Home' Greymouth Star : June 7th 2014 Contents Greymouth Star
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he death in Wellington recently of Les
Cleveland, 92, highlights an endearing
relationship with the West Coast that
began in the late 1940s.
Les retired from the position of
political science lecturer at Victoria University in
1987. For an old soldier, a veritable camouflaged
foxhole for the many and varied interests he had in a
This included living at the Kopara Sawmill village
in the late 1940s and 1950s, cutting silver pine pit
props for the Blackball Mine at Kopara and Franz
Josef Glacier, gold prospecting all over the Coast,
building a bach at Neils Beach with wife Mary and
sons Peter and Edward, and holidaying annually with
the ‘far-downers’ there for nearly 40 years.
His most significant Coast legacy is his photo
collection, which includes many West Coast people
and places long gone.
His home in Brooklyn, Wellington, of 47 years
features a prominent fireplace made with West
Coast river stones, each carefully chosen over time
and delivered back to Wellington in the family car,
suffering on near-flat tyres for the three-day return
trip. The Coast gave L es his peace after the trauma of
frontline war service for nearly five years.
Les’ personality was vintage West Coast. His
academic research included the science behind
nicknames. He obser ved sandflies closely and his
Neils Beach bach at Jackson Bay was built on silver
pine stilts 2m above the ground because he reckoned
sandflies never flew much above ground level.
He was born in Adelaide and brought up in Timaru
and Christchurch. Prior to World War Two, in 1937
he worked as an electrician and junior reporter for
the Christchurch Press after leaving Christchurch
Boys’ High School.
In his varied post-war jobs as bushman, journalist,
broadcaster, electrician, welder, ballad writer and
singer, academic, photographer, poet, researcher and
writer, Les came to observe everyday New Zealand
from a singularly unique position.
During the war, he spent nearly five years overseas
with the 2nd NZEF in the Middle East and Italy.
His love of the mountains saw him make a pact
with his close friend, Ted Scherer, to climb Europe’s
highest peak, Mont Blanc as a symbolic gesture
if they survived the war. Scherer, a farmer from
Gisborne, was sadly killed fighting beside L es in Italy
in their last offensive, two weeks before Germany
surrendered in April 1945. Les climbed the mountain
with a young Italian refugee before heading back
Les said later he made many more difficult and
dangerous journeys in the Southern Alps but never
under such emotionally disturbed and isolated
circumstances as Mont Blanc, which he regarded as
“a therapeutic venture”.
On returning to his old job at The Press in
Christchurch, Les and his climbing mate Brian
Brown, thought a local celebration
of the war’s end would also be a
They headed for Paringa and the
130km tramp along the old cattle
track via Haast to Makarora.
Their regular climbing group
included Harry Ayres, later chief
guide at Aoraki-Mount Cook,
Bill Hamilton of jetboat fame and
Mick Sullivan, prominent Fox
Glacier and Hokitika publican
and local body politician.
It was Easter 1946, and en route, with advice from
the local Nolan dynasty, the two trampers were
advised on arrival to light a fire on the north bank
of the Haast River and Myrtle Cron would row over
from the Haast village and ferry them across. She
duly did, for 2/6d each.
The tramp onwards from Haast was aided by a loan
pack horse that led them on automatic pilot up to the
Public Works camp in the pass, while Les and Brian
threw stones at the roaring stags to keep them away
from their four-legged pack bearer.
His photographs, according to expat New
Zealand and now Har vard University professor of
anthropology, Michael Jackson, “in their vernacular
frankness, bear comparison with the work of the
great American photographer Walker Evans”.
His pictorial record of the Coast, published by
Caxton Press in 1966, The Silent Land, is now a rare
collector’s piece featuring many buildings and towns
now forgotten and iconic bar scenes, with a selection
from the Kumara Races of 1959, including historic
trotting races long gone.
The Silent Land is regarded as being one of the first
‘coffee table’ photo books that brought landscape and
people together, challenging the prevailing regime of
scenic, sugary photographic books.
He used his sympathetic eye from living in the
region to showcase Coasters, the bush, the buildings
and mountains, pubs and workplaces, and the rain.
His original suggested title was The Frontier.
Expatriate English photographic historian, Peter
Turner, who has lived in New Zealand since the
early 1990s and published History of Photography
in L ondon in 1987, like Jackson, also compares Les
Cleveland to Evans.
“That Cleveland is unknown outside New Zealand
is a cultural crime ... both (Evans and Cleveland)
were appreciators of how forcefully a culture can
manifest itself in the way it looks, what it regards
and discards, what it makes, breaks and chooses to
As a writer for NZ Truth in 1955, Les covered the
protest at the closure of the Nelson railway at Kiwi
station. Leading the ‘sit-downers’ and photographed
by Les was later prominent unionist and MP, Sonja
Les also researched and published New Zealanders’
poems and songs in book and LP form from World
War Two and led a musical group in Wellington,
the D-Day Dodgers. Widely published, he wrote
the first-year university standard text book on New
Zealand politics in 1979, The Politics of Utopia and a
sheet music book, The Great New Zealand Songbook
He was often invited as a guest lecturer to
universities in the United States and Australia and
his photo collection has been regularly exhibited
in North Island galleries. He recorded many
programmes for National Radio and narrated the
award-winning National Film Unit documentary
on West Coast gold town, Waiuta, The Ghost Town
Ball. His most substantial tv work was the six-part
1980 series Not So Long Ago.
Lecturing was simply story-telling for Les. In the
midst of a heavy dissertation to students on ‘first-
past-the-post ’ versus proportional representation,
he could break into a yarn about how to operate the
breaking-down bench at the Kopara sawmill or the
most lucrative way to fossick for gold in the Cook
His fit with the unique psyche of the West Coast
can be summed up as similar to the view he wrote
of his war service: “That frontline experience in a
New Zealand infantry formation imparts dimensions
which neither time, distance nor circumstance can
Like his deep affection for the province, L es
Cleveland ’s legacy to the West Coast will never
Photos courtesy of Mary Cleveland
Old West Coast
Punters standing at the birdcage on Kumara raceday 1959.
The Kumara Racing Club’s bar window.
It is standing room only in the Kumara grandstand.
Punters at the Kumara Races place their bets.
The entrance to the bar beneath the stand at the Kumara Races, with Peter Ireland in the
Ladies catch up on raceday.
Squaring up a silver pine log with a broadaxe,
Les Cleveland at Mussel Point, Haast, 1955.
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