40 Years of Stories

Words by  Virginia Winder 
Roger Richardson Roger Richardson

This story was born in the back of a Volkswagen.

Writer Virginia Winder and Live editor Irena Brooks were taking a day to see the Centuria Taranaki Garden Festival in November last year, with the festival manager Tetsu Garnett.

On the drive home, Virginia mentioned that 2023 would be her 40th year in journalism, and her 10th year posting Flower of the Day photos on Facebook.

The ensuing conversation led to an invitation to pen a story about her career.

It covers changes in technology, in language, attitudes and Virginia’s own life, while offering a glimpse of our history through one of the region’s most prolific story-tellers.

A blonde-haired girl, slim and beady eyed, is sitting in a room with Ron Barclay, the New Plymouth Labour candidate for the 1975 election. 

With pen poised over a writing pad, the 12-year-old Devon Intermediate pupil fires question after question at the seasoned politician, who kindly, patiently answers. Later she quizzes National candidate Tony Friedlander, AJ Swanney from Social Credit, and Edith Green from Values. 

Just what that plucky pre-teen asked those politicians has faded from her memory, but what she thought and how she felt remains with her today.

“I remember thinking, ‘wow, I can ask these adults anything, and they’ll answer me’.”

It was then she decided to be a journalist. 

And she has never wavered on that path to be a reporter, a writer, a teller of people’s stories.

That “she” is me, of course, and this year I’m celebrating 40 years as a journalist.

My misspent youth helped me get accepted into the ATI journalism course at the start of 1983.

The year before, in my second stint at Auckland University, I majored in pool and snooker.

I lived in a huge house on the beach front at Takapuna, which shared the same driveway as the local snooker and billiard rooms. On my way to university, I’d pop my head in and find myself playing pool instead of attending lectures. 

One of the regulars was a red-headed player called Dene O’Kane, who happened to be the national snooker champion. We were both 19.

I did play a few snooker games with him, losing dismally, but I did win his confidence and his story, which I wrote for the North Shore Times Advertiser. That article endeared me to Geoff Black and Barry Shaw, the ATI journalism tutors, and so I attended the pressure-cooker course, where I also learnt typing and shorthand.

Snooker and billiards followed me to Stratford, my first posting for the Taranaki Daily News (TDN). 

The Stratford Club (I was in the first intake of female members) hosted the national champs and I covered them for the Daily News and ratted for the Sunday Times and Sunday News. Ratting is when you work for one news organisation and sell stories to others, which was frowned on but happened all the time. 

In those days, emails, laptops and smart phones were the stuff of science fiction. In 1983, the Stratford office didn’t even have a fax machine, but there was a clunky computer on which we could write, but not edit.

My early stories were typed on blank newsprint using a 1930s Imperial typewriter that had belonged to my grandmother.  

The stories were taken by bus to New Plymouth, but sometimes I missed the drop off. So, I’d stand on the main road and stick my thumb out. A car would stop within minutes, and I’d explain that I didn’t want a ride, but if they could drop my story into the night box of the Daily News, I’d be so grateful.

They always did and sometimes I even got the same drivers, who knew the drill and were always happy to help.

Stratford was a brilliant place for a cadet journalist. We covered so much, including politics, council meetings, education, the arts, police and court.

On November 1, 1983, I was covering court when a recidivist drunk driver, clearly intoxicated, appeared for sentencing. 

When the judge asked the man what he had to say for himself, he replied: “Kiwi on the nose at 5 o’clock.”

Afterwards, I headed to the TAB and backed Kiwi to win the Melbourne Cup, which he did, ridden by jockey Jim Cassidy.

My most embarrassing moment as a journalist happened in the office of Stratford Mayor Leo Carrington. One day I went to interview him, rummaged through my bag for a pen, asked him a question and was poised to write, when he said: “I don’t think that’s going to work, Virginia.”

I looked down and I was holding a tampon, not a pen.

After a year, I was posted back to the main office of the Daily News in New Plymouth but, a couple of months later, found myself back in Stratford facing uncomfortable truths about myself and colonisation. 

In the latter part of 1984, I was sent to cover a meeting of the Taranaki Māori Trust Board and representatives of mountain users, like trampers, ski folk and others, probably DOC. 

The topic was the name of the mountain – should it be Taranaki or Egmont?

On the way there I remember thinking, “how ridiculous, our mountain is Egmont”.

On the way home, after learning the stories, history and the mana of the maunga as an ancestor, I remember thinking, “I’ll never call it Egmont again”.

And I haven’t.

Even though the co-name change happened officially in 1986, the TDN continued to use Egmont until 2004 when, under the leadership of editor Lance Girling-Butcher, it became Mt Taranaki. 

Now, the newspaper uses the title Taranaki Maunga. 

But since that meeting in 1984, I had been quietly subversive in my stories, always referring to the maunga as “Taranaki’s mountain” or “the mountain of Taranaki”. Nobody ever changed my wording.

Back in the main office, photographer Karen Day and I embarked on one of my most uplifting assignments.

On a gorgeous blue-sky day, we headed to the New Plymouth Airport, which was hosting a NZ Airforce camp. I was dressed in flying gear and, with an instructor, climbed into an air trainer. 

Karen was in a separate plane.

After take-off we headed towards Taranaki Maunga, me sitting before an identical flight instrument panel to the one in front of the airman. 

“Right, you’re flying the plane,” he says, showing me what to do.

We flew close to the mountain and on the way back, the aerobatics began.

The instructor flew barrel rolls and then a backward flip. Then it was my turn. 

He guided me through a backward flip and, once successful, said “now you can do one on your own”.

So, I did. 

I was exhilarated, and even now, about four decades later, I can still remember the joy and the adrenalin rush. When I wrote the story of my experience, the headline was “Love at first flight”.

Since then, I’ve been in helicopters and once wrote a “gardening” feature about flying over east Taranaki in a hot air balloon. 

My love of garden writing began in 1996, when I was asked to write a story for a supplement about the Taranaki Rhododendron Festival (now the Centuria Taranaki Garden Festival). I wandered around a Waitara property, soothed by the beauty of nature and uplifted by a couple devoted to their garden. I was smitten. 

I went home and told my husband, Warren Smart (who I’ve known since kindergarten): “That was the loveliest interview I’ve ever done.”

In 1997, with support from Daily News editor Murray Goston, I started the garden pages, writing a feature every week. The first was on Marion and Gavin Struthers’ home in Bell Block, which bore the heading: “A garden worth marrying in.”

In those early days, I was completely green and didn’t know the difference between petunias and pansies, chrysanthemums and dahlias. But I wasn’t the expert – the gardeners were and still are.

More than 26 years later, I can identify many plants and especially flowers, grow dahlias in abundance and, for 10 years, have posted “Flower of the day” on Facebook. I’m still writing about gardens for the Taranaki Daily News, NZ House & Garden, the spring edition of Live magazine and off and on for the NZ Gardener. 

My stories have always been about people, people, people, their passions, wild escapades and ideas.

Sometimes I’ve been wild too, like on November 24, 1984 during a Split Enz concert at the Bowl of Brooklands.

During the show, lead singer Tim Finn said: “New Plymouth, you’re a long way away.”

So about 100 people, including me and my friend Kim, dived into the lake and danced on the stage.

I was covering that concert for the Daily News.

During my career, especially when I was a sub-editor, I always had writing jobs on the side.  For about 10 years I was the main writer for the NZ Surf Life Saving Association, and I also had a long stint writing a column called The Goss, for NZ News UK. I even wrote one sitting beside my hospital bed the morning after giving birth to our son Nelson. Warren faxed it off, and the staff in England never even knew I’d had a baby.

At home, I’d often fit in story writing early, from about 5am. 

Our kids grew up with me tapping away on a computer keyboard. My office is in the centre of the house and next to the bedroom of our daughter Clementine.  

When she was about eight, she came out of her room, placed my hands on the keyboard (I must have been reading my notes) and said: “The sound of you typing is like rain on the roof for me.”

My writing hasn’t always endeared me to my children or husband because if we were going away on holiday the leaving time would often be delayed because I had a story to finish. 

The worst- or best-case scenario (I think the latter) was knocking off two food features about my husband’s ethnic BBQs while sitting on a plane at the Auckland Airport. As the rest of the passengers moaned about the two-hour predicted delay, I was inwardly delighted to have a window of time to finish my work and send it by email before flying to Hong Kong.

Another high-flying story was on Sir Edmund Hillary, who with Tenzing Norgay, stood atop the world’s highest mountain on May 29, 1953.

More than 50 years later, from May 8 to August 7, 2005, Puke Ariki hosted the exhibition, Sir Edmund Hillary: Everest and Beyond, and I was asked to write a story.

I was given a 20-minute slot to interview the supposedly “frail”  85-year-old with TDN photographer Trevor Read at my side.  

But there was nothing frail about Sir Ed that day – he was energetic and gregarious, so Trev and I ended up having an hour with him. That remains one of my favourite-ever interviews. 

When Sir Ed died on January 11, 2008, I had the privilege of being asked to write a tribute to him. 

My story in the TDN ran with a photo of Sir Ed laughing wholeheartedly. It was taken by Trev, and the extra-special element was knowing his mirth was prompted by us.

Still on loss, the death of my parents in a car crash on February 16, 1999, led to an emotional garden story, and a picture of my sister Felicity and I hugging a tree in our backyard. “Life under the pohutukawa tree” was a tribute to our mum and dad, Florence and Howard Winder, who crashed in a 50km zone in Otorohanga and died at the scene, aged 67 and 68. 

My brother Mark featured in a two-part feature on the 1981 Springbok rugby tour, commemorating 30 years since that time of civil unrest. The story cast includes Taranaki anti-tour protest leader Charles Gill, All Black captain Graham Mourie, coach Peter Burke, policeman Pete Saunders, myself as a protestor and my brother, who was pro tour.

Here’s a snippet about the third and final test in Auckland on September 12: “Mark was driving Mum’s old turquoise Morris 1000 to the game. He was going to watch and I was going to protest. When he dropped me off, he said: ‘If you get hurt I’ll kill you.’ I went alone to the mass march, unprotected and fearless. The latter didn’t last.”

Being a journalist is like being a life-long student, and I have chosen to live with an “open heart, open mind”, meaning my viewpoint on many issues can change as new information comes to light. 

As a journalism tutor and a guest speaker on feature writing, I always told the students: “Be the eyes, not the I.”

Before I interview people, especially for radio (I’m a Most FM volunteer host on a couple of shows), I often tell them: “This is all about you.”

And yet the article I’m most proud of does come from the “I” and is about me. It bears the heading: “This is a story about how to save your own life.”

My 60 years haven’t always been easy. For years, I seesawed between deep depression and ecstatic highs, although now, in the autumn of my life, I’m settled.

Focusing on my family, friends and animals, along with interviewing and writing stories, have all given me purpose to look beyond myself and keep going. Deadlines are my friends. 

I’ve even written stories while staying in Te Puna Waiora, the adult mental health ward at Taranaki Base Hospital, and during stints in New Plymouth’s crisis respite house. The interview subjects never knew I was unwell.

How to save your own life appeared on the front page of the Saturday edition of the TDN on November 3, 2018. It came with a poignant sidebar written by my husband Warren Smart. 

The response from that story was huge and I received a mountain of messages from people writing in recognition of themselves and loved ones. Two people said reading my story had saved their own lives. One would have been enough. 

Over the years, I’ve written about so many things I couldn’t possibly outline them here and that’s why, when I rebranded in 2019, I called my freelance business, Wētāwoman Writes Everything.

I’ve had numerous contracts working for TAFT on festivals, and had four contracts working for Puke Ariki. The first was writing the Taranaki Stories, which led me study, learnt and write about the history of this whenua. I joked that I was always falling in love with dead men, but in hindsight, it was the amazing women who touched me most.  

For about five years, I wrote a weekly science column for the TDN called The WOW! Factor and wrote, Bean There, a coffee column reviewing flat whites around Taranaki, giving marks out of 10. I also shared a coffee fact and a “flat white reading”, which allegedly predicted the future according to the milk-froth picture. 

I was effusive in my praise and brutal in my damning, and once described a café’s coffee as tasting like woodlice.

The following week, while sitting in a Hāwera café, a woman at a neighbouring table asked me: “How do you know woodlice taste like?”

“Because my brother and sister used to feed me insects when I was little,” I replied.

Oh, the places I’ve seen, the people I’ve met and changes I’ve seen. I guesstimate I’ve written around 18,000 published stories since 1983. Your stories. 

The biggest changes I’ve seen over those 40 years have been the move from objective to subjective journalism, the focus on celebrities, the ever-evolving technology, the loss of newspaper and magazine staff, the increase and acceptance of Te Reo Māori in stories, and the hatred of mainstream media, which I take personally. 

Being humble is huge for me (it was a struggle to write this story) because one of my mantras is: “The day I think I’m more important than the people I interview, is the day I should get out of journalism.”

I guess I’m in it for the long haul. 

Story links: Springbok tour, part 1: https://www.stuff.co.nz/taranaki-daily-news/lifestyle/5401714/Tour-that-divided-a-nation

Springbok tour, part 2: https://www.stuff.co.nz/taranaki-daily-news/sport/5440191/A-test-in-the-extreme

How to save your life: https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/107864708/this-is-a-story-about-how-to-save-your-own-life

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