BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Notes on a younger self
, August 15, 2015
WHEN WE WERE YOUNG & FOOLISH: A Memoir of My Misguided Youth with Tony Abbott, Bob Carr, Malcolm Turnbull & Other Reprobates
by Greg Sheridan
(Sydney, Allen & Unwin)
Paperback: 384 pages
Reviewed by David James
Australian political journalism is notable for its claustrophobia. Journalists spend most of their time in the pockets of the leading politicians, joined at the hip in a strange game of symbiosis in which it is never quite clear who is the parasite and who the host.
Within the media there is a strictly enforced pecking order, with senior pundits jealously protecting their patch from upstarts. Airlessness is everywhere.
Yet even by Canberra’s overly oppressive standards, the relationship between The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan and Prime Minister Tony Abbott is unusually intimate. The two have been the best of friends since their student days in the 1970s. They have campaigned together and have fought side by side against the occasionally violent forces of the extreme left.
The book is an entertainingly written piece of political history, as one might expect from a journalist of four decades’ experience. It spans Sheridan’s time growing up in the Sydney suburb of Lewisham, his year in a seminary, his enthusiastic participation in anti-left student politics and his early years in journalism, including his time at the peak period of the now defunct magazine, The Bulletin.
There are many intriguing insights into how political life played out in the universities, when the Cold War was at its height. Some of the smugness of hindsight, and there is plenty of that in the book, is certainly justified. The failure of the Marxist left in the universities to recognise the brutality of the Soviet Union and China was a blindness that has greatly harmed its credibility ever since. Believing they were supporting universal social justice, they were in fact promoting leaders who ran charnel houses. There has perhaps been no better demonstration that academic skill does not necessarily confer either common sense or accuracy.
Sheridan tells a story of a university lecturer who, expounding on the nature of praxis, the combining of theory and practice, commented that Mao was a great example of the skill. Now that the details of the Cultural Revolution are well known this seems almost unimaginable ignorance, but it is worth remembering that information at that time was much harder to obtain and deception accordingly was much easier.
By far the most entertaining part of the book is the insights into Tony Abbott. Many of these are horrifying. For example, we learn that he had many audio cassettes in his car, but they were all recordings of Glenn Campbell. It is true that Campbell’s songwriter Jimmy Webb was one of the greats, but still, this indicates a deeply unhealthy monomania, not to mention a disturbing liking for country music. Our current Prime Minister also had a love for the actor John Wayne. Perhaps the less said about that, the better.
We discover that Abbott always had a splay-footed walk, and even early in his political career tended to waddle up to lecterns. We also see strong evidence of what has become clear throughout his political career, his refusal to give in to opposing forces.
This is from an account of a physical altercation at a student film night: “Tony was reluctant to [leave], because he didn’t like to give into intimidation. But if things turned nasty we would inevitably get creamed. The other two shared my view, so Tony deferred to our collective wisdom and we left, which was just as well because as we were making our way out of the hall about 20 left reinforcements arrived.”
It is obvious that Abbott’s love of a fight has never left him. What is more surprising is his intellectual side. Sheridan says one of his contradictions is that he is a man of action, but he loves ideas for their own sake. This is not always evident in Abbott’s public persona.
One would love to have been a fly on the wall listening to Sheridan and Abbott argue whether evil is the absence of good, or a presence in its own right. Sheridan took the former position, that evil is a distortion of the good. Abbott took a more dualist view, that evil is a force in its own right. Perhaps more than anything else that is a clue to the Prime Minister’s oppositional style.
Sheridan’s tone is self-deprecating, with more of an emphasis on the first word than the second. His style is easy and readable, and his enthusiasm undimmed. As a journalist who rose to be a senior player in the Canberra gallery, he has some important stories to tell. This reviewer, who also spent hours listening to a police scanner during his cadetship, was especially entertained by Sheridan’s time at The Sun failing to learn shorthand and wrestling with the absurdities of police rounds.
His quotations of Bob Santamaria’s wonderful turn of phrase are great reminders: “To analyse the Australian Labor Party without examining the pro-communist left is akin to examining Hamlet without mentioning the Prince of Denmark.”
Sheridan documents the great influence Santamaria had on himself, Abbott and a generation of young leaders, both by the power of his intellect and through the NCC-sponsored university Democratic Clubs.
But one is left with the sense that this is a very particular period of history with little relation to how politics is conducted now. Student politics used to matter. Now, students barely interact with each other because they are too busy working five jobs to pay for their courses. Magazines once mattered. Now, they no longer exist.
The Cold War used to dominate. Now, international relations are not so clearly demarcated. It is no longer the case that the evils of totalitarianism are so great we can safely ignore our own evils.