When We Were Young and Foolish
By Greg Sheridan
Allen & Unwin 2015
RRP – $32.99
Reviewed by Gerard Henderson
MEMORIES OF US
Greg Sheridan’s biography, which commences around the time of his birth in 1956 and ends around the time he became the first China correspondent in the history of The Australian in 1985, is subtitled “A memoir of my misguided youth with Tony Abbott, Bob Carr, Malcolm Turnbull, Kevin Rudd and other reprobates”. All four reprobates are sketched by Rocco Fazzari on the front cover – along with the reprobate author himself.
B A Santamaria (1915-1998) is not mentioned on the cover. Yet, his first major electronic media interview about When We Were Young and Foolish – with Ticky Fullerton on ABC’s Lateline (24 July 2015) – focused primarily on Santamaria.
Sheridan rose to the rank of foreign editor at The Australian – Australia’s finest and most important newspaper. During some three decades at Australia’s national newspaper, Sheridan has written important columns and articles and met significant figures at home and overseas. In view of the fact that this is primarily a book about personalities, it’s worth judging it with respect to the author’s dealings during what he describes, self-mockingly, as his misguided youth.
Greg Sheridan grew up in what can probably be best described as a lower middle class Catholic family in the western Sydney suburb of Lewisham. A two-bedroom flat, in fact. When Anne Henderson and I moved to Sydney in late 1984, we were surprised that so few homes had what we Melburnians knew as fly-wire window screens and doors. This was the reality also when Sheridan was growing up. He reflects on life in the 1960s “when summer was filled with flies and mosquitoes which buzzed around your ears incessantly when you were trying to sleep”.
Lewisham, at the time, was what the author describes as a “kind of Catholic ghetto”. There was the church, St Thomas of Canterbury, plus two Christian Brothers schools (for boys) and the Sisters of Charity convent school (for girls). There were also two Catholic hospitals – Lewisham General Hospital and Lewisham Private Hospital. The author refers to the Catholic Church’s “universality” – certainly young Greg grew up among an ethnically diverse group of friends in Lewisham.
In time, the Sheridan family became middle class and moved over the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Forestville. Greg’s father (John) inherited a house from his aunt (Poppy) who may have been his mother and the family’s finances improved. Greg kept attending the Christian Brothers in Lewisham. Until, at age 15, he convinced his parents to allow him to go to a seminary – the Redemptorist Fathers at Galong in southern New South Wales – to study to become a Catholic priest. He only lasted a year and finished his secondary schooling at St Pius X College – the Christian Brothers school at Chatswood.
Young Greg was – and remains – a traditional Catholic. He believes in God and is not afraid to write that – when a seminarian in the chapel at Galong – he “saw at the foot of the altar, a woman in radiant white robes kneeling in prayer” – the “most beautiful sight” he has ever seen. An apparition – in the Catholic parlance of the time. He quotes the Catholic born Kevin Rudd and the Baptist born Peter Costello as maintaining that, occasionally, miracles happen.
Sheridan has “had no trouble with religious belief” but, correctly, acknowledges “living up to the belief … has been enormously difficult”. He acknowledges the existence of “some corporal punishment” at primary school but “never saw or heard of any sexual abuse”. Looking back, he sees that “those nuns and brothers dedicated their lives” to giving him a chance in life. Sheridan made the most of the opportunity.
B A Santamaria
Bob (BAS) Santamaria was one of young Greg’s early heroes. Along with United States president J F Kennedy. In 1963, he became interested in politics. Every Sunday, the family tuned into BAS’s Point of View commentary program on Channel 9. And 1963 was the year of the Kennedy assassination. Half a century later, Sheridan’s politics have not changed much. Like Kennedy and Santamaria, he is an anti-communist and a social democrat. Sheridan is also a social conservative and was slow to embrace free market economics
Sheridan, along with Abbott, was involved in the opposition to the left on university campuses in the 1970s. This usually took the form of involvement in the campus Democratic Club – which received support from Santamaria’s National Civic Council organisation.
Yet, as When We Were Young and Foolish documents, at times Sheridan and his colleagues disagreed with Santamaria. BAS did not even encourage the early success of the author and his best friend Tony Abbott in obtaining media coverage. Santamaria told both Sheridan and Abbott that they should not expect much success in the media and that, if they did succeed, the “every night after you’ve dealt with the media go down on your knees and pray for humility”. This from a high profile Australian who had a weekly television program and a newspaper column at the time.
What’s fresh about BAS in the memoir is the author’s account of the NCC president’s attitude to honours:
When I got to know Santa well personally, and visited him virtually whenever I was in Melbourne, one of the things I liked most about him was his sense of droll irony and lack of pretension. He often said that people only turned to him when there was absolutely no other alternative. He and his movement never adopted the airs of the big end of town or of the establishment. Malcolm Fraser as prime minister offered Santa a knighthood.
Santa told me about this, and of course he had not a nano-second’s hesitation about turning it down. “I’ve done a lot for the sake of politics,” he said. “But you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.” Accepting a knighthood would make him, and by inference anyone else, ridiculous.
To accept or reject an honour is perfectly okay. But to reject one and then talk about it is unprofessional.
Moreover, on 11 August 1976, BAS wrote to Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser urging that his friend Professor James McAuley “be considered for a knighthood on the grounds that he is Australia’s most outstanding intellectual and man of letters and has also rendered exceptional service to education in Australia” – see Patrick Morgan (ed) B A Santamaria: Your Most Obedient Servant – Selected Letters: 1938-1936 MUP, 2007)
Sheridan’s reflections on Santamaria are of interest. But Sheridan lived in Sydney and rarely saw the Melbourne based Santamaria. What’s more, he never worked with him and, consequently, never got to understand that – at times – BAS was both untruthful and inconsistent.
For the record, I was told by a former government minister in October 1976 – in an RAAF plane on the way back from McAuley’s funeral in Hobart (my employer Kevin Newman had represented the prime minister at the occasion) – that McAuley had been recommended for a “very high honour” in the 1977 Australia Day list. McAuley died before the award – presumably a knighthood – could be bestowed.
Tony Abbott, like Sheridan, neglected BAS’s advice that he beware falling victim to the sin of pride. Like Sheridan, Abbott worked on The Bulletin and later The Australian.
When We Were Young and Foolish presents an important counter-argument to the unfavourable portrait of Abbott in David Marr’s essay Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott (Quarterly Essay, 2012). Sheridan documents that “one of the biggest inaccuracies in David Marr’s book about Tony is the idea that the NCC and the Democratic clubs were the key drivers behind campuses disaffiliating from the AUS [Australian Union of Students], which later became the main strategy to destroy the left’s influence”. He points out that, early in this campaign, the main drivers of the campaign were Peter Costello and Michael Danby – neither of whom had links to Santamaria. In fact, the NCC opposed the idea at the time.
Sheridan depicts Abbott as a young man with considerable physical courage in standing up to left-wing violence on campus. He also describes Abbott’s courage, at the request of a mother, in rescuing her son at the dangerous Portsea Backbeach – not far from where Prime Minister Harold Holt drowned in December 1967. Abbott was assisted by another swimmer on a surfboard. Sheridan did not have the swimming capability to help out.
As to David Marr’s allegation that, in 1977, Abbott slammed both fists into the wall behind a female political rival’s head – well, he does not believe that the woman’s memory is accurate:
There have been allegations that Tony punched the wall beside the head of Barbara Ramjan, the left’s successful candidate for the SRC presidency, in order to intimidate her, on the night the election results were announced. Although I wasn’t there that night, from my experience of Tony I am sure he did not so such a thing.
At the time I talked to all our people who were there. Everything, every moment of the evening, was relived in earnest conversation in the days and weeks that followed. Tony and I confided to each other almost every thought that passed through our heads.
Nothing like that happened or could have happened. For Tony to have attempted to physically intimidate a woman was just inconceivable. He would have chewed off his own arm in preference. There is no witness to it beyond the person making the allegation. And while the left used the pages of Honi [Soit] to accuse Tony of every sin imaginable, there was no mention of any such incident as this. Jeremy Jones, a Labor Party activist who later became a distinguished leader of the Australian Jewish community, and who was in no sense a political ally of Tony’s, was one of the few people who was on good terms with both sides. He was there on the night and had countless discussions with all participants in the evening’s events. He believes no such thing happened.
I am not accusing Barbara Ramjan of bad faith over this episode, much less of telling lies. Memory is very fallible, especially over thirty-five years or more. It is easy in good faith to confuse one incident with another, one night with another, one person with another.
When We Were Young and Foolish punctures the myth that “Santamaria dominated Tony’s thinking”. Sheridan states that in 1979 – at age 21 – Abbott was “quite prepared to oppose Santa on a policy Santa had previously determined”.
Malcolm Turnbull “hovered around the campus” at Sydney University during Abbott’s time and they later worked together on The Bulletin. Sheridan regarded him as “an almost impossibly glamorous figure around campus”. At The Bulletin, Abbott was “immensely impressed that Turnbull could do so many things so well simultaneously”.
At Sydney University, Sheridan did not really click with “Malcolm’s social circle” – feeling that “there was a touch of Brideshead Revisited about some of these folks”. At The Bulletin he found Turnbull “a bit irritating in that a discussion with him that involved disagreement could become quite tough”.
When We Were Young and Foolish contains an insight into the Prime Minister’s Catholicism:
It is commonly written that Malcolm converted to Catholicism. This may not be strictly true. Malcolm had always believed he’d been christened as a baby and always put his religion down as Presbyterian. When he was a boarder at Sydney Grammar he attended a Presbyterian church.
But when he decided to become a Catholic it was impossible to locate any record, or any witness, of his christening. If he had not been baptised previously, then technically he was not converting to Catholicism but becoming, at least officially, a Christian for the first time. Malcolm’s embrace of Catholicism was sincere. His wife, Lucy, originally Lucy Hughes, comes from one of the most prominent Catholic families in Australia. Like all families, individual members vary in how devout they are but their identity as a Catholic family is very strong. So Malcolm was christened, confirmed and with his wife, re-solemnised his wedding vows, all in one day.
Bob Carr was recruited to The Bulletin, at Turnbull’s suggestion, to provide greater political diversity. Carr had been a journalist at the ABC with obvious Labor leanings – of the NSW Labor Right genre. Unlike the ABC today, The Bulletin under Trevor Kennedy’s leadership employed journalists with a diversity of views and readily published criticism of them on its vigorous letters page. Carr was an obvious match for politically conservative Peter Samuel in the magazine.
When We Were Young and Foolish commences with Sheridan, Carr and Abbott doing lunch at Sydney’s New Hallas restaurant in 1984 – by which time Carr was a minister in Neville Wran’s NSW Labor government. It ends with an assessment of Carr’s brief time as foreign minister in Julia Gillard’s Labor government.
I thought Bob Carr was an effective foreign minister, a rare bright spot in a dismal government. But I came to disagree with him profoundly about the Middle East, especially with what I saw as his excessive hostility to Israel. We had some robust conversations about it. And I wrote columns laying out our disagreement. But it didn’t affect our friendship.
In time, Carr was to accept, as Sheridan describes it, that Santamaria and the breakaway anti-communist Democratic Labor Party “had been right to argue for a time Labor could not be trusted with government on national security grounds”.
Carr used his time at The Bulletin to campaign for Labor pre-selection in a winnable seat. He wrote some important reports on the Labor Party and the trade union movement in between acting as some kind of court-jester who feels that he’s paid to be funny. As Sheridan recalls:
Bob took to holding me personally responsible for any view that B.A. Santamaria argued. In one column Santa expressed the view that Europe had been in perpetual chaos since the fall of the old empires, especially the Hapsburg Empire. So Bob immediately translated this into the conceit that Santa, and therefore I, wanted to restore the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburgs, and were actively campaigning to bring this about.
Bob’s sense of fun, his innate ability to find the absurd in any situation, or rather to render an absurd version of any situation by exaggerating and caricaturing any foolishness, should really have prevented him having such a big career in politics.
There was an office legend, which may even have had some basis in fact, that for a day Bob’s phone was constantly ringing and through some insane oddity of telephone technology, all the calls were people trying to ring directory assistance and getting Bob’s number instead. Some unfortunate caller asked for the number of a trade union: “I’m sorry, sir, the Fraser government has instructed that we no longer give out the telephone numbers of trade unions.”
A personal reflection
Greg Sheridan’s When We Were Young and Foolish is both important and fun. Just like the author himself. This reviewer was most intrigued by the following reference:
It was astonishing good fortune for me to know all these people at The Bulletin. Trevor Kennedy, Bob Carr, Alan Reid, Sam Lipski, Malcolm Turnbull and the rest. It was a scintillating magazine under Trevor Kennedy’s editorship. Years later, Trevor for a time headed the Tourang consortium which, including [Kerry] Packer as a minority shareholder, as well as Conrad Black and others, bid for ownership of the Fairfax media empire.
If the bid had succeeded, and Trevor had remained its head, then Trevor would have been the boss of Fairfax. One of his plans, with appropriate consultation, was to offer Gerard Henderson the editorship of The Sydney Morning Herald. That would have been fun for everyone.
Yes – that would have been fun. Lotsa fun.
Gerard Henderson is the Executive Director of The Sydney Institute, a columnist with The Weekend Australian and author of the weekly blog Media Watch Dog. His most recent book is Santamaria – A Most Unusual Man, MUP, 2015