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Review: Greg Sheridan’s When We Were Young and Foolish

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When We Were Young and Foolish by Greg Sheridan

When We Were Young and Foolish
Greg Sheridan
Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2015

For such a significant lesson in late 20th century Australian Catholic social history, Greg Sheridan’s memoirs When We Were Young and Foolish is also a great read.

Sheridan’s book is divided roughly in three parts: growing up Catholic in the 1960s and 1970s; student politics and adventures in journalism. Each section contains deep insights into the political and social developments of the time while keeping the reader entertained with his wit and the inviting idiom of a talented writer.

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The chapters on growing up Catholic in inner western Sydney enliven a period of history that is often caricatured as bigoted, prejudiced and intransigent. In the Sheridan family and, I suspect for many families of the time, the opposite is, in fact, true. Yes there is evidence of fierce Irish Catholic tribalism – his parents had a Catholic wedding (Mrs Sheridan was a convert) and two wedding receptions, one for the Catholics and one for the Protestants – but there was also an enormous generosity of spirit and embracing of differences.

It seems that Protestantism was opposed as a principle, but not in the person. There are some interesting revelations from the family tree and it is interesting that, even in challenging circumstances, the response was genuine, loving, and catholic.

These early chapters reflect growing up in that cusp of Catholic history – the transitioning from the 1950s to the so-called post-Vatican II era. Nowhere are these changes more apparent than in Greg’s foray into the Redemptorist junior seminary at Galong in the 1970s. Junior seminaries were on the way out – Galong may have been the last survivor, and the young Greg’s experiences and response a product of those times.

Greg Sheridan is a strange creature for a Sydney Catholic.

His family were DLP Catholics in NSW where Catholics, at the insistence of the hierarchy, remained in the ALP after the Split and were a significant force until the 1980s. I recall a conversation with the late DLP Senator Jack Kane about his struggles – for a night and then a day – after he was informed of the expulsion of his colleagues at the ALP National Conference in Hobart in 1955.

He consulted with a certain auxiliary bishop who told him that his duty was to stay with the ALP for the good of the Church. His parish priest, however, told him to follow his conscience.

Politics was very important in the Sheridan home – just as important as religion, if not a manifestation of it. The young Greg took a lively interest and seemed to gravitate to the anti-Communist policies of Bob Santamaria’s National Civic Council. Sheridan found the political analysis and commentary of Santamaria was not only accurately insightful but riveting.

It was this interest in the NCC that introduced him to life-long friend Tony Abbott and student-union and trade-union activism. Sheridan’s acquired talent for political analysis combined with his talent as a wordsmith led him to his chosen career of journalism.

Sheridan’s experience in student politics details the emergence of a whole generation of talented political and community leaders – among them Peter Costello, Michael Kroger, Michael Danby, Mary Eason and Tony Abbott.

What he fails to admit is that such talented leaders and political analysts have ceased to emerge. Sheridan argues that he and Abbott successfully convinced even the initially pro-union National Civic Council to campaign for voluntary student unionism. The result has been a withdrawal of serious political debate on campuses and correspondingly a lack of depth of experience in emerging political hopefuls.

Yes, the mid to late seventies saw some abuse of student funds, but it also provided the opportunity for the development of social and political ideas, not in a vacuum, but in a hotly contested environment.

I do not think I would have developed my political world-view without the opportunity to debate issues such as abortion, the role of women, distributist economics, education funding, foreign affairs, if not as a reply to the outrageous in-your-face debates that occurred on campus. I met people who had visited Cuba and Moscow on Socialist Party of Australia study tours (one is now an acclaimed film-maker).

It was hard to believe such people existed if you did not actually meet them. For myself, and it appears also for Sheridan, what we learnt through campus politics was probably more important than our degrees. Mine took quite a few years to complete; his took even longer. I learnt about human psychology, about the rules of debate, about not allowing politics to get in the way of friendship.

I learnt about Marxism, and Communism, about Gramsci and the fight for the institutions, and how the politics of abortion and homosexuality were more than just a question of rights, but were being manipulated in order to undermine the basic foundations of society. That is not to lack compassion for those who face these dilemmas, but to see beyond them to a movement that has a much broader agenda.

It was no accident that these movements were supported by the communist factions on campus and in Australian society the rump of the Communist Party eventually merged with the Greens, and the libertarian agenda went with it.

It is no accident that the left wing of the ALP embraced those same issues because their leaders worked closely with the communist factions. The tragedy is that those who have a gut feeling that this is not right, have not had the opportunity to forge and sharpen their beliefs in the hot house that was available through AUS. I meet so many young university students with all the right intentions, but no opportunity to test their mettle. They are too cosseted, too frightened and too polite. There is no longer any testing by fire.

The final section of the book deals with Sheridan’s work as a journalist with the Bulletin and later The Australian. Again there are many encounters with journalist colleagues who went on to bigger stages such as Bob Carr and Malcolm Turnbull. It is also about his transition from writing on social and domestic issues to his specialisation in foreign affairs. His experiences in China are both seriously illuminating and humorous – as can also be said of his dealings with Kevin Rudd, diplomat.

This is recommended Australian Catholic social history for anyone under 50, and great reminiscences for those of us who are older.

Disclaimer: I admit that I was friendly with Greg, but not until he had moved out of union politics and into journalism and I was working for the Australian Family Association. I also met his parents, the warm and funny John and Pat Sheridan.

I moved into student politics as Sheridan and Abbott were moving on, but in the same faction so I was regaled with the legends of the warriors of old. I did overlap with Costello and Kroger at Monash and at AUS. It is weird to read about people from your own life seen through someone else’s eyes.

Sheridan’s book clarified a few minor niggles for me – such as confirming that Tony Abbott was ghost-writer for Jack Kane’s memoirs of life as a DLP senator. I had heard, in the 1980s, that Tony was working on this project with Jack, but I scoured the finished product for an acknowledgement and there was none.

I was also chuffed by the cameo role of one of my mentors. The priest at the Catholic residential college at Monash University who spared Sheridan and Abbott from having to sleep with the left by allowing them to stay in the college was most probably Fr Peter Knowles OP, Master of Mannix College and Chaplain to Monash University for many years.

Unbeknown to them, Fr Knowles had strong sympathies with their politics. He was fluent in Russian and had a profound knowledge of the persecution of Catholics in the Soviet Union – much of it from his first-hand experience through clandestine visits to the old USSR where he made contact with Catholic dissident groups.

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