Books: The Metropolitan Critic — Cuter than a Cub Koala: Richard Neville’s <i>Play Power</i> |
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Cuter than a Cub Koala : Richard Neville’s Play Power

Three hundred and sixty-one pages bound in boards, a Martin Sharp funny-paper wrapper stamped with the holy initials of a leading establishment publishing house, and a price tag of 38s (£1.90) net in UK only: this is the underground? But before we smile wryly, let’s leave aside for the moment the essential question of who the book is supposed to be for (with its related question of what the author is trying to promote himself as), and deal rapidly with the incidental question of what the book is. Ordinarily this last question would be the central one, but in this case it’s peripheral: there isn’t much in the book that you won’t have come across in one trendy place or another. What’s unusual is to have this information on play-politics and the new sex and the dope culture, these polemics on system-erosion and generational confrontation and Do Your Own Thing, and these clue-charts on where to score and when to squat and how to fool slot machines, all wrapped into one parcel.

I should also mention that Richard Neville can write. Oz, the intermittently active magazine he edits, never has enough of his own writing: among the sleepy drone of the acid heads and the foam-flecked rhetoric of the loonier Situationists his own voice rings out clear but seldom. Over the length of Play Power one gets to know and like him. Within the terms he sets himself he speaks with a welcome balance of constructive cheek and admonitory caution, giving the book something of the air of an up-dated Boys’ Companion with the knot-tying and daily cold showers left out and healthy screwing and safe smoking put in. But of course we’re already sliding into the question of who the book is for.

Play Power is for new recruits and for the older unconverted who will remain unconverted but may become tolerant. The first group can be considered statistically negligible, at any rate until the paperback comes out. It’s the second group that’s interesting, both in what they represent and the kind of play Neville makes for their attention. This group is straight and likely to remain so. Neville is a straight freak. In Oz he edits freak material for freak consumption. In this book he is bringing the freak world to straights: as cute on the page as he is in life, he explains, he cajoles and he dedicates the book to mum and dad. Although ostensibly aimed at extending the experience of those who already share his style of life, Neville’s book is in fact cunningly slanted towards those who have missed out on it but whose understanding of it is essential if the life-style is to consolidate itself. He isn’t altogether clear about whether he is identifying the state with the capitalist system in this country, he isn’t altogether clear about whether he is identifying this country with the United States, but in fact his book tends to separate these things and has its real force in seeing what is possible here. The global pot-trail trotting and the salutes of solidarity to pig-baiting Yippies are treated as inspiring exotica. What matters (and I think he sees this is what matters) is that given the right conditions an alternative society can survive and even expand in this country without either an attempt to overthrow the state or a fruitless straight/freak confrontation.

In pointing out that Neville hasn’t written the book as an incitement to bloody rebellion one isn’t necessarily contending that he’s a quietist. He believes in radical change all right — but a change by Hash Cookie subversion, by a general turning-on of children. Compared with the concrete proposals, or even the tone of voice, of young American radicals in an equivalent position of influence, he sounds about as dangerous as a provisionally licensed pixie. But then Britain and the United States are not equivalent societies. Britain is the more advanced; which is one of the reasons that Neville is here instead of there. In the United States the alternative society (you couldn’t use the term ‘Play Power’ in that context) is inextricably mixed up with revolution: a revolution it can’t make without ditching its fundamental values by assuming power, and a revolution it now seems it can’t afford not to make without being pressured into quietism.

The lesson in the United States is that capitalism can give ground to the new life-style but that the state can’t. The lesson here, so far, is that they both can. In the United States the straights have no give, so the freaks have no room to turn around in: play becomes a gesture at best and pack-drill at worst, the fuck-you rhetoric escalates to scare the straights even further, and cool is blown in vast quantities on either side. In Britain the straight/freak confrontation is softened to the point of workability by the presence in government and the media of the meritocratic elite — the older alternative society which identified absorptive flexibility as the essential characteristic of British politics and furthered the work of institutionalizing it. Consciously or unconsciously (mainly unconsciously: their rhetoric ran the other way, towards revolution) the underground here separated state from system and began to throw up ideas, not all of them feeble, for effecting social change without overthrowing the power structure.

For anyone regarding Capitalism with a capital C as the enemy this was an alarmingly quietist trend of thought. But in fact there’s nothing quieter than a shout against the wind, and even though several unreconstructed revolutionaries have found a platform in Oz, the underground trend runs nowhere near the barricades. The important thing to remember is that in the underground here the revolutionaries are the exceptions: they’re a straight influence which survives among the freaks only so long as their stance remains rhetorical. Half-articulated but far more powerful, the real drive in the underground is to survive and expand in an unpolarized straight society. The great strength of Neville’s book is that he has recognized this drive and realized that if the underground has any power, this is its power. His naïvety resides in his breathless recounting of the underground life-styles in the United States as if all these phenomena were ipso facto cures, palliatives, creative advances. His sophistication resides in not trying to import the American situation — or the Dutch, the French or the German — holus bolus. He thereby dodges the hopelessly contradictory one-worldness (one fight against one system) which has so vitiated underground writing from the beginning. Play Power is consequently realistic in the sense that matters — its dreams of peace are really dreamable.

Does it make sense to argue that simply by surviving the underground is a force for change? In the British context I think it does, though it’s easy to imagine other contexts in which the argument would have no political meaning at all, or at best would be a gentle plea for tolerant pluralism. The underground in Britain, unlike the American version, has no single issue to guarantee its solidarity: it has a solidarity beyond single issues, which means it really does have a style — a complex of attitudes which criticize and subvert established values without insisting on their immediate disappearance.

You can sum up Neville’s key proposition thus: don’t turn on the cops with your fists, turn their sons on to pot. In the United States there wouldn’t be much sense in proposing this at the moment. But it does make sense here. There’s at least a slim chance of the meek inheriting this part of the earth and profoundly modifying both capitalism and the state simply by growing into them. It’s an extension of the principle by which the system and the state can be played off against one another as soon as you recognize they are separable. What you can’t usefully do is call them both the one thing and talk the necessary majority of the people into mounting a frontal attack: nor can you hope to induce the conditions of polarization which would radicalize the populace as it now is. But of course the one thing the populace can never do is stay as it now is. It has to replace itself. And it’s very significant that at this particular point in time a scene-chief like Neville should come forward and help to guard this process of replacement by presenting it in as flattering a light as possible to the straight generations who are called upon, in the view of the underground, to do nothing except die.

The last thing I want to suggest is that Neville has figured all this out. But the fact that something like this is the general drift of his work, even though arrived at instinctively, is of far greater interest than the choleric sperm-in-the-streets programmes of imported revolutionaries like Angelo Quattrocchi. Neville is not only an underground figure in his own right — there’s no denying that — he’s also a mini-capitalist in his own right, not to mention an aspiring moderator of television chat-shows. To the ‘old’ New Left he must look riddled with contradictions. But he and others like him are modifying the system as they take it over. And here is the real advantage of being an outlander, in this case an Australian. He can see that the system is modifiable. By managing Oz in Australia he was able to give a practical demonstration that the repressive feedback of the state into the economic system was a good deal less than 100 per cent. By simply being an Australian he manages to slice through the British class-system even faster than the emancipated indigenous meritocrats who long ago spotted that Communications was the class swindle’s breaking-point.

Let these be the trends. Then what are the chances? I don’t believe, myself, that a society of Love is coming: as with most of the immediately pre-underground generation of lefties my one last hope is in the possibility of a society of Rights. Basically it’s the claim to rights which forms the substance of the underground’s real style but it’s all unnervingly mixed up with the promotion of moods, emotional abstractions like Love which to the underground seem concrete but which logically extended could lead to anything. But if Neville hasn’t completely unscrambled the dreamable dreams from the disguised nightmares, at least he’s scrambled them no further. As a universal compendium the book’s a bust. As a text of local application it has real value. He’s come to the right place.

(New Society, 1970)
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The reader will scarcely believe that £1.90 was a high price for a hard-backed book, but it was true. Only slightly less unbelievable was how I could use the expression ‘life-style’ unironically. The fatal two-word coupling ‘in fact’ was out of control; and even today I still tend to overuse it when in a hurry — except that nowadays I am scarcely ever in a hurry, having lived beyond, thank God, the age of deadlines, which I could once meet at the rate of five a week and sometimes two a night. It will be seen that I was willing to entertain the notion that the so-called youth culture’s revolution had failed but that its reforming elements might succeed. I am still proud of having been right about that. My idea that the communications industry would turn out to be the class system’s weak point was also largely correct. Making these claims in my own favour, I hope partly to offset in advance the general effect of trumped-up verve which marked everything I wrote about popular music, youth culture, feminism and related subjects in that period. One sure consequence of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds is a double drench of sweat.