Australian Books

Salad days

8 August 2015

9:00 AM

8 August 2015

9:00 AM

When we were young & foolish: A memoir of my misguided youth with Tony Abbott, Bob Carr, Malcolm Turnbull, Kevin Rudd & other reprobates Greg Sheridan

Allen & Unwin, pp.366, $34.99, ISBN: 9781760113391

If you enjoy reading Greg Sheridan’s Diaries in this magazine, you’ll love this book. The author, a 30-year veteran journalist at the Australian, has his eyes and ears perpetually on the alert for what makes future political figures interesting – or what made them foolish in their younger days. I had the great pleasure of working with Sheridan for the best part of a decade, so I’d already heard some of his stories. Yet even I raced through these pages with addictive passion, not wishing to miss a word.

Few people can say what it was like to go to university with the Prime Minister. Sheridan could, and does in this book. His first recollections of Tony Abbott on campus in 1976 were of a ‘beefy fellow with sandy hair and a ready grin,’ whose walk ‘resembled an Australian version of the John Wayne lurch.’ (Has the walk really changed?)

Abbott and Sheridan had some genuine policy disagreements, if at 20 you can be said to have a policy. The former was a monarchist; the latter a republican. On music, Abbott loved country-and-western singer Glen Campbell; Sheridan recalls being picked up by his mate to travel to a Melbourne student conference in 1977 and being forced to listen to ‘Galveston’, ‘Wichita Lineman’ and Abbott’s favourite tune ‘Dreams of the Everyday Housewife’ time and again during the 12-hour drive. It was a maddening experience. And yet the unlikely friends were united in their Catholic faith and anti-communist campaign against left-wing radicals.

We learn that the Sydney-based Tony Abbott, like the Melbourne-based Peter Costello, was such a formidable student politician that union heavies tried to recruit him to the Labor party. It’s an interesting story. What’s missing here, though, is a satisfactory account for Abbott’s odyssey from the DLP to Liberalism. This is important, because journalists all too often link Abbott’s world view to that of Bob Santamaria. Worse, at least one journalist has conjured up images of the Santa-worshipping misogynist who can barely restrain himself from punching any woman he meets.

Of the wall-punching incident, Sheridan maintains it just never happened. He’d know. In David Marr’s telling, he supposedly intervened. ‘Tony I am sure has never in his life thrown, or indeed threatened, a punch outside the boxing ring or the rugby field,’ insists Sheridan: ‘Neither have I,’ he adds, ‘though as I never boxed or played rugby I didn’t throw one there either.’ The controversy is a reminder that Abbott has had to endure some poisonous and largely pointless ad hominem abuse.

At various stages in the book, Sheridan highlights Abbott’s sense of decency. When the author’s Dad was dying in 2007, in the heat of an election year, Abbott went occasionally to see him in hospital and was there to weep with Greg’s mother and to offer his support as he died. This side – the warm, caring, devoted Abbott – is rarely seen in public, but Sheridan’s tribute unmasks the real Tony.

There are other deft pen-portraits in When We Were Young & Foolish. In 1983 Bob Carr, a colleague at the Bulletin, ran for state parliament, and Sheridan and friends handed out how-to-vote cards for the Labor candidate. When Carr visited the polling booth while Sheridan was off getting coffee and sandwiches for the team, the future premier asked: ‘What, has Sheridan gone to pick up emergency rations of Quadrant and Commentary magazine, to sustain everybody across the long hours of the afternoon?’

Malcolm Turnbull, we are told, was ‘one of the most extraordinary and gifted men to pass through journalism’ (whose social circle represented ‘a touch of Brideshead Revisited’). He was also the only person in the Bulletin franchise who really made Sheridan nervous. ‘I always felt that I should have something immensely clever to say to him,’ Sheridan recalls, ‘and yet I most often felt like I’d forgotten to tighten up my tie or something.’

When he was the Australian’s first China correspondent in the mid-’80s, Sheridan earned the position of a footnote in political history: he was the first journalist whom diplomat Kevin Rudd ever briefed. Surely the first of thousands! Rudd later starred in the Beijing version of the Ashes (the annual grudge match between the Australian and UK embassies), but only because he had French cut the ball between himself and the wicket for the match-winning four runs.

It is such personal reminiscences of the likes of Abbott, Carr, Turnbull and Rudd, and the insights they combine to offer into the human condition, that make these stories unique. They are as light as a 350-page gossip column, studded with illuminating observations worthy of a great novel. The gossip is paramount, of course. None of it is nasty.

Frankness about self is another crucial ingredient of the best memoirs or diaries, and Sheridan admits to some horrific views. As a youngster, he was a ‘literary neurotic’ and ‘loudmouthed geek.’

Here is how he describes the worst hangover of his life in his mid-20s: ‘A throbbing pain throughout every part of my head associated with a tongue that tasted like a sun-cracked piece of leather encased in goat’s hair, and eyes that trembled in fear and pain at the merest hint of sunlight, not to mention a stomach ready to leap violently at the slightest disturbance or movement on my part.’

Sheridan is without question one of the finest Diarists to have graced these pages. Even when one takes issue with his foreign-policy views, no one can deny the author’s command of detail and self-deprecating humour. In this book Sheridan shows once again why he is one of the nation’s liveliest and quirkiest writers.

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Tom Switzer, a former editor of The Spectator Australia, is host of Between the Lines on ABC’s Radio National.

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