Jeremy Clarke goes to his first AA meeting, eats a banana and keeps quietby Jeremy Clarke / January 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in January 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
I have just started going to AA meetings. I am not talking about the Automobile Association here. As might be expected of a company of alcoholics, reformed or otherwise, the meetings I have been to so far have been convivial, forthright affairs which swing unexpectedly from the maudlin to the hilarious. I wish I had started going years ago. I feel like I have come home. I first tried to give up the sauce about the same time that the Berlin wall was being dismantled. Convictions for three guileless smash and grabs on off-licences, three drunken drivings, and one for an unprovoked assault on a St John’s ambulanceman after being carried out of West Ham football ground on a stretcher-all this in the space of about 18 months-had given me pause for thought. Instead of talking to counsellors about my “feelings” however, I took up Shotokan karate and swimming, and punched, kicked and breast-stroked my way to sobriety in about four years. It worked. In fact it worked so well I thought I was normal again and recently awarded myself a few drinks to celebrate. Unfortunately, once again, it all went black (your honour), and now I am trying to stop drinking again, only this time I thought I would try to do it with the AA. “Don’t bother about all the ‘higher power’ stuff to begin with,” advised the scouser at the end of the telephone when I made contact. “But that’s what drew me in the first place. I’m desperate.” I protested. He gave me the times and the address of the AA meetings held in the nearest town, but I thought I would probably know everyone there, so I opted to go to the meetings in the nearest town but one. When I turned up for my first one -in a church hall on a wet Monday lunchtime-I was relieved to see that there was only one person I already knew sitting at the table. “I didn’t expect to see you in here, Jim,” I said, genuinely surprised-shocked even. “I can’t say I’m surprised to see you, Jel,” he riposted. After a bit of idle chit-chat over coffee, the head alcoholic called the meeting to order and threw it open. A non-English speaker attending the meeting by mistake would have probably come away feeling that they had been at the final of a prestigious cigarette smoking competition. The fug was terrible. The bloke sitting next to me had orange hair as well as orange fingers and could tremulously suck the guts out of a filtered cigarette in just three drags. There was even a totally blind woman smoking roll-ups. I had not seen such zealous, continuous smoking since the sixth form at school. Sanctimoniously, I peeled and ate a huge, slightly unripe banana, and felt like a visiting American among a less health conscious people. The meeting consisted of successive soliloquies by members on the subject of “My daily experience of life as a recovering alcoholic.” Each began with: “My name’s John (or whoever); I am an alcoholic and just for today I am sober.” (To which the others chorused, with as much enthusiasm as they could muster: “Hello John!”) As I did not feel like identifying myself too closely either with my Christian name or with a disease-let alone juxtaposing both within the same brief inaugural sentence-I did not speak. I only watched and gnawed at my banana. Most of the faces around the table proclaimed that their owners had been through the mill. There seemed to be a distinctive alcoholic look, even on those who claimed they had been sober for over a decade and had nice clothes and an expensive hairdo. (Afterwards, when I got home, I switched on the light above the mirror in the bathroom and studied my own face to see whether or not it conformed to my theory, but it was difficult to be objective.) Apart from being mostly over 35, smokers, and experts in popular psychology, the members were a fair cross section of society in a rural area. After an hour and a half everyone had had a say, except me and an elderly man wearing a homely, hand-knitted pullover who lay supine on the floor throughout. The meeting concluded with a prayer, for which we all stood and held hands. It went: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” A bit pat for my liking. God grant me the serenity to put up with crap prayers. As the meeting broke up, I picked up a dishcloth and joined the drying up party around the sink. “Well hello” said a queenly fellow dishcloth wielder as he proffered his hand. He told me he liked this group because he felt it was very accepting of gays. I asked him whether he had been on a bender lately. Finally, the head alcoholic, a man with an Acker Bilk-like beard, took me aside and gave me an information pack, of which the uppermost leaflet was entitled “How Did I Get Here?” I looked forward to reading material that took so little for granted. As I left he called out: “See you next week?” in a tone that somehow managed to convey hope, confidence, acceptance and the inherent absurdity of the universe. I hung my head in mock shame: “Not next week, I’m afraid. I’m off to France for a few days.” “Getting your booze in early for Christmas?” he said. His wave of dismissal had a lot of salute in it.