Les Cleveland: a genuinely good bloke, and historian too

Christmas Eve 1959, photograph by the multi-talented Les Cleveland

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.

5 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by jennifer shennan || March 10th, 2014

    a beautiful trIbute Jock …
    thanks a pile …
    Peter Kitchin is working on an obituary for Dompost.
    Les will be clenching his fists and grinding his teeth at us …

  2. Comment made by George Andrews || March 18th, 2014

    Jock – you could add acetylene gas welder, and log splitter to Les’s achievements. That’s I came to know Les when I was a schoolboy at Wellington College and he worked part-time for my father who had a display equipment business in Rugby Street. It must have been when Les was with Truth. In the weekends he would sometimescome to our home in Ngaio and taught me and my five brothers to split logs for the fire. We played his Songs we Sang LP on our Phillips radiogram( or was it HMV?)I can still remember the words to The Army in Fiji. By the time I got to VUW, Les had begun his career there as a political scientist – with a special emphasis on newspapers. The last time I saw him was we six Andrews boys gathered for our’s mother’s funeral at All Saints Ngaio in 1995. Les borrowed my Leica to take our photo, which I treasure. A good bloke? Too right.

  3. Comment made by Alison Parr || April 3rd, 2014

    Great to see this acknowledgment of Les – yes, his death just slipped us by. But he was a very important influence and source for me in the early 1990s when I was beginning to explore the psychological impact of the Second World War on the men who served. He spent hours talking with me – over bacon butties – showing me photos and poems and later recording an interview about his own perceptions of The Div and how it operated. That interview is in the ATL. Now, of course, I wish I’d recorded a full life history … rest well, Les. And thanks for everything.

  4. Comment made by Pauline Porteous || June 9th, 2014

    Les was one of my first political studies lecturers in the late 1970s and when he discussed his work with the Truth newspaper my first impression was that my youthful feminist sensibilities were likley to be offended – but he was just wonderful. He was funny, down to earth, thoughful and respectful. He was a man of his time and also quite exceptional. I learnt a lot from him about NZ politics and also to be less judgemental on first impressions.

  5. Comment made by Ethan Tucker || December 15th, 2014

    Many thanks for this very insightful article. I picked up a copy of the first The Songs We Sang LP today in excellent condition and couldn’t have hoped for a better introduction to the man behind the material.

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