Whenever I read Greg Sheridan’s columns in The Australian newspaper, I can’t imagine him in short pants, but I’ve read his memoir and discover that he had a life before he came to my attention full blown, wearing his journalist hat. The author of When We Were Young and Foolish disabused me of my foolish notions. I read about his family life and his place in it, his close relationship with his father, his short lived flirtation with the priesthood and his strong religious beliefs. Sheridan’s baby sister, Mary, ‘died in the hospital, baptised but never brought home…she became our friend in heaven. Whenever we needed something…we would pray to Little Mary…to intercede with God on our behalf.’ None of us live in a vacuum. Life gets in the way and we are all of us, even journalists affected by our past and the experiences that we collect along the way.
Sheridan is a Catholic and a believer swimming against a tide of atheists and lapsed Catholics; he doesn’t confuse his religious beliefs with the flawed individuals who have betrayed it. Sheridan is a Conservative journalist in a world that loudly proclaims itself to be Progressive but doesn’t allow himself to be overwhelmed or intimidated by the numbers. It doesn’t make him right or wrong, just man who has the courage of his convictions.
Sheridan’s year nine teacher called his essays pompous and wordy and warned him not to ‘substitute mannerisms for intelligent communication of ideas.’ Fancy that, he says and so do I. Many of his critics since have accused him of the same. Sheridan challenged his teachers on any topic where there was a difference of opinion. No one, it seems, was exempt from the argumentative Sheridan. Not even his father, although it was obvious that the two had a close and loving relationship and agreed on many points. ‘It is the Irish genius’ he said, ‘to agree with someone on 99 percent and argue furiously about the one percent.’ A good trait to have if you’re planning to be a journalist said Trevor Kennedy, editor at The Bulletin and hired Sheridan on the strength of his quarrelsome, argumentative disposition.
If this memoir and his columns are anything to go by Sheridan has always had definite views. He doesn’t seem to give a hoot whether or not they fit in with mainstream opinion. Had he taken his critics seriously, he might have had a career in politics, because Fate had set a bunch of future politicians in his path, surely just for that purpose. Hence the ugly mugs on the cover. There was a Premier and three Prime Ministers. The last includes the result of a recent coup. He’s going to have to revise his next edition. Sheridan held on closely to his friends, thumbed his nose at Fate and decided that journalism was more in need of a devil’s advocate than another politician. I’d say more so these days than when he began his career. But it’s also possible that witnessing the seamy side of student politics and being a victim of it put him off politics as a career path. And, too, Sheridan isn’t a meek type capable of following the party line.
Sheridan loves writing he says. Even when time constraints mean that he’s got it wrong he tries ‘to be honest in accordance to the facts as far as you can make them out and true to the values that you espouse in your life’. There’s too much self-censoring going on these days which often makes for bland and predictable reading. Sometimes I’m reminded of what my mum always says about not saying anything if you can’t find anything nice to say. That’s right and proper in a social setting, but not when it comes to reportage.
Greg Sheridan has been the foreign editor at The Australian for three decades, only one of the many quivers to his bow. His columns are a reminder that there’s more than one way to examine an opinion and that debates are meant to challenge, not shouted down. I don’t want to exhaust the phrase that’s doing the rounds these days, but Sheridan writes ‘without fear or favour’. Even the revered Gough Whitlam got a good serve from the argumentative Sheridan who prefers facts, ‘sacred above all else,’ to the myth. I’m not usually a fan of autobiographies (too much back patting and posturing). While it’s true that there was a fair bit of name dropping in this book, it was less about the usual showing off that goes on in autobiographies and more of an indicator of what shaped the young and not so foolish Greg Sheridan.