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The great characters of the AA movement

10 June 2020 613 views No Comment

From The Australian newspaper online, June 10, 2020. 

The great characters of the AA movement


Since it began, Alcoholics Anonymous has saved the lives of millions of people across the globe. That’s something worth celebrating today (June 10), which is Founders Day on the AA calendar. 

The inspirational story of AA began in 1935 when a newlysober New York stockbroker, Bill Wilson visited Akron, Ohio on a business trip. Afraid he might drink again, he decided to talk with another alcoholic.  The person he found wasa seemingly hopeless alcoholic  physician, Bob Smith. Afterlistening to Bill tell the story of his alcoholism he was so moved and motivated that Dr Bob had his last drink on June 10, 1935 – which is the date on which AA is regarded as having been formed.

Since it started in Australia in 1945, the AA movement has has featured some great characters. Broken Hill Jack, who hailed from Broken Hill, and his brother Raucous Dick are two colourfulexamples.

Raucous Dick got his nickname because he had no sense of volume. At a BrisbaneAA meeting at Kangaroo Point one Tuesday night, a lady from the next door church hall said, “Excuse me, but someone’s making our cups rattle.”

One thing about AA meetings is that attendees alwayshear entertaining and edifying stories.

Here is one of my favourites.

There was a long-time member called Edgy Bill, who gained his nickname because he belonged to the Edgecliff AA group and was rather nervous. Bill was a trade union official whose first major speech in sobriety involved introducing Bob Hawke when he was head of the ACTU. At a huge meeting at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Edgy Bill stood up and said, by force of habit – “My name’s Bill and I’m an alcoholic.” A wag in the crowd called out, “Then why don’t you sit down, you old pisspot!”

What happened to Edgy Bill almost happened to me. In 1977 I had been appointed Channel 7’s political commentator in Queensland. My first task was to speak on the 6pm Brisbane news, direct to air, about Malcolm Fraser appointing Sir Zelman Cowen as Governor-General to replace Sir John Kerr.

After saying, “My name is Ross …”, I caught myself just in time and continued, “and I think that the appointment of Sir Zelman Cowen as Governor-General is an excellent, healing decision.”

In 1978 at a party in Brisbane at which the G-G was present, I spoke about how much I loved Aussie Rules and, in particular, my father’s club, Collingwood. A pompous harridan put her nose in the air and said, “I think football’s so boring, don’t you Sir Zelman?”

He replied …. “In fact, I’ve just been appointed the Number One ticket-holder of the St Kilda Football Club!”

My darling wife of 43 years Lyndal to whom my memoir Fifty Years Soberis dedicated,was 45years sober when she died this year on January 22.

Lyndal  hadn’t had a drink since the day our mutual friend, Barry Humphries, introduced us. Appropriately, given the sometimes explosivenature of our relationship, this was on Guy Fawkes Day, November 5, 1974. We were married on Guy Fawkes Day, 1976.

In the early 1980s, Broken Hill Jack rang me and said, “Could you do me a favour, Ross? My brother Dicky’s finding life difficult in Brisbane. Next time you see him, could you please be nice to him.”

In those days, I wasn’t particularly fond of Raucous Dick. I next saw him at the Friday night AA meeting at the Uniting Church Hall in Kenmore, a meeting which Lyndal had founded. Originally, Lyndal had tried the local Catholic Church, but the priest had said: “There are no alcoholics in Kenmore, Mrs Fitzgerald” (This was a moniker she disliked mightily). As it happens, the priest turned out to be an alcoholic himself!

That Friday night, Raucous Dick was wearing a white suit and looked like a Raymond Chandler detective. Thinking of something positive to say, I remarked, “That’s a very attractive suit you’re wearing Dick.” To which he responded, “I never mind a bit of bullshit, son. As long as there’s an element of truth associated with it.” I liked him ever since.

When I was just two years sober and still living in Sydney, I got offered a job at Makere University in Uganda. This was before Idi Amin got moving.

As was my wont, I rang Broken Hill Jack. After listening for a moment, hesaid, “Are there many meetings in Uganda, laddie?”

“I tell you what”, he continued, “they live their lives a day at a time in Uganda. Do not be so silly, laddie. Stay where you are for the next two years.”

Remarkably, I did what the mantold me.

In Sydney, Lyndal’s AA nickname was Adequate from Arncliffe. This was because she regularly talked about striving, in her work, for adequacy, not for perfection.

It was as a result of hearing this that I actually started writing.

When I was drinking I thought that I was a writer, but then I didn’t even write a note to the milkman. Also, as a perfectionist, my rule pre-AA was …If at first you don’t succeed, stop.

It was only after I was three years sober that I published my first book, a slim volume of poems called The Eyes of Angels. I’ve now published 42 books. None of them are  War and Peacebut they exist. And this is because I paid attention to the wise words of Adequate from Arncliffe.

Havingbeen sober now for more than half a century, I am struck by how much COVID-19 has released a fellowship in local communities that echoes so much of the fellowship that is AA’score strength.  Some examples are astrong common purpose, acts of mutual aid and kindness, bringing opposites together, a realisation that we are all in it together, not criticising others, anda tolerance of differences – as exemplified by the motto “live & let live”. 

Let’s hope that, throughout Australia, we will continue this fellowship long after the virus is history.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald’s latest book is a memoir Fifty Years Sober : An Alcoholic’s Journey,published by Hybrid Publishers in Melbourne.

The Australian newspaper online, June 10, 2020.

Dear Editor,
Ross Fitzgerald (‘The great characters of the AA movement’, The Australian online, June 10, 2020) does well to cheer us up with stories about some great AA characters as the movement celebrates its’ 85th birthday. It is worth noting that Alcoholics Anonymous pioneered the franchise model ahead of the rest. It was another two decades before McDonald’s was launched in California, in 1955. Unlike McDonald’s, AA has built its’ worldwide presence around autonomous groups that are fully self-supporting and that decline outside support. But, to be fair, the coffee is better at Macca’s.

Dr Peter Smith

Lake Illawarra, NSW

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