“One last regretful look”, Michael Jackson remembers Les Cleveland

“One last regretful look”

Poet and anthropologist Michael Jackson remembers Les Cleveland (1921-2014)

That Les Cleveland should die without a funeral may be read as a sign of how he chose to live – a man of few words, modest, uncomplaining, pragmatic, staunchly egalitarian. When, in the late 1990s, I suggested to Les that I write his biography, he demurred. Even though he consented to be interviewed, and talked at length about his four and a half years as an infantryman in various formations of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF), he avoided both the heroic bombast and graphic realism that inform many war narratives, preferring to document the everyday experience and popular culture of military life in The Songs We Sang (1959); The Iron Hand: New Zealand Soldiers’ Poems from World War Two (1979); Dark Laughter: War in Song and Popular Culture (1994). In his varied post-war incarnations – bushman, journalist, broadcaster, welder, folk singer, political scientist, photographer, poet, researcher and writer – Les Cleveland also chronicled and photographed everyday life in New Zealand.

How, then, can a memoirist do justice to Les Cleveland’s life and work without deploying the lionising rhetoric he shunned?  Perhaps I can honour his memory by recounting one of my last visits to Les and his wife Mary, in 2011.

I had just driven off the Interislander, and at Havelock Street, Brooklyn, I walked in as Les and Mary were finishing a late lunch. The room had not changed – Les’s photographs of ghost towns in Arizona, abandoned diggings in Nevada and Westland, postcards from Las Vegas, the pot-bellied stove. Almost the first thing I said was that no time seemed to have passed since I was last there.

As level-headed as ever, Les said that none of us was getting any younger, and he described how, a couple of months earlier, he had fallen down a 15-foot flight of concrete steps while carrying an armful of logs up from below the house. Les was hospitalised with a skull fracture and broken wrist, but discharged himself two days later, preferring to take care of himself and recover at home. It was a reprieve, Les said, and he described how, in the days that followed, he kept thinking of a bizarre incident during the war when he almost lost his life:

We were dug in around, as well as occupying, a large house. Under cover of darkness, the Germans brought up a fixed gun, and its first shell scored a direct hit on the house. I would normally have been with Podge Hoskins at a machine-gun post at an upper floor window, but I’d been detailed to the kitchen and was frying up tinned bacon and egg powder when the shell hit. There was an ear-splitting explosion, splinters of wood, debris, dust. But in the midst of this maelstrom and the screams from the front room, I covered the frying pan with a tea towel and placed it carefully under the table. Only then did I go to the aid of the men in the other room. I had to kick down the door to get in. Almost everyone had been torn apart. Some were dead, others dying. The scene was as gruesome as any I had witnessed. Podge upstairs had been killed instantly. Yet I survived. And afterwards, what I could not get over was that moment with the frying pan. How I could go on as though nothing had happened. Was it denial of a reality I could not deal with? Was it my military training?


In his introduction to The Iron Hand, Les mentions a close friend, Ted Scherer, who died of shrapnel wounds during the last offensive of the Italian campaign. Scherer was only inches away from Les when he was hit:

Shrapnel-ripped and lifeless on the Santerno
Helmet tilted back into the lacerated earth,
Face twisted up for one last
Regretful look at the murderous sky ….


It was April 10th 1945. That morning, Scherer had looked north and said, when it was over they would celebrate – they’d climb the highest point in the Alps. After recovering in hospital from his own wounds, Les went into training in the Dolomites by doing some rock climbing:

But I could not persuade anyone in the battalion to accompany me on an expedition to Mt Blanc. By this time we were in bivouacs at Lake Trasimeno, near Rome. I set out from there on a goods train which took me to Milan, and I travelled by a variety of means through the mountains to Courmeyeur where I was able to persuade a young Italian refugee to join me in the ascent. It was late in the season and the climb was arduous, particularly as our equipment was improvised and we suffered a good deal from inadequate food as well as from cold, exposure and exhaustion.


Every step of the way, Les was thinking of his friend and all the mountains they might have climbed together, “and all the other friends of friends, shuffling, legions of them, in long, suffering lines across the mortuary of Europe”. What good being alive, when those who meant the world to you were dead?

After the war, the Scherer family got in touch with Les, and he had recently received a letter from Ted Scherer’s daughter, asking if he would write down for her everything he could remember of her father. It’s a bit of a struggle, Les said. It isn’t easy to write about war without including the gory details, the sort of things no one would want to hear about or read about if they were going to have a positive memory of their loved one.

I was thinking: Les is nearly 90. He has been returning to the war for 66 years, mostly to the experiences of others. When I first got to know him in 1964, I often wanted to press him for details of his war experiences. This was before I realised the oblique and very private way in which he had come to terms with that period in his life. After the war, Les writes:

I would make many more difficult and dangerous journeys in our own mountains, but never under such emotionally disturbed and isolated circumstances. The Mont Blanc affair was a therapeutic venture into self-recovery and a wild leap into a new world of changed personal relationships; it also meant that a sense of bereavement and brooding anxiety could be thrown off in the exuberance of physical achievement.


I was always impressed by Les’s sense of proportion and practicality. Perhaps this was why he had steadfastly refused to participate in the writing of official history or to attend postwar ceremonies that extolled the heroic sacrifice of the fallen. Certainly, a healthy pragmatism underlay everything he had written on soldier’s songs, poems and popular culture:

If I were to attempt an epic of our military experiences that tried faithfully to evoke the consciousness of the ordinary soldier, I would probably relegate the formal historical details to a chronology at the back of the work in order to concentrate on things that really matter, like a concern with food, cookhouses, liquor, sex, clothing, the weather, rates of pay, equipment, loot, amusements, recreation, morale, the techniques of deviancy, how to maintain one’s precious individuality and, above all, how to avoid becoming a grim statistic on one of our grisly war memorials … .


In Les’s view, combat soldiers share with civilian workers in hazardous occupations a sense of powerlessness that can only be countermanded by organising collectively, fostering a sense of solidarity, and having recourse to gallows humour and dark laughter. You may not be able to buck authority, disobey orders, go on strike, or escape the nightmare of knowing that an organised army is bent on killing you, but you can preserve your sense of connectedness to a world where your individuality has some value and your actions matter by writing letters home, keeping a diary, or joining forces with your mates in ridiculing the situation in which you find yourself. Mutiny or deserting are out of the question, but mocking the powers that be, protesting one’s lot, turning to sexual fantasy, and venting one’s frustrations in obscene songs can sometimes transform one’s sense of being a victim into a sense of being able in some small measure to experience one’s situation on one’s own terms.

I think of Les’s own retreat in South Westland, as remote from the madding crowd as one could wish for, and close to the mountains and bush that were his “very present help in trouble”.

On the wooden terrace of his Wellington house, Les kept, for many years, numerous river stones and boulders that he had found on his excursions into the wilds of Westland. These stones not only caught his eye; they had, in a sense, possessed him – some because of a curious blemish that he could not reconcile with processes of natural erosion, some, like greenstone, because of their geological rarity, some because of their uncanny similarity to the contours of the human body. Les would lug these boulders down mountain gorges and through heavy bush, sometimes for days on end and often in a rucksack emptied of his personal supplies, before bringing his booty home to be burnished by rain, commented upon by friends or made the occasion for a story. When I left Wellington to pursue my PhD studies at Cambridge, I would often think of Les’s collection of stones and it was with considerable dismay that I discovered, on my return to New Zealand after four years abroad, that Les had enlarged the living room of his house and built, in the middle of it, a massive fireplace whose chimney consisted of these beautiful stones cemented together into something resembling a cairn.

But having known Les for 47 years, and sat in front of his fireplace countless times, deep in conversation about our various travels or current projects, I no longer think that the stones properly belong to the contexts from whence they came. They belong where they are, though undoubtedly Les’s river stones are destined to be, once again, a natural shambles on a hillside, where no vestiges of his house or handiwork remain.

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