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Cleveland, Francis Leslie


Journalist, photographer, political scientist, musician, composer, broadcaster, poet, bushman, mountaineer

This biography, written by Lawrence McDonald, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2023.

Les Cleveland made important contributions to New Zealand’s visual, musical, literary and academic culture. There were overlaps, continuities and connections between all his diverse interests, which ranged from the practical (including bushcraft, welding and mountaineering), to the creative (including photography, music, short fiction and poetry), and the intellectual (producing academic books and articles). Les Cleveland fits J.C. Beaglehole’s conception of ‘the New Zealand scholar’: a person engaged with ‘the pattern of life we have got from our own past, as a community in this country, and so with our sense of the age we live in, in this place now.’1

Early life and military service

Francis Leslie Cleveland was born on 21 September 1921 in Adelaide, South Australia, the son of Viola Gladys Leslie Veitch and her husband, Francis Harold Cleveland. The family emigrated to New Zealand when Cleveland was five, and he grew up in Timaru and Christchurch, where his father worked as a printer. He received his primary education at Timaru South and Timaru Main schools and his secondary education at Timaru Boys’ High School and Christchurch Boys’ High School. A lifelong love of the outdoors grew out of West Coast camping trips with his family, and he began mountaineering as a teenager.

Cleveland left school at the end of 1937 and found work with an electrical contractor; he joined the New Zealand Association of Radio Transmitters the following year. In 1939 he joined the Christchurch Press as a cadet reporter and began taking his first photographs with a Kodak 2A camera. He also enrolled at Canterbury University College to study English literature, history, economics and French.

In April 1941 Cleveland enlisted in the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He served as an infantryman in the Pacific in 1943, North Africa in 1944 and Italy in 1945. The war, with its brutality and camaraderie, was a pivotal period of his life and remained an enduring source of fascination. After the end of the war in Europe he climbed the Dolomite Mountains in north-eastern Italy, Mt Blanc, on the French-Italian border, and the challenging north face of the Eiger in Switzerland’s Bernese Alps. He then spent several months in London, working to expedite the repatriation of former prisoners of war.

Photography and music

Cleveland returned to New Zealand in 1946 and resumed his career as a reporter, with Christchurch’s Press and Star newspapers and later Wellington’s Evening Post. He continued climbing as a member of the Canterbury Mountaineering Club, ultimately climbing every major peak in the Southern Alps, including the first ascent of Mount Tasman via the West Ridge in 1951. He also resumed his university studies.

The lingering effects of Cleveland’s war experience made it difficult for him to settle back into civilian life, and in 1951 he changed direction. He left his journalism career behind and moved to South Westland, where he worked as a bush contractor, occasional welder and mechanic. There he turned his energies to creative projects; he produced several short stories with a West Coast setting and rediscovered his pre-war interest in photography. His stark black and white images presented a West Coast of empty, blasted landscapes, industrial decline, decaying old buildings, social occasions, and colourful rural personalities. Some of his West Coast photographs were published in Landfall, the New Zealand Listener and New Zealand Holiday in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Cleveland emerged from the bush in 1956 to settle in Wellington, where he lived for the rest of his life. He resumed his journalism career as chief reporter for the tabloid New Zealand Truth and spent 1961 in the Parliamentary press gallery; he won the Cowan Prize for journalism in the late 1950s. He continued to photograph the country’s crumbling nineteenth-century architecture and also grew interested in its fading musical heritage. His ongoing fascination with the Second World War led him to compile a book of wartime songs, The songs we sang (1959) and to record a companion long-playing record (LP) of the same name with the D-Day Dodgers, a group that included songwriter and musician Ken Avery. He scrupulously ensured they were true to their wartime performances, as ‘none of this stuff is any good unless it’s realistic, and sung in the genuine vernacular.’2 This LP was followed by More songs we sang (1962) and The songs we sang (folklore of WWII) (1975). All these albums were released by Kiwi Records.

Cleveland also composed and performed vernacular songs unrelated to the war, many in collaboration with South Canterbury farmer and lyricist Joe Charles. He recorded them as part of a trio known as the Black Billy Boys. These songs included ‘Black billy tea’, released on the 45rpm disc Authentic New Zealand ballads (1959) alongside three other songs, including ‘The Coleridge run’. All were broadcast on the public radio programmes Backblocks ballads and Saturday night at home. The 18-song LP Bush singalong (1964) was recorded with Avery, Ash Burton, Tony Nolan and the Campfire Chorus and Orchestra. In 1991 Godwit Press published The great New Zealand songbook, Cleveland’s most comprehensive collection of New Zealand songs produced by a variety of composers.

Alongside these musical projects, Cleveland worked on a book which was unique in New Zealand publishing. The silent land (1966), produced by the literary publisher Caxton Press, drew together Cleveland’s photography and specially written verse text as a coherent creative statement about the Westland region. It moved across the district, contrasting wild landscapes and weather-beaten buildings, respectable townspeople and hard-drinking labourers, the legacies of different historical periods.

Academic career

Cleveland resumed his academic studies at Victoria University of Wellington in the early 1960s, completing a BA in 1962 and an MA with honours in 1964 while working as assistant editor for the trade publications New Zealand Engineering and New Zealand Concrete Construction. His MA in English literature included a substantial research paper, ‘The New Zealand experience: an analysis of the organic tradition in New Zealand fiction’, which critiqued the ‘isolation myth’ that had emerged in the literary writing of the 1930s. It examined the work of novelists who presented characters seeking social integration and an organic relationship with their environment. He tutored in both the English and political science departments.

In 1966 he became a teaching fellow at Victoria and began delivering lectures in political science. He was promoted to lecturer in 1969, senior lecturer in 1971, and reader in politics in 1980. In 1970 he graduated PhD in political science, with a thesis on ‘The structure and function of the press in New Zealand’. He went on to write many scholarly and popular articles on the media’s role in disseminating news and discussing politics, an early contribution to the discipline of media studies, which emerged as he approached retirement age. Many of his articles appeared in the local journal Political Science, which he edited from 1970 to 1975.

Cleveland also produced three scholarly books on New Zealand’s political culture: The anatomy of influence: pressure groups and politics in New Zealand (1972); The politics of utopia: New Zealand and its government (1979), a wide-ranging examination of its subject, which begins with an introduction to ‘The symbolic life of New Zealanders’; and a volume co-edited with A.D. Robinson, Readings in New Zealand government (1972). Cleveland’s more topical articles on political and cultural issues appeared in Comment, a monthly magazine on whose editorial board he served. His book reviewing, which would occupy much of his time in later years, began with the monthly magazine Eve in 1967.

Cleveland married schoolteacher Mary Lenore Sears in Palmerston North on 4 February 1967. They had two sons together.

Theatre, sculpture and broadcasting

In Wellington Cleveland took part in musical and theatrical performances of various kinds. In 1962 he collaborated with composer Jenny McLeod on the musical direction of the university drama club’s Christmas revue. He also produced several pieces of sculpture, including Wave-form and Theme for a portable gallows, using his welding gear. In 1963, he narrated the Wellington Chamber Opera Group’s production of Igor Stravinsky’s The soldier’s tale, and, in 1972, he formed part of the ensemble cast of a Drama Studies production of Nam – a play of war, based on the letters of a US soldier in the Vietnam War. Directed by Phillip Mann, the production travelled to the universities’ arts festival, held that year in Auckland.

Cleveland also turned his energies towards broadcasting. In 1960 he contributed two songs to the soundtrack of the National Film Unit documentary, J.D. goes hunting, and in 1973 he returned to the West Coast bush for an episode of Impressions. In 1980 he scripted and presented the six-part television documentary series Not so long ago, which he described as ‘a chronicle about what in the anxious 80s now looks like our golden age, when we were full of possibilities and innocent, optimistic energy’.3 Focused on New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s, the series included episodes on ‘national dreams’, New Zealand’s involvement in war, sport and living off the land. Cleveland also gave interviews on political subjects and narrated the soundtrack for a National Film Unit documentary, The ghost town ball – Waiuta (1986), which used old photographs and home movies to explore the history of a West Coast gold-mining town.  

Later Second World War scholarship

Alongside his political research, Cleveland maintained a strong interest in the cultural legacy of the Second World War. Wai-te-ata Press published his edited collection of New Zealand soldiers’ poems, The iron hand, in 1979. This contained 12 of Cleveland’s own poems, including ‘Galatas’ (on the actions of Howard Kippenberger’s 10th (NZ) Brigade on Crete) and ‘Cassino’ (about the New Zealand forces’ experience of the crucial 1944 battle in Italy). ‘Generals, armchair strategists, television producers and military historians may now see things with a broad, Olympian eye,’ Cleveland wrote, ‘but the common soldier’s attention is always fastened on his own immediate physical interests and directed to the immediate security of the very small groups in which he leads a primitive clan-like existence.’4

Following his retirement from Victoria University in 1987, Cleveland travelled to the United States to take up a senior fellowship in armed forces history at the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. This fellowship enabled him to broaden the scope of his studies of military songs to the international level and resulted in his last book, Dark laughter: war and song in popular culture (1994). The book’s six thematic chapters analyse the songs not only in relation to where they fit on the ‘folklore–popular culture continuum’ but also on how they connect to wider wartime culture.5 Drawing on his own collection of military songs and wider archival material, and richly illustrated with photographs and other graphics, Dark laughter represents the culmination of a lifetime’s investigation of this aspect of popular culture. It is both Cleveland’s magnum opus and a major contribution to this little-studied topic.

Between 1991 and 2011, Cleveland also reviewed some 41 local books on war-related topics for New Zealand Review of Books/Pukapuka Aotearoa. Together these reviews provide numerous insights into the significance of war in New Zealand history, stretching from the New Zealand wars of the nineteenth century to the Vietnam War.

Photographic legacy

Cleveland’s photographic work received limited attention until the mid-1980s, when a selection of his photographs appeared alongside those of John Pascoe and Ans Westra in the ground-breaking exhibition Witness to change: life in New Zealand, organised by PhotoForum Wellington. The exhibition traced the emergence of photography as an art form between the 1940s and the 1960s, with Cleveland’s work chosen to represent the 1950s. The show toured 10 venues around the country between 1985 and 1987, which helped to bring Cleveland’s photographs to wider public attention.

In 1990, Cleveland joined the roster of artists handled by the Peter McLeavey Gallery in Wellington’s Cuba Street. Between 1990 and 2007, McLeavey mounted five solo exhibitions of Cleveland’s vintage prints. His work also appeared in two group exhibitions and two joint exhibitions, the first with the photographer Gary Baigent and the second with painter Toss Woollaston.

In 1998, Wellington’s City Gallery hosted the most extensive solo exhibition of Cleveland’s photographs to date: Les Cleveland: six decades: message from the exterior. The exhibition was comprehensive, and placed more recent images, including several taken on recent trips to the United States, alongside his older Westland and Wellington photographs. The exhibition and its accompanying publication addressed not only Cleveland’s photography but also most other aspects of his cultural practice.

Later life

Cleveland made many trips to the United States during his retirement years, often with family members, for both research and recreational purposes. He was especially interested in the south-western states of Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico, which he photographed extensively.

He continued his photography in the early twenty-first century, paying particular attention to the construction of Wellington’s inner-city bypass and its effects on the city. The remnants of the colonial Wellington he had photographed in earlier decades were being swept away. In the photo-essay, ‘The harrowing of Te Aro’, he contrasted the Wellington of the 1950s with that of 2002, when ‘Metropolis is triumphant in Neverland’. In his final exhibition at the Peter McLeavey Gallery, The secret city – 35 photographs (2007), Cleveland presented an expanded version of this project, supplemented by his poetry.

Les Cleveland died in Wellington, aged 92, on 31 January 2014, survived by Mary and their two sons. The Les Cleveland collection of approximately 9,000 photographs is now held by the Alexander Turnbull Library.

  1. J.C. Beaglehole. ‘The New Zealand scholar’ In The feel of truth: essays in New Zealand and Pacific history. Ed. Peter Munz. Wellington, 1969: 250. Back
  2. L. Cleveland. New Zealand Listener. 13 March 1959: 3. Back
  3. L. Cleveland, New Zealand Listener. 22 March 1980: 34. Back
  4. L. Cleveland. ‘Introduction’. In The iron hand: New Zealand soldiers’ poems from World War Two. Ed. L. Cleveland. Wellington, 1979: 13. Back
  5. P. Narvaez and M. Laba. Quoted in L. Cleveland, Dark Laughter: war in song and popular culture. Westport (Connecticut), 1994: 3. Back
How to cite this page:

Lawrence McDonald. 'Cleveland, Francis Leslie', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2023. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6c15/cleveland-francis-leslie (accessed 21 June 2024)