Farewell to Leonard Phillips Fox

Vera Deacon

This is the text of an address given by Vera Deacon at the funeral service for fellow Australian Left activist and writer, Len Fox, at Northern Suburbs Crematorium, Sydney on 9 January, 2004. Len passed away at his Sydney home on 3 January this year, aged 98 years. Like Len, Vera was an active member of the Sydney Realist Writers Group. She served as Group secretary from 1956, becoming Honorary National Secretary in 1960. In the mid-1960s, Vera also chaired the Editorial Board of the Group’s magazine, Realist Writer.

Dear Mona Brand, family, and friends,

Mona, you asked me to speak only of Len. I have tried to do this, but you were and are an inspiring couple. To go to see Len and Mona was a highlight of our lives. We loved you both; we loved to be in your dear little home with its walls of books, its colourful treasures from the different cultures you experienced in your travels; the wit and dry humour shared.

We gather now to celebrate the life of Len Fox. Len, a science graduate of Melbourne University, became a teacher, journalist, poet, novel writer, artist, polemicist, a peace and political activist, an internationalist, a socialist and communist, and, flowing from his long life’s striving – a whole man.

Len was born on August 28, 1905 into a sheltered middle-class childhood and youth in a middle-class Melbourne suburb. In the Penguin Anthology of Australian Childhood, we have a glimpse of a five year old Len in a 1911 painting, ‘The Arbour’, by his famous artist uncle, Emmanuel Phillips Fox. The exquisite scene depicts two graceful women, a man, a little girl and Len in a white-braided red, sailor-style suit, holding a hoop. I can see in the boy’s face the sensitive, mature face of Len Fox.

In his book Broad Left, Narrow Left, Len writes of the ‘wave of anti-war feeling that swept the world’ after the First World War. As the ‘war to end war’ ended in 1918, Len, classified as part of the ‘05 quota, was one of the young Australians scooped into the Junior Cadets aged 12, then into the Senior Cadets at 14, which became the Citizen Forces. After four years drilling, they were taught how to kill with rifle and bayonet. The ‘05 quota were given ‘more military training than any other age group in Australian history’. He belonged to the same Regiment as Sir Robert Menzies: the Melbourne University Rifles.

These youthful experiences began the ferment of anti-militarist feelings in Len. He became a teacher and for some years was an active member of a Congregational Church. I too, attended a Congregational Sunday School, a non-conformist peace-loving group during the Great Depression.

Then in late 1933 Len went to London, ‘ostensibly to study education’. There he saw the effects of five years of Depression on the cold and hungry waiting in Trafalgar Square for the ‘lady with the sandwiches’. Encounters with poets, socialists, communists intensified his growing interest in politics. He met Christian Socialist Mary Hughes and unemployed seaman communist Jim McGrath. Their impression on him deepened when, in early 1934, the Hunger Marchers came to London. He read Marx, Engels and Lenin: ‘Socialism – I wanted to know all about it.’

He sailed to Germany and saw the effects of Nazism and racism on the German people, particularly the youth. He returned home convinced that the rise of fascism and the drive to war had to be resisted. Soon involved in the world-wide Movement Against War and Fascism, he became its Victorian State Secretary. His life from here reads like a history of the big events in 20th century Australian history, from the 1934 Egon Kisch affair onwards.

The first of his many books appeared. In 1935 he wrote The First World War – And The Second; in 1936, The Truth About Anzac, and in 1937 Stop War on China, and on, almost yearly to World War Two, Vietnam and beyond to his last booklet, Glimpses of a Century published in 2000. Len describes it as ‘how [the century] appeared to a retired journalist as he approached his 95th Birthday’. The illustrated book, concludes with Len’s pen sketch and poem to Albert Namatjira. In the wake of the May 2000 walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge, Len notes that ‘more positive notes for reconciliation are being sounded’. Will it Prevail he asks? He answers: it depends on us!

I have traced thirty eight books and pamphlets written by Len [See Appendix 1]. This does not include the articles he wrote as editor of Progress, Tribune magazine editor, editor of the miners’ journal Common Cause, and as a contributor to literary magazines: Meanjin, Overland and
Realist Writer. At my Stockton home in my library I found a precious inscribed collection of twenty of Len’s works, including Australians in Spain, with Nettie Palmer, his novel Bailey’s Pine, Broad Left, Narrow Left, and Australians on the Left. His Depression Down Under, first published privately in 1977, then republished twice in 1989 and 1992 by Hale & Iremonger, was taken up by Deakin University and colleges of advanced education as part of their narrative and social welfare courses. Len donated the proceeds from his delightful, illustrated history, the Windmills of Sydney to the National Trust.

So too, with Len’s oil paintings: I know of two exhibitions, one at Edwards & Shaw’s Kent Street premises. Sale of the paintings raised several thousand dollars for the peace and green conservation movements. In my hall hang two: ‘The Red Waratah’ and the delicate beauty of ‘Flannel Flowers’. Sketches by brother artists Noel Counihan and Herbert McClintock appeared in Len’s books.

Formed in 1944, the Melbourne Realist Writers group included Jack Coffey, Eric Lambert, Walter Kaufman, Max Brown, Ralph de Boissiere, John Morrison, Judah Waten, Frank Hardy and others. Ten years later, on September 27, 1954, the Sydney Realist Writers Group was formed. Edgar Ross, Common Cause editor was in the chair; Frank Hardy spoke; also present were Marjorie Pizer, poet and joint editor of Freedom on the Wallaby, along with playwright and poet Mona Brand, and Len Fox, too. Later, about 1957 a young mother, Dorothy Hewett joined the group, as did Roger Milliss, author of Waterloo Creek. Mona was the group’s first secretary.

A year later, on September 26, 1955, the realist writers organised a celebration of Len and Mona’s marriage in Helen Palmer’s Elizabeth Street flat overlooking Hyde Park. We gave them the then fashionable harlequin dinner set! Mona’s satirical send-up of ASIO’s interest in their marriage and their activities generally was published last year in the Sydney Morning Herald and Overland.

Their union began a ‘marriage of true minds’ and early in 1956 Len and Mona went to teach English in Vietnam. Their stay brought forth, in 1957 to 1959, two of Len’s books of poems: Chung of Vietnam, and Gumleaves and Bamboo; also his Stories of a Friendly Vietnam, as well as Mona’s Daughters of Vietnam.

Home again into the turmoil which followed Krushchev’s so-called secret report to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s 20th Congress, which detailed the murderous cult of Stalin and company. The report besmirched the ideals and hopes of millions and the path to ‘socialism with a human face’ is still being sought.

Here I commend Len’s book Broad Left, Narrow Left: it will strengthen all who strive for peace against war, for sanity in human relations, indeed for the survival of earth and humankind. History is a hard taskmaster and Len endured the upheavals and spiritual pain we all shared in those years.

He wrote on: three books about the Eureka flag, the last in 1992. The Aboriginals in 1978 and Marani in Australia with Faith Bandler, a long time partner from the 1950s in the struggle for Aboriginal recognition and advancement. In 1981 he published Multinationals Take Over Australia, and in 1988 the History of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, Dream at a Graveside appeared, proving again that our quiet, self-effacing Len was as fearless and as versatile as ever!

Dear Mona, dear friends, this is only a small intimation of Len Fox’s remarkable life. He was no saint; he admitted his mistakes as we all must to become truly human. As we journey through life and lose parents, brothers, sisters, friends, husbands or wives, we learn life is a gift we have to give back. Some ill-use this precious gift in the struggle for self-aggrandizement, power and profit. Others use the gift of life to give back to life. Len Fox was one of these. He leaves not only his books, his poems, paintings and sketches, but his example of a life truly lived in the service of humanity. Our memories of Len, his example, remain to inspire and spur us onwards to our great ideals.

I would like to leave you with several verses from Len’s poem ‘Glimpses of a Century’:

I went to live In a foreign land; I forgot to take A gun in my hand.

The wise men said I should have found Death in the air, Hate all around.

A child who gaily Ran to say Two friendly words, Shake hands, bat tay.

A thoughtful poet, A man with a plough, Who spoke of freedom: “Our time is now.”

I didn’t find Hate in the air, Just friendly people Everywhere.

But then when I went To this foreign land I didn’t take A gun in my hand.

Appendix 1

An incomplete list of Len Fox’s books:

Len’s plays Include: ‘Never No More’; ‘Secret Weapon’; ‘They Shall Not Pass’, and ‘We’re Bringing Our Singing to Sydney’.