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.

7 thoughts on “When We Were Young and Foolish

  1. Well written. Regardless of the so-called facts the Sheridan was espousing following Whitlam’s death, his timing was very poor. This led me to complain via text about his behaviour to the radio program. I haven’t read his books, nor will I, but I do hear him on the radio occasionally and while I do not agree with a lot of things he comments on, he expresses his views respectfully, without the need to lambaste those who disagree with him. Having said that, I believe his Whitlam passage was far too early and smacked of grandstanding.

    • I’m not trying to convert you, Mick. But at the very least I’d like you to understand why I admire Greg Sheridan. I like it that he feels that there’s no need to lambaste someone for having a different point of view to his. Here’s what he said about Whitlam in his memoir.

      ‘Gough Whitlam was a supremely talented individual who had in many ways a praiseworthy vision for Australia. He had a profound devotion to public service. His government, amidst its failed economic policies did a lot of good things and a lot of overdue things. He inspired many Australians. He modernised the Labor Party…But nothing can justify his treatment of the South Vietnamese.’

      ‘Some of them had been our allies in war. Friends are friends, even when they lose. Loyalty counts for something in a nation as in an individual. Those of them who had worked intimately with us, the accountant at our embassy, and the cook, and all our people’s contacts and allies, were left behind, often to a fate of dire persecution by the communists.

      The Department of Foreign Affairs, well aware of Whitlam’s hostility to the South Vietnamese, and not itself remotely generous to them, still recommended that some 2000 people with close Australian connections be brought to Australia. The Whitlam government brought in a flight of orphans for public relations purposes, but of the 2000 South Vietnamese recommended for admission by foreign affairs barely 200 were brought to Australia.’

      Mick, you may or may not believe Sheridan’s version of what the Department of Foreign affairs thought or of Whitlam’s hostility to the South Vietnamese. But facts remain facts, not ‘so called’. And they are that out of 2000 people who should have been given safe passage, only 200 arrived on our shores. In The Australian in May of that year, Whitlam explained his less than generous actions this way: ‘there will be some resentment about the people coming to Australia at a time of unemployment, and also people from a very different way of life.’ On ABC television ‘Whitlam was quoted as saying that Australia did not want ‘another reactionary right-wing minority.’

      One of the very many things that I admire Whitlam most for was that he made tertiary education available to all, not just for those who could afford it. Having lived through those times, I agree that Gough Whitlam was a ‘supremely talented’ man. But all in all, he was only a politician and a human being with flaws like the rest of us. That won’t do for some people. I know that history is already working on deifying him, but I don’t care to make him into something he wasn’t.
      Can I add to this really long response by saying that I absolutely love people who want to contribute to what I’ve said, even if in the end we agree to disagree. Thanks

      • Thanks Mary. Nah, I’m betting it’s true. Whitlam was guilty of many foreign policy sins, including East Timor and pandering to Mao way too much. My reference to Sheridan’s ‘so called’ facts were more to do with his commentary of what’s going on today, rather than history. Probably best to leave that alone; after all, I think like me, you love the politeness of blogging as opposed to the ugliness of facebook and other social media. Your admiration of Whitlam wrt tertiary education was one of the things that Sheridan shot down amongst others which I cannot recall, only one day after his death. There’s a time and place, and that time and place was not it. He was grandstanding, pure and simple. I am not sure why he felt he needed to.
        As for the South Vietnamese immediately after the war. Hey it was a very different era to today. Whitlam was still emerging from a Labor party which was entrenched in White Australia policy thinking. If you know any Vietnamese, like I do, you’ll know that they are a beautiful people with a lot to add to this country. I visited Vietnam for the first time two years ago and it is still quite a struggle for them. But at least they are no longer being bombed to blazes. Cheers

  2. Mary, I’m hardly familiar with the writing of Greg Sheridan but I’d like to say that your post is impressively written. Are you sure you’re not a journo?

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