Christmas Eve 1959, photograph by the multi-talented Les Cleveland
‘Journalist, editor, photographer, mountaineer, music historian, and academic’ – so reads the description of Les Cleveland on the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection website. To this we might add ‘musician, author, war veteran and genuinely good Kiwi bloke’. Les was one of those New Zealanders who was an impressively multi-faceted versatile person. In a small society we need talented people who can fill many roles, and Les did so with aplomb.
He was also extraordinarily modest, which is perhaps why, although he died at the end of January this year, the media, from newspapers to blogs, have allowed his passing to happen with barely a mention that I can find. Characteristically, he wanted no funeral and no fuss. But we can’t let the old bastard slip away without a brief tribute.
I can’t pretend to have known Les well; but, as I suspect did many others, I discovered the range of his talents by degrees. I first came across him when I was researching the culture of New Zealand soldiers at war. I wanted to get behind the fine rhetoric and the smug claims about our wonderful gentlemen diggers to try to uncover the attitudes of the men themselves. Someone put me onto a book, The songs we sang, a collection of war songs from New Zealand soldiers in the Second World War. They were earthy and direct, at times smutty, and I felt I was getting closer to the men. I also discovered an LP (there were in fact two) on which the author of the book, one Les Cleveland, had recorded some of these ditties.
To my joy, I then discovered that the very same author and songster was a lecturer in the Political Science department of Victoria University of Wellington, where I too was teaching. This was a piece of luck, because at the time I was teaching a university extension course on Kiwi men. I was always keen to have visiting speakers on the course who could speak from personal experience. Ken Gray used to come along and tell us what it was like in the All Black scrum and on the back seat of their bus. So, I invited Les to come along and talk about the ‘real’ attitudes Kiwi soldiers held towards the war. He was riveting and he showed, often with fruity examples, how soldiers found an outlet for their anti-authoritarian attitudes in the songs they sang and the poetry they recited. He spoke with a down-to-earth directness and an honesty that was instantly appealing.
Intrigued by his ideas, I did some more digging and discovered that he had actually written up these ideas in an internationally published article, and that, in addition to his collection of war songs, he had compiled an anthology of Second World War poetry. Nor was this all. I found that this academic work included pieces about pressure groups and newspapers in New Zealand (which was hardly surprising given as I have subsequently discovered that he was once a reporter for Truth). He had also extended his interest in folk songs by putting out another collection, the Great New Zealand songbook, and had even devised an opera based on gold miners’ songs.
Then I discovered another aspect of Les Cleveland’s creative output. I came across a new book edited by Athol McCredie and Janet Bayly called Witness to change. It focused on the work of three documentary photographers of the 1940s and 1950s: John Pascoe, Ans Westra (both of whom I knew about) and Les Cleveland. I had no idea that he belonged in such august company, but he certainly did. His photographs documented both the passing world of the West Coast – publicans, sawmillers, bushmen, the Kumara races – and also some of the old wooden buildings of the coast and of Wellington. They were an invaluable record of a fading past. I managed to track down his book of images from the West Coast, Silent land.
Witness to change provided some recognition of his contribution as a photographer, and later he had a solo exhibition at the City Gallery Wellington. But it is interesting that even now the web database of New Zealand artists has a page on Les Cleveland, but the only content is his date of birth – 1921 – not even his place of birth, which I think, despite his fierce Kiwi nationalism, was Australia.
So, this multi-talented modest man and good bloke needs remembering. Thank you, Les, for recording with such love the tough hard-bitten world of ordinary New Zealanders. Despite your best endeavours to slip off this earth without notice, your contribution to preserving our history will not be forgotten.