way of not taking them seriously as people.

12Holt was a significant influence on teachers and writers in Britain, most notably his friend Leila Berg. Berg was a publisher and children’s author, who became interested in children’s rights and informal teaching methods in the 1960s. Aside from producing countless books for children, she also helped to found the activist journal Children’s Rights. Her key publication addressed to adults is probably the book Look at Kids (1972). Like Holt, Berg argues against adults’ tendency to patronize, coerce and oppress children. Here again, children are seen to be more competent than adults generally assume: they are capable of self-regulating, and should be left to explore the world at their own pace, free from adult intervention or manipulation. Berg implicitly represents the child as free and natural, although her focus is very much on the urban environment. However, her account is far from celebratory or sentimental, let alone cute: there is a good deal here about the indignity of poverty, and the violence and suffering children endure at the hands of abusive parents and a repressive welfare system. Berg urges her readers to look at, and learn from, children; but she is also bitterly critical of policies and practices (for example, on the part of schools and urban planners) that constrain their lives.

13By the mid-to-late 1960s, for the most part in London, several libertarian “free schools” were opened, and a wave of campaigns and publications appeared offering critiques of the mainstream education system, and arguing for children to have a greater say. As Patricia Holland (2004) recalls, several of these publications included letters from children, and some were produced by school children themselves, with titles like Braindamage, Miscarriage and Blackbored. Meanwhile, the Schools Action Union was formed in London in 1969, for children to campaign on issues such as selective schooling, the examination system and the use of corporal punishment. As this implies, Schoolkids Oz was far from being an isolated phenomenon – or even an original one – in this respect.

14As we shall see, elements of this more political approach to children’s liberation were certainly apparent in Schoolkids Oz, even if the publication itself was largely produced by older teenagers. At the trial, key proponents of children’s rights, including Berg, were invited to appear as expert witnesses for the defence. Berg’s “Charter” of children’s rights – which overlaps with Holt’s manifesto in Escape from Childhood – was even cited in court, although it was (quite absurdly) reduced by the prosecution to a recommendation that “children should indulge in sexual intercourse all over the streets of London”.

Two views of childhood

15To some extent, these liberationist ideas overlapped with those of the hippies, although there are significant differences between them. While the hippies seem to conceive of childhood as a desirable state to which adults should seek to return, the new left argument sees it as a state of oppression that needs to be overthrown. For the new left, children (like women, blacks and other oppressed groups) are in need of liberation; for the hippies, it is as though they are already liberated. At the risk of oversimplifying, a binary chart might help to clarify this distinction:



Childhood as innocent, natural

Childhood as an oppressed state

Childhood as a distinct, separate phase of life

Challenging distinctions between child and adult

Play as subversive

Play as developmental

Children are already free

Children need to be liberated

Adults should be more child-like

Children should have adult privileges

Adults need to escape into childhood

Children need to escape into adulthood

16Interestingly, Jenny Diski (whose critical memoir of the sixties I have quoted above) was herself involved in some of the radical children’s liberation movements of the time, working in a London “free school”. According to Diski, part of the aim here was to pass on to the next generation the counter-cultural idea of childhood as in itself a form of liberation:

The Peter Pan generation were trying to give our younger selves the liberated childhood we had belatedly discovered and were presently acting out, just as our parents had funded us to have a carefree misspent youth that they had lacked… We were a generation that wanted to give the children the childhoods we wished we had had, or thought we wished we had had. (2009: 109, 117)

17Diski elegantly sums up the paradoxes here, but in my view her account rather underestimates the political dimensions of this children’s liberation movement. At least in the UK, there was a class element to this: the children who were the objects of this movement were largely working-class, while many of their teachers were middle-class. It was also, predominantly, an educational movement, seeking to engage with mainstream schools, working within the system rather than seeking merely to escape from it. Retrospectively, it might be tempting to see it as a kind of naïve wishful thinking, but that is to underplay the genuine insights and political commitments of those who were involved.

Representing childhood

18These contrasting sets of ideas were also apparent in the ways in which childhood was represented within the counter-culture. In the United States, the image of childhood as a state of natural innocence and wonder was a recurring trope in hippy music and iconography. In the early heyday of San Francisco’s “Summer of Love”, the flower children basked in a child-like, mystical identification with the universe – albeit one that was partly induced by the chemical intervention of LSD. This was apparent in the psychedelic style of album covers, posters and liquid light shows, with their moving swirls and kaleidoscopes of primary colour; and in the recurring use of mythological and fantastical content, often drawn from fairy tales and children’s stories. Images of nature – plants, landscapes, mythological animals – abounded; and nudity was apparent everywhere, not just for its sexual connotations but also because it seemed to imply an Eden-like state of purity and innocence. This idea of a return to childhood and to nature was also evident in musical lyrics. As one leading hippy anthem, Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”, had it: “We are stardust, we are golden – And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden.

19In Britain, this image of childhood was especially evident in the music of the period. A fascinating BBC documentary, “Psychedelic Britannia”, broadcast in 2015, provides ample evidence for this claim. As British pop and rock musicians began to break away from the influence of American rhythm and blues, and came under the influence of psychedelic drugs, a distinctive style began to emerge that (among other things) harked back to a world of childhood fantasy. Some of the early work of Pink Floyd, for example, invokes a pastoral vision of an English arcadia familiar from classic children’s books like The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden. While the music itself was definitely electronic, the lyrics – written by one of rock music’s most spectacular acid casualties, Syd Barratt – invoked a twee world of fairies, goblins and gnomes. Released in 1967, their second single “See Emily Play” is perhaps the most poignant expression of this longing for a mythical childhood.

20With added influences from traditional British folk music, artists such as Donovan (Sunshine Superman, A Gift from a Flower to a Garden) and the Incredible String Band (The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, Wee Tam and the Big Huge) mined this vein of childhood mythology in ways that were often distinctly fey. Even mod bands such as the Small Faces (Itchycoo Park) and working-class Northern bands like The Move (Flowers in the Rain, I Can Hear the Grass Grow) began to adapt their style, albeit briefly. And of course, it was the Beatles who brought much of this child-like imagery to the mass audience. Songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” offered acid-fuelled accounts of a return to childhood innocence and the abandonment of adult repression. The television film and album Magical Mystery Tour (1967) and the animated movie Yellow Submarine (1969) presented fantasy narratives that owed much to fairy tales and children’s literature.

21As the BBC documentary suggests, this retreat to the “secret gardens” of childhood might partly be interpreted as a reaction against the emphasis on modern technology that was a key political theme of the early 1960s. Along with the fashion for Edwardian clothing (Sergeant Pepper et al.) and fin de siecle art and design (Aubrey Beardsley, art nouveau), as well as the recovery of late Victorian literature (Alice In Wonderland was notably adapted by Jonathan Miller for the BBC in late 1966), it reflects the generalized distrust of modernity that was a key part of the hippy ethic more broadly. Yet even at that time it was first produced, much of this imagery was already nostalgic. As Patricia Holland (2004) points out, the idea of a golden age of pre-industrial, rural life – of the “organic community” of the English village – was being invoked by writers and artists at a time when it had already largely died out. Despite the apparent revolutionary zeal of the hippies, the association of childhood with nature – and with related ideas of innocence and purity – was highly traditional, and could well be seen as reactionary.

22It’s quite striking to contrast this with the imagery of the children’s rights movement of the time. Leila Berg’s book Look at Kids (1972), mentioned above, contains numerous black-and-white photographs, apparently selected by the author, which amount to a kind of “photo-essay” accompanying the text. This is very much an urban, industrial (and post-industrial) view of childhood, which is a long way from the pastoral idyll of the hippies. Children are often captured in action, working as well as playing. They rarely smile or pose for the camera, although in some cases they look back at the photographer with a challenging glare. The landscape of the child is not a secret garden, but one of bombsites and abandoned buildings; and the use of high-contrast monochrome represents a powerful claim to documentary realism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the imagery of Berg’s books written for children themselves is less abrasively realistic. Even so, the drawn illustrations for her Nippers series are also of urban settings, and offer a kind of everyday realism that is far from the sanitized, middle-class world of their predecessors Janet and John (the British equivalent of Dick and Jane) – and indeed from the fey pastoral world of the hippies.

23Meanwhile, if the children’s rights movement did make use of more traditional childhood imagery, it often did so in subversive ways. Images of Disney characters and Marvel superheroes were appropriated (and often adapted) to illustrate critiques of US politics. The British cartoon hero Dennis the Menace appeared on the cover of Keith Paton’s early seventies tract The Great Brain Robbery with a speech bubble proclaiming that “all over the world, the school has an anti-educational effect on society”. And as we shall see in the case of Schoolkids Oz, this subversive use of traditional childhood imagery often provoked particular wrath from the authorities.

Reading Schoolkids’ Oz

24The British version of Oz was first published in 1967. It was edited by Richard Neville, one of a small contingent of Australian hippies who arrived in the UK in the mid-sixties. While still a student, Neville had established Oz in his native Sydney in 1963: it was a scurrilous, satirical publication, whose provocative approach had already resulted in a prosecution for obscenity. Neville began producing a British version of Oz shortly after arriving in London. While the first issues were still primarily satirical, Oz quickly aligned itself with the hippy counter-culture. It was rather less serious and less overtly political than its rival IT (International Times), and it became notorious for its psychedelic approach to the use of colour and design (even its producers would accept that it was sometimes unreadable): if IT was the community newspaper, Oz was like the irreverent colour supplement of the underground press.

25Neville was undoubtedly charismatic and charming, but he was also ambitious and self-seeking. He was a skilled “delegator”, who would generate ideas and then leave others to follow them through – as indeed was the case with Schoolkids Oz, which was largely edited by Jim Anderson and Felix Dennis while Neville took a holiday in Ibiza. Unlike many radical publications, Oz lacked a strong editorial “line”. At least on the face of it, the editors were keen to create a dialogue between the writers and the readership: the columns were often full of critical letters from readers, condemning the magazine for being insufficiently revolutionary. The magazine typically paid its contributors little if anything, but one of the editors’ familiar strategies was to invite outsiders to generate material for themed issues. Oz 28, the schoolkids’ issue, was one of these. Perhaps aware that many of the ideologues of the counter-culture were far from youthful, and claiming that they themselves were getting rather long in the tooth, the editors decided to hand over the issue to a group of schoolchildren. As they put it in the advertisement soliciting contributions, they wished to encourage some “injections of youthful vigour in our ageing veins”.

26The young people who responded were, by and large, older teenagers: most were between sixteen and eighteen, and hardly “kids” or “children”. In the short profiles on the “contributors” page of Oz 28, several describe themselves as “anarchists”, although most of them also provide their astrological star signs, and several say they are interested in “mysticism”, as well as various forms of drugs. However, many of these descriptions are quite ironic and self-deprecating; and many of the pictures show them dressed (satirically) in school uniform. Of course, this was not intended to be a representative group: it was a self-selecting sample of junior Oz readers who already knew the kinds of things they might be expected to say and do.

27In the issue’s editorial, the editors suggest that these young people were rather less radical than the “crowd of revolutionary high-school bomb throwers” they had hoped for: disappointingly, some of them even seemed to enjoy school, and many were keen to avoid “upsetting” their teachers. As if to compensate, the editors included an extract from The High School Revolutionaries by Tom Lindsay, an account of the more confrontational strategies of the High School Student Union in the United States – claiming (without much evidence) that this reflected “to a greater or lesser extent exactly what most of the school children we worked with were thinking about”. According to Neville’s autobiography (1995), most of the teenage contributors had said at the start that they did not want to write about politics or sex – and it was evidence to this effect that later enabled the prosecutor to put the blame on the adult editors.

28The first two pages of the magazine are a large image of the contributors and the editors, posed like a parody of a school class photograph. Several are wearing uniform, and one sports a dunce’s cap. Neville is front and centre, with his legs wide apart, wielding a cane and making a clenched-fist salute – despite the fact that, as I have noted, he was barely involved in the actual editing. The editorial presents the editing process as a matter of collective anarchy: “we all had a fantastic month doing it, milling around weekend after weekend in true communal style…” It was apparently “the sort of fun school can be and only too rarely is”. In fact, several key decisions were taken by the editors, Anderson and Dennis – most notably the wraparound cover, which attracted considerable attention at the trial. This used (apparently without permission) an illustration by the French artist Raymond Bertrand, featuring a group of identical naked black lesbians gyrating and fondling each other: one appears to be inserting a dildo, while another may have a rat’s tail protruding from her vagina – although a photograph of one of the contributors is strategically placed over what is probably an image of cunnilingus. (In his autobiography, Neville says that he questioned the wisdom of the other editors’ last-minute decision to use this cover image, but it was too late.)

29In fact, about one third of the content of the issue’s 48 pages – including some of the material that attracted most attention at the trial – was not produced by the “schoolkids” at all. Given that the magazine was assembled by Anderson and Dennis, it is doubtful whether the teenagers even saw the complete text before it was published. Aside from the cover, there are several pages of readers’ letters, reviews of books and albums, and a page of sensible advice on drugs and sex by Oz’s regular correspondent on these matters, “Dr. Hippocrates”. There is also a two-page advertisement for a “Back Issue Bonanza”, and numerous “small ads”, including ads for the sex magazine Suck (featuring a graphic description of fellatio) and for various sex aids, as well as numerous “contact” ads, several from gay readers. At a time when homosexuality was still stigmatized (despite having been legalized, at least for “consenting adults” over 21, a couple of years previously), the contact ads provided an important service, as well as being a key part of the business model of the underground press.

30However, popular memories of the Oz Trial almost invariably focus on one particular set of images. Alongside the text on pages 13 and 14, there is a cartoon strip produced by one of the schoolkids, Vivian Berger (who was later called as a prosecution witness at the trial, where he was described as an “accomplice”). Berger had taken six frames from a much longer cartoon, “Eggs Ackley Among the Vulture Demonesses”, by the famous American underground comics artist R. Crumb, which had been published earlier that year. Onto the head of the main character, he has cut-and-pasted the head of Rupert Bear, a long-established British cartoon character; and underneath he has inserted some lines of text from a Rupert book. In this form, the cartoon shows Rupert attempting to have sex with Crumb’s character Gipsy Granny: finding that her hymen is blocking the way for his massively oversized penis, he eventually manages to gain entry by taking a long run-and-jump. According to Berger’s testimony at the trial, his aim was partly to shock the older generation, but he also enjoyed the cartoon because it “made fun of sex”: it was, he said, a portrayal of obscenity, rather than being obscene in itself – a view that was backed up by the artist Feliks Topolski, who appeared as an expert witness. The shock and the humour clearly derive from his incongruous and subversive use of the image of the innocent Rupert – a sentimental icon of childhood that, for some older members of the trial jury, must have seemed almost sacred.

31Yet beyond Rupert Bear, there was a great deal of other content that is now largely forgotten, and was certainly never discussed at the trial. On pages 6, 8 and 9 is a long story headed “The Return of King Kong: Guerrilla Babes Wipeout”. It describes the authors’ attempts to stage a series of “guerrilla theatre” performances in several London schools, or at least in their playgrounds – some of which seem to have been invited, although most were not. The performance aims to raise questions about issues such as school discipline and the failures of the examination system, but it frequently provokes an aggressive response from teachers and (in several instances) from the police. In one case, there is a near-riot, and the “guerrillas” are taken to a remand centre. The story is accompanied by a cartoon of students hurling abuse at their headteacher, who is attempting to expel the intruders.

32Subsequent pages cover “School Atrocities”, especially relating to the arbitrary use of punishment. Corporal punishment (the use of the cane) was still legal at the time, and there are several horror stories about teachers’ vindictive and sadistic behaviour. These accounts are illustrated with cartoons, of which one features a teacher masturbating as he fondles the backside of a vomiting student, while another shows three teachers apparently caning each other (one seemingly inserting the cane into another’s anus). One contributor describes how his headteacher prevented him from establishing an “arts lab” in his city; another argues that the disciplinary response to cannabis is leading students to take more dangerous drugs that can be obtained in chemists’ shops; others call for proper sex education, and for greater sexual freedom in general. Meanwhile, “Xam blues” provides a cogent critique of school examinations. As well as claiming that the system is arbitrary and unfair, the author argues that examinations provide an inadequate measure of understanding, and are a poor predictor of future success.

33However, not all of this material is negative. One contributor writes positively about how his school has allowed him more freedom of choice (for example, in constructing his own timetable) in the sixth form. One article entitled “Babes in Arms” provides a critique of the Combined Cadet Force, a form of military training (or, as the writer puts it, “playing soldiers”) that was effectively compulsory in some schools; although another, despite the title “British Hitler Jugens” [sic], claims that the cadets are really “good fun”.

34Much of this material would not have seemed out of place in the “alternative” magazines produced by school students at the time, mentioned above. The stories clearly relate to the concerns of the Schools Action Union – although interestingly one Oz contributor describes how she became disillusioned with the SAU when none of her friends were prepared to pursue their grievances to the point of directly confronting the school authorities. While some of the material might be described as juvenile – a cartoon of a person on a toilet suffering from diarrhea while complaining about school meals – much of it is cogently written and thoughtful. A fair amount of the writing is ironic or parodic in tone; and to some extent it is self-parodic as well. There is a sense that these young contributors are performing as “schoolkids”, an identity that most of them will shortly be leaving behind.

35Alongside this material focused on schools, there is some additional political and cultural content that appears to have been produced by the “schoolkid” contributors. One double page spread describes the impending environmental apocalypse; another superimposes a quotation from Richard Nixon over images of the four students massacred by the US National Guard at Kent State University. While some of the reviews are written by regular Oz contributors, they also feature some extended pieces by the “schoolkids” – including a couple of music reviews by Peter Popham, who went on to become a journalist on The Independent, and an insightful critique of the growing commercialism and conformism of the “progressive” rock music scene by Charles Shaar Murray, who later became one of Britain’s leading music journalists.

36Despite all this, it’s hard to dispel a suspicion that these young people have to some extent been manipulated. As I have noted, it was the adult editors who seem to have made the final decisions; and in some respects, they are holding up these “schoolkids” almost as specimens for their adult readers. In some cases, this is somewhat disturbing. For instance, in the midst of the “King Kong” story is a full-page image of one of the contributors, a fifteen-year-old girl called Berti. She poses on her knees, in a mini-skirt, smiling at the camera; and the image is headed “Jail Bait of the Month”. On one level, this might be seen as a kind of parody of soft pornography, yet it also raises difficult questions about who it is for. “Jail bait” clearly implies older men having sex with girls below the age of consent, and being prosecuted for doing so. With what we know today about the prevalence of paedophiles in the popular culture during this period, this is certainly troubling; although it might be more reasonable to see it as merely another instance of the unthinking sexism of the male-dominated counter-culture of the time. Yet either way, the idea that Oz’s view of sex was about “liberation” is profoundly questionable.

37Like the magazine more broadly, Schoolkids Oz does not speak with a singular voice. There are different viewpoints and experiences represented, and some of the material does seem to reflect the authentic concerns of schoolchildren. Yet ultimately, this is an adult text, produced for an adult readership: it is almost as if the children’s contributions are in quotation marks. It might be going too far, but one could argue that in some ways Schoolkids Oz acts as a kind of ventriloquist, conscripting young people’s voices for a rather ill-defined political project. Both in the magazine, and especially in the trial that followed, ideas of childhood and childishness are being invoked for a wide range of purposes – to promote subversion and rebellion, but also to sanction forms of sexism and elitism that were characteristic of the counter-culture more broadly.

Oz goes to trial

38The offices of Oz were raided by the police in June 1970, a few weeks after the schoolkids issue was published – although it was a full year before the case arrived at the Central Criminal Court. Even though he had played very little part in the production of Schoolkids Oz, the trial represented a golden opportunity for Neville to strut his stuff on the national media stage. Unlike the other defendants, he chose to defend himself, thereby enjoying maximum time to make his case – and maximum publicity. In line with the tactics adopted by the “yippies” in the United States, most notably at the trial of the Chicago 7 earlier that year, the proceedings were turned into a kind of carnival. “Friends of Oz” were invited to join a high-profile public campaign, which included daily demonstrations outside the High Court. The editors had prepared an extensive press kit; special T-shirts in five different designs were sold, and stickers (including some featuring the priapic Rupert) were plastered over the London tubes; there were numerous benefit concerts, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono released a single to raise support. Neville and his fellow editors frequently turned up for proceedings in fancy dress – wearing schoolgirl uniforms, or in drag – to pose for press photographers. The trial was a media circus, in which Neville was without doubt the star performer.

39While some of the content of the magazine was intended to provoke and outrage polite society, and while some of it might be accused of being exploitative, Schoolkids Oz is not “pornography” – if that implies an intention to sexually arouse the reader (although the cover might be somewhat of an exception here). Much of the sexually explicit content is presented in a parodic, humorous way, and some of it seems intended to produce disgust rather than arousal. Legally, the charge of obscenity required any given publication to be assessed “as a whole”; but this was very far from what took place in the case of Schoolkids Oz.

40Indeed, if the primary concern was about obscenity, there were plenty of more obvious targets. However, police spokesmen at the time were inclined to exonerate mainstream pornography, arguing that this was something that had existed for centuries. One explanation for the police strategy emerged only several years later. Detective Chief Inspector George Fenwick, head of the Metropolitan Police “dirty squad”, was later prosecuted for corruption, and given ten years imprisonment; while the overall commander of the Serious Crimes Squad, Wallace Virgo, was sent down for twelve years. Home Office papers revealed many years later showed that the police were in the pay of the genuine pornography industry, based in London’s Soho: when they came under pressure to crack down (not least from religious campaign groups like the Festival of Light), prosecuting Oz seemed to serve as a convenient distraction or decoy.

41The Oz Trial did undoubtedly expose the hypocrisy, ignorance and prejudice of the “establishment” in Britain at the time, not least in relation to sexual matters. The prosecutor, Brian Leary, focused almost exclusively on what he called the “dirty” parts of the magazine, repeating and paraphrasing them with a kind of prurient relish in order to provoke the jury. The magazine’s satirical and parodic intentions were persistently ignored or misread. The implicit assumption throughout the prosecution was that sex was a filthy business, which should be kept behind closed doors and in the marital bedroom, and should not be spoken about in public – especially not in front of children. Certain sexual practices – including legal ones such as homosexuality and oral sex – were tacitly (and sometimes overtly) seen to be deviant or perverted; although the prosecutor and the judge frequently appeared to be ignorant of what such practices actually involved. Several of the expert witnesses called for the defence were questioned about their own sexual activities, and in some cases how they would talk about such matters with their own children. Their expertise was systematically denigrated: the judge, Michal Argyle, displayed such a remarkable degree of rudeness and contempt towards some very illustrious expert witnesses that he was condemned by the Lord Chief Justice at the eventual appeal.

42Much of the allegedly obscene content that became the focus of the prosecution case (the cover, the Suck ad, and the contact ads) had not been created by the “schoolkids” in the first place; but their presence in a “schoolkids issue” significantly increased their potential to offend. As the defence lawyers pointed out, Schoolkids Oz was not primarily produced for schoolchildren, but by them. Evidence presented on behalf of the publishing company (Oz Publications Ink Limited) included testimony from newsagents showing that the magazine was hardly ever sold to children. Much of the content that was cited by the prosecution was very obviously not aimed at them. As for the charge that it might “debauch and corrupt the morals” of young people, or “arouse and implant in their minds lustful and perverted desires”, there was no evidence presented at all. Expert witnesses who worked directly with young people, including the psychologists Dr. Lionel Haward and Dr. Michael Argyle, argued that it was unlikely to do so, and in some cases might well have the opposite effect.

43If the trial was, as Neville argued, a political occasion, the actual politics of Oz – and specifically the liberationist arguments of the Schoolkids issue – were almost entirely absent from the discussion. Some of the expert witnesses called for the defence – most notably Leila Berg and the radical headteacher Michael Duane – could potentially have addressed these issues; but even here, the questioning by the prosecution was bound to focus on matters of obscenity, and sexual conduct more generally. Yet most of the defence witnesses who were brought in explicitly to address these issues – including high-profile academics such as Professors Ronald Dworkin, Richard Wollheim and Hans Eysenck – failed to generate the informed, critical discussion of obscenity law that was undoubtedly needed.

44Neville and his co-editors were initially found guilty, although they were cleared of the charge of conspiracy, and sentenced to terms of between nine and fifteen months; Neville and Anderson were told they would be deported back to Australia when they had served their sentences. Symbolically, their long hair was shorn once they had been sent down to Wormwood Scrubs prison. Their treatment after the trial helped to galvanise the opposition. Against Judge Argyle’s wishes, the three were granted bail pending an appeal; and when the case came back to court, the convictions were quickly quashed, largely on the grounds that the judge had misdirected the jury in his closing statement, especially as regards the definition of obscenity.

45At least briefly, the trial helped to construct the editors – and Neville in particular – as high-profile martyrs for the underground. Neville later claimed that he was uneasy about having to justify the magazine in political terms or on “high moral grounds”, but little of that uncertainty was evident at the time. In his opening speech, he presented the trial as a wider attack on the “alternative society”, on young people, and on freedom of speech; and in later statements, he remained keen to “spin” the trial as a massively significant event in the history of the counter-culture. In an interview for Jonathon Green’s (1998) oral history, he states that it was “the great climax of the underground movement”; and in his autobiography he claims that

Within days of the sentence, the case catapulted from being “the longest obscenity trial in British history” into one symbolizing the clash of generations, the limits of freedom, the highs and lows of the counter-culture. (1995: 344)

46This may be true in some respects, but it vastly overstates the significance of the trial: Oz did not represent the whole of the counter-culture, and Neville was not its spokesman (even if he attempted to promote himself as such). Ultimately, the trial was not primarily about politics, but about sex; and in this respect, it was merely one moment in a much longer history of changing attitudes and lifestyles. At the same time, Neville’s assertions also obscure some of the more interesting aspects of Schoolkids Oz itself – and especially the involvement of the young people who produced it. Oz 28 was a victim of its own notoriety – a notoriety that was undoubtedly encouraged and promoted by Neville in particular. Yet in becoming a cause célèbre, much of its political significance was marginalized.


47In recent years, several critics have argued that, far from subverting dominant social and political values, the counter-culture actually prepared the ground for neo-liberalism. On this account, the counter-culture was not simply a failed revolution, but one whose effects were quite the opposite of those it believed it was promoting. For example, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in their provocative book The Rebel Sell (2006), and Jenny Diski in her memoir The Sixties (2009) detect a continuity between the hippy ethic of “doing your own thing” and the rampant individualism that arguably took hold in the 1980s. According to Diski, Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum that “there is no such thing as society” was merely an extension of the hippy ethic of individual liberation. While she rejects the idea that the hippies were primarily responsible for the greed and self-interest of Thatcherism, Diski does suggest that they were “unwittingly… sweeping the path for the radical Right, preparing, with the best of good intentions, the road to hell for paving”.

48As I have suggested, the implication that the counter-culture was a singular, unified phenomenon is wide of the mark – and indeed, I would say the same about “neoliberalism”. As well as “doing your own thing”, the counter-culture also placed a strong and consistent emphasis on communal values, on sharing rather than accumulating possessions – of which the communes and co-operatives that flourished during the 1970s (and in some cases still survive) were the most obvious manifestation. While it was undoubtedly elitist in some respects, the counter-culture was also overtly opposed to competitiveness and hierarchy. While there is much in the hippy ethic that can justifiably be satirized, it would be unfair to dismiss these values as merely rhetorical or superficial.

49Of course, the revolutionary claims of the counter-culture may have been vastly inflated, and many were just plain wrong. Yet if sex, drugs and rock-n-roll may not have fulfilled the political promise that was claimed for them, other aspects of the hippy ethic have entered the mainstream in ways that have undeniably made a difference. Modern environmentalism has its roots in the counter-culture; ideas of community and of personal (and even spiritual) well-being have become much more mainstream; attitudes towards gender and sexuality have changed significantly, partly as a result of the counter-culture, and partly in reaction to it.

50Yet what about childhood? While some elements of the children’s liberation movement (promoted, albeit somewhat indirectly, in Schoolkids Oz) had disappeared by the end of the 1970s, others have since been institutionalized. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into force in 1990, has been accepted by almost every country in the world (with the notable exception of the United States); and arguments about children’s rights have been enormously influential in the provision of children’s welfare services, although rather less so in education. Calls for children’s participation, and for children’s voices to be heard – while not necessarily unproblematic – are now entirely mainstream.

51In some respects, Schoolkids Oz and the controversy it provoked appears like a relic from a forgotten time. Yet even though so much has changed, in other respects it still speaks to us, not least in relation to children’s rights. If the concern about sexual explicitness seems almost prehistoric, the critique of the school system is still remarkably pertinent – and in some respects, even more so than it was at the time.

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Berg, Leila (1972) Look at Kids Harmondsworth: Penguin

Braunstein, Peter (2002) “Forever young: insurgent youth and the Sixties culture of rejuvenation”, pp. 243-274 in Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle (eds.) Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s London: Routledge

Diski, Jenny (2009) The Sixties London: Profile Books

Green, Jonathon (1988) Days in the Life: Voices from the English Underground, 1961-1971 London: Heinemann

Heath, Joseph and Potter, Andrew (2006) The Rebel Sell: How the Counter Culture Became Consumer Culture London: Capstone Press

Holland, Patricia (2004) Picturing Childhood: The Myth of the Child in Popular Imagery London: I.B. Tauris

Holt, John (1974) Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children New York: Dutton

Miller, Timothy (2011) The Hippies and American Values Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, second edition

Neville, Richard (1971) Play Power London: Jonathan Cape

Neville, Richard (1995) Hippie Hippie Shake London: Bloomsbury

Roszak, Theodore (1969) The Making of a Counter Culture New York: Anchor Books


The full text of Schoolkids Oz can be found in the online archive of the University of Woolongong:

Extensive extracts from transcripts of the trial can be found in Tony Palmer (2011) The Trials of Oz London: Gonzo Multimedia, second edition.

Psychedelic Britannia BBC4, TV documentary produced and directed by Sam Bridger, transmitted 23.10.2015

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David Buckingham, « Children of the revolution? The counter-culture, the idea of childhood and the case of Schoolkids Oz », Strenæ [En ligne], 13 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 mai 2018, consulté le 21 mai 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/strenae.1808

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David Buckingham

Loughborough University
11 Priory Avenue, London N8 7RP – UK
Tel.: +44 7828 579760

David Buckingham is Emeritus Professor of Media and Communications at Loughborough University, UK, and a Visiting Professor at King’s College London. His research has focused on children and young people’s interactions with electronic media, and on media literacy education. He has directed numerous research projects on these issues, and been a consultant for bodies such as UNESCO, the United Nations, Ofcom, and the UK government. He is the author of more than 250 articles and 30 books, including Media Education: Literacy, Learning and Contemporary Culture; Beyond Technology: Children’s Learning in the Age of Digital Culture; The Material Child: Growing Up in Consumer Culture; and The Civic Web: Young People, the Internet and Civic Participation.

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