Job loss led to life of adventure

 John Borrell
John Borrell

When John Borrell looks behind him it's not unusual to see a bridge in flames.

"You've got to burn them," he says. "You really do. Otherwise you can go back."

The wine dealer, luxury lodge owner, newspaper founder, author, distiller and one-time war corespondent lives by his own advice. He hasn't taken (or been able or wanted to take) one step back since being fired from the Taranaki Daily News in 1966 after just a handful of months as a cadet reporter.

"I got 10 shillings as a reporter. You could sort of live on that," the former Spotswood College student says on a return visit to New Plymouth earlier this month. "But I could earn 7 a day as a casual labourer on the port."

Which was the temptation that ignited the match he used to set fire to the first bridge. Spotted working on the wharf just hours after he'd called in sick, he was sacked from the Daily News the next day, an outcome he says was totally justified.

From there he went to Australia and before long he was an international war corespondent, reporting on conflicts, corruption and kidnappings for the likes of Reuters, Time, Newsweek and Readers' Digest. Just over 20 years ago he chucked in the international jet-setting lifestyle to build a luxury lodge in post- Communist Poland which led to him starting business importing and distributing wine around Europe and also, unexpectedly, starting a newspaper to battle local government corruption in Northern Poland.

Two years ago he decided, like so many former scribes, to write a book about his life and the result was The White Lake and a return visit to New Plymouth, where he grew up, to talk about it.

"I think you get to a stage in life when you say to yourself you better do it now or you will run out of time," he says from the leather sofa of his friend's apartment overlooking East End beach in New Plymouth.

Now gone from Taranaki nearly 50 years the British-born Borrell has no desire to return to the place he grew up, but Mt Taranaki and his memories of the city and the Daily News frequently feature in the pages of his book.

It's not a bad book either. It bubbles along nicely enough with interesting detail and anecdotes about a life spent chasing wars and building a life in Poland. Like so many autobiographical chest clearings it can become weighed down by bouts of ego, cloying detail and sometimes awkward self-justification. He's a good employer, a wily navigator of local Polish politics, a savvy and clear- thinking businessman, a fair and decent man in a land of ancient superstitions, corruptions and backwardness. He leaves you in little doubt at his own capacity for fairness but those who cross him are left in his wake without a bridge back.

But so what? That's also what success stories read like and there is little doubt Borrell is successful. Not outrageously, but satisfyingly so. A quick search of his name online pulls up pictures of his beautiful lakeside lodge, of TV interviews in Poland, of book release parties where he is both hawking his book and his Vestal Vodka brand.

In person, he's smaller than you might think, more relaxed, more charming, witty and quietly fascinating.

At 19 years old he was flying around Queensland writing features for Rupert Murdoch's The Australian. He reported in Africa, Central America, South America and by the late 1980s he was Time magazine's East European bureau chief at the height of the Cold War.

As a cadet pencilling in the lines on a weather map for the Daily News it was a career he never thought possible yet now credits his early years for.

"I remember thinking how difficult it would be. I remember reading Time and thinking those guys are so far up the food chain I guess I won't get there. I didn't set out to get there but I wanted to do something for an adventure other than working for a little paper, which had given me a good start," he says.

"When I was growing up in New Plymouth there were lots of self- starters. I grew up in a family where we were encouraged to have a go."

The days he had a "go" were also when print journalism was at its most impressive in terms of money and influence and journalists were at their most competitive. Hotels were first class, extravagance in spending and character were the norm and thousands of dollars were up for grabs for any reporter lucky enough to nail an exclusive story.

Reporters couldn't send their stories via satellite. They instead paid African tribesmen to paddle them across crocodile-infested rivers, chartered taxis to drive 2000km through Iran to the safety of Turkey to file a story and bribed anyone they could to use a telex machine, the pre-internet way of sending words across borders.

"It may sound very glamorous but a lot of the the time it's like being in a war. It's very boring, 95 per cent totally boring and then five per cent total terror," Borrell says, though obviously relishing those days when he rubbed shoulders with despots, rebels and the cream of the world's reporters.

As the Cold War thawed and Poland overthrew its Communist government Borrell's career took a sharp turn. This time he didn't shut the door on going back and instead turned to freelancing to fund the construction of a luxury lodge in Kaszubia near the city of Gdansk in Poland, where his wife's family lived.

It was an unlikely venture and he was an unlikely man to do it. Somehow he pulled it off and his Kania Lodge is now well established as a place to stay just as he has become one of Poland's best known expatriates.

This is in large part due to his founding of Express Kaszubski in 2005, an independent newspaper he started as a weapon in his fight against institutional corruption at the local council and the "villainous" Mayor Golunski who he claims, in his book, had so often attempted to thwart his plans, whatever they might be.

"Taking on public officials in this way was not something a local newspaper in Kaszubia had ever done. The local council consulted their lawyers and issued threats about court action," he writes.

"The threats came to nothing because I made sure our reporters checked and cross-checked their stories and consulted me on the more controversial ones."

The paper was instrumental in ensuring the mayor was not re- elected and in response the mayor sued Borrell. If found guilty he faced 12 months in jail. Whether he did or not is something you can find out by reading his book and, if you liked the first, he's writing another.

The White Lake is available online at or

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