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Brand, Mona Alexis (1915–2007)

by Tony Stephens

Mona Brand, by Hazel de Berg, 1983

Mona Brand, by Hazel de Berg, 1983

National Library of Australia, 48469704

Mona Brand married Len Fox in 1955, after Fox had said: "I'm thinking of having a honeymoon. Would you like to come along?" She went along. So, too, did ASIO, whose spies shadowed the couple in Queensland and checked the registry office in Sydney to make sure they were in fact married. Frank Hardy gave the only speech at the small reception, saying they were "the perfect couple".

ASIO disagreed. Brand and Fox were communists. Brand, who has died at 91, read her 379-page ASIO file only five years ago. She wrote in the Herald that she could have saved the security agents a lot of time and the taxpayers a lot of money by telling them about her wedding and other nefarious activities.

Brand was a poet and playwright who was, in some senses, ahead of her time. She was in Hungary in 1953, three years before the uprising crushed by Russia. After working in Vietnam in 1956, she warned that the struggle in Indochina, where the United States and Australia were to follow the defeated French, would be disastrous. She campaigned for the rights of Aborigines before most Australians took notice.

If much of her work now seems dated, with too much political theory, she nonetheless wrote nearly 30 plays, most of which were performed. Few Australians have had their plays performed so frequently overseas. Her problem in gaining wide recognition in Australia might have been, as the theatre critic John McCallum suggested, that "she was a commo and a sheila".

Mona Alexis Brand was the second of three children born to Alexander Brand and his wife, Violet (nee Nixon). Her grandfather, George Brand, had died in 1858 on the expedition into the Arctic Circle financed by Lady Franklin to search for her husband, Sir John, who had failed to return from his search for the North-West Passage. Her father, Alexander, was a marine engineer born in Devonshire. Her maternal grandfather, Francis Nixon, was born in Greenwich, England, became a naval architect and claimed to be related to Lord Byron. He died in Rockhampton when Violet was three months old.

Brand's mother died when she was seven and her father's work often took him away. She was brought up by relatives and friends, mainly in inner-western Sydney, and attended school in Summer Hill, Chatswood, Rockhampton and North Sydney.

Brand wanted to be a journalist, had poems published in the Herald and worked in the newspaper's accounts department before becoming an advertising copywriter for department stores. Dame Mary Gilmore wrote a foreword to Brand's first book of poems, in 1937. During World War II she worked as a public servant, did a social studies course at Melbourne University and published another poetry book. She met writers Bill Wannan, Hardy, Max Brown, Vance Palmer, Frank Dalby Davison and Flora Eldershaw. She joined the Communist Party in 1947.

Her first play, Here under Heaven (1948) was about Aborigines and Chinese migrants in the wider Australian society. J.C. Williamson thought it a good script but declined to back it on the grounds that racism did not exist here. It was performed at Melbourne's New Theatre – and in Germany, Russia, Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Brand sailed to England the same year, worked as a typist and at the BBC, joined "Ban the Bomb" marches and had a play, Strangers in the Land, about the British in Malaya, banned because it might cause a breach of the peace. The Soviet Writers Union invited her to Russia. Jessie Street invited her to the World Peace Congress in Budapest in 1953.

Back in Sydney, her plays followed at regular intervals – on juvenile delinquency, Indochina, poverty and various social issues. In the 1960s she helped pioneer, at the New Theatre in Sydney, a theatrical style of irreverent larrikinism, political revue mixed with satire.

The journalist Wilfred Burchett recruited Brand and Fox to help the Vietnamese with English translations in 1956 and 1957. They met General Vo Nguyen Giap, the victor of Dien Bien Phu, and took afternoon tea with Ho Chi Minh.

Brand and Fox were among those decent Australians drawn to communism in the 1930s and '40s. Many joined to defeat fascism. When communism failed, they consoled themselves that fascism was beaten.

Fox was a grand old man of the Australian left, a school teacher, painter, journalist, poet and polemicist who died in 2004, aged 98. In their old age Brand and Fox could watch the decline of the left with philosophical detachment. They admitted their mistakes but pointed to dreams of a better world, and the dedication to fight for it.

Brand's autobiography, Enough Blue Sky, was published in 1995. During the Reconciliation Convention in 1997, she, Fox and other campaigners received a standing ovation for their campaign in the Aboriginal rights referendum of 1967.

Mona Brand's funeral service will be held at Eastern Suburbs Crematorium tomorrow. She is survived by three nephews and three nieces.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 August 2007

Additional Resources

Citation details

Tony Stephens, 'Brand, Mona Alexis (1915–2007)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/brand-mona-alexis-22029/text31996, accessed 19 September 2017.

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