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Richard Neville, the great disrupter: ‘I think the party goes on’

As we farewell the great cultural disrupter, Richard Neville, who died  aged 74 this week, I remember warmly the time he could have cost me my job. In 1987 I was the young editor of Good Weekend magazine and commissioned staff writer Ginny Dougary to interview Neville and his old friend Richard Walsh over dinner (so we could mimic the title of the brilliant 1981 film, My Dinner with Andre).

My Dinner with Richard was lively, funny and profound, showing how the two in their 40s had moved on from their 1960s taboo-smashing days at Oz magazine into mainstream media – the sharp-witted Walsh as chief executive of Kerry Packer’s Australian Consolidated Press, the romantic Neville selling his show about “human potential”, Extra Dimensions, to Murdoch’s Channel 10.

In their discussion of “life, death and middle age”, atheist Walsh told his more spiritual mate, “For you, of course, dying isn’t a terribly traumatic thing” and Neville replied, “I don’t believe it is…To Richie, it’s a curtain closing. To me, it’s a curtain opening. I believe there are more things in store.” Walsh: “And that’s your consolation.” Neville: “I think the party goes on, yes.”

The morning after the magazine went to press I was told the Herald’s editor-in-chief, Chris Anderson, had read the story late at night and, horrified that Neville had twice used the word “f—” (which I left spelt out), had tried to stop the presses – too late and too expensive to pulp the issue. I heard no more about it, but I realised the let-it-all-hang-out values I had absorbed as a teenager, thanks to the Richards and co, were still ahead of their time.

Neville admitted to “a twinge of guilt” about the angry, hippie hedonism of his youth and his book Playpower, which a taxi driver had told him that morning had “a terrible effect on him” and ended his plan to be a journalist. But Neville could write: his 1980 book on serial killer Charles Sobhraj, co-written with his wife Julie Clarke, and his memoir Hippie, Hippie, Shake (1995) were full of vivid energy.

In 1986 Neville wrote a piece for Good Weekend about attending the Australian Transpersonal Conference – “a rock festival of the unconscious mind” – which we illustrated with drawings by Martin Sharp, the other recently lamented talent in that team. Part believer, part amused sceptic, Neville found himself “dancing the vision” with a group: “Stomp, stomp, sway, sway….Up past the silly acid trips on Kings Road giggling at worldly absurdities, past memories of the theosophist temple on the beach at Balmoral, beyond oblivion, beyond all the books; beyond the eureka of discovering hatha yoga, meditation and the home birth of my first child on a mountaintop without doctors or drugs. Higher and higher until my eyes lit up with a simple truth: that the self within is identical, in essence, to the spirit of the universe…”

Thanks to artist Tom Carment, who allowed me to reproduce his portrait of Neville, a finalist in the 2002 Archibald Prize. “I think he found it a bit harsh at first but then he came around to it – in most photos of Richard he has that huge grin, so I wanted to avoid that,” Carment says. Neville later bought the painting as a present for his wife.

Cultural historians and biographers will find all this and more in Neville’s archive in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. I hope he is still enjoying the party.

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