I met Brewery Bill in early sobriety and enjoyed his humour and A.A. storytelling. He got sober in 1971 when he was in his twenties, knew many of the original members of Sydney A.A. and was a great storyteller. His shares included many quotes and experiences of early Sydney A.A. members including co-founders, Sylvester Minogue and Archie McKinnon (non-alcoholic). Listening and relating to his stories connected me to the supportive fellowship of A.A. At long last, I had found a place where I belonged with others just like me, alcoholics.
He got the nick name ‘Brewery Bill’ because he worked for a Sydney brewery when he came to A.A. and continued to work there for the first two years of his sobriety. Being a typical alcoholic, Brewery Bill would smuggle grog in to work and hide it in his locker despite being surrounded by thousands of litres of freely available alcohol.
In early sobriety, he got saddled with the job as secretary of a large A.A. meeting at St. John’s Church Darlinghurst, 8pm Saturday night. The outgoing secretary had had enough abuse and saw Brewery Bill as the ideal raw recruit to foist the meeting onto. He promised him the job was easy in a big meeting since there were plenty of people who would help him out. In reality, while there were many attendees, there were virtually no group members. Brewery Bill more or less became a one-man band and was very much thrown in the deep end as meeting secretary, treasurer, washer upper, sweeper upper and garbage man.
At that time there were no detoxes in Sydney and alcoholics would shake the withdrawals out in a meeting, particularly a big meeting where they felt they could hide at the back. Some alcoholics would try to soften the withdrawals by drinking alcohol, not necessarily top shelf stuff either but most often pure alcoholic metho (Denatured alcohol). The wet drunks at the back of the meeting were easy to spot as that was where the interjections and swearing emanated from during the meeting. Some of the alkies would get out of control and Brewery Bill enlisted the help of a big bloke called Irish Bill to act as bouncer on the door to remove anyone getting too out of hand. I heard other A.A. members relate a similar experience of being thrown out of meetings in their early days. They understood their removal from the meeting was because their behavior was too disruptive, but at the same time they were told, “Keep coming back!”. While they may not have liked the experience, it made them realise they had to settle down, and not interfere with other alcoholics getting sober if they wanted to attend the meeting.
The wet drunks’ presence became even more apparent at the end of the meeting when the collection basket was passed around. For the first few weeks Brewery Bill would pass the basket from the front of the meeting to the back and for some reason when the basket returned to the front it was very light on funds. The collection money was being diverted from the basket into the pockets of the wet drunks for later conversion into liquid assets. In a sense the meeting was functioning as a detox by financing the softening of withdrawals of the wet drunks. When Brewery Bill realised what was happening, he reversed the collection direction from the back to the front. There was a marked improvement in the weekly collection although often not nearly enough to cover the rent and meeting expenses.
Brewery Bill found the going very tough as he dealt with the numerous problems in the meeting, but he was staying sober and rapidly learning the ropes in A.A. His early sobriety effort served two purposes. One, it grounded him in A.A. through involvement in service work, which would stand him in good stead long-term. Two, it brought him to the attention of older sober A.A.’s who would play a crucial role with shaping his sobriety. One of these was Campsie Mick.
Campsie Mick was so named because he was a member of the A.A. meeting at Campsie Hospital in Sydney. Originally, he was known as ‘Machine Gun’ Mick, because he spoke in a rapid-fire low voice which no one could hear or understand. Then he slowed down, spoke up and was heard and understood. Campsie Mick was a very well-known and respected A.A. member in Sydney. He was broad shouldered, noticeably big in stature, softly spoken and supportive of newcomers.
Like Brewery Bill, Mick was one of a handful of A.A. members who got sober in their twenties. Campsie Mick got sober in the 1960’s when most people came to A.A. aged forty and older. So, it could be hard for a young newcomer like Mick to fit into A.A. being surrounded by a much older generation of A.A. members. But Mick threw himself into service work taking on service roles as meeting secretary and generally helping out at meetings. Mick preferred skid row A.A. meetings and detoxes, focusing on low bottom drunks, particularly meetings at the Matthew Talbot Hostel for homeless men.
The first time I attended this meeting was an eye opener for a green recruit like myself. Just walking up the alleyway to the meeting was a very visual, in your face, real life presentation of the ravages of alcoholism. Many of the alcoholics laying in the gutter were weather beaten, disheveled and in a very poor mental and physical state. Just the sensory assault of humanity in the alleyway was enough to tell you the reality of what you were surrounded by, end stage alcoholism. The A.A. meeting was even more intense as the atmosphere was contained and amplified within the four walls of the room. In the midst of all this suffering was an A.A. meeting in full swing with alcoholics sharing in a general way what they used to be like, what happened and what they’re like now. The atmosphere was sprinkled with the smell of unwashed and alcohol sodden drunks, the voices of the interjectors and the occasional creak of a metho bottle cork being turned, twisted and coaxed out of a bottle neck.
In the midst of all this activity, I saw Campsie Mick, the meeting secretary, walking around the room with a huge teapot, dispensing tea into mugs to pass along the rows of seated alcoholics. Mick also generously handed out cigarettes to the drunks to help settle down their frayed nerves. Encouraging smoking in meetings may seem inappropriate in today’s non-smoking meetings but back then, smoking was normal. Mick’s generosity created a caring atmosphere in the meetings where alcoholics were treated as human beings with dignity and respect. Campsie Mick continued to care for the sick alcoholic in between meetings. Mick understood all too well the dangerous times in between meetings when alcoholics could easily relapse. He would take a group of alcoholics on a walk around Sydney, keeping them moving, together and occupied in between the daytime and evening meeting. Over the years he also bought countless lunches and cups of coffee for alcoholics, spending time with them and encouraging them.
Mick had no time for self-pity or listening to any sober alcoholic complaining about something that happened to them they didn’t like. If they asked him, “Why has this happened to me Mick?”, he would invariably respond “Why not?”. I remember Brian from Merrylands relating a similar experience with Mick when he took him to an A.A. meeting. On the way home, Brian complained to Mick about the meeting saying, “I didn’t get much out of that meeting”. Mick immediately fired back, “How much did you put into it?”. It brought Brian straight back to earth. Mick was also master of the minimalist word when it came to twelfth stepping the newcomer. Terry from Kogarah described waking up in a detox to find Campsie Mick, larger than life, sitting on the end of his bed looking at him. Mick simple asked Terry, “Would you like to come with me to an A.A. meeting?”. Because Mick looked so big, Terry thought he had better say “Yes”, went to his first meeting and got sober.
Brewery Bill’s activities as meeting secretary came to Campsie Mick’s attention and Mick bailed him up one day after the meeting saying, “I want a word with you!”. Thinking Mick was going to have a go at him and give him a serve, Brewery Bill braced himself for a verbal onslaught. Mick went on to say, “I’ve been watching you and seeing how much effort you’ve been putting into the meeting and I want to tell you something very important. People in A.A. will criticise you and try to cut you down because you are trying to help alcoholics stay sober. That’s just the way it is, so expect criticism and be ready to deal with it.” Although Brewery Bill was relieved that Mick didn’t have a go at him it wasn’t exactly reassuring for him to be told to expect criticism. But then again forewarned is forearmed and Brewery Bill didn’t have long to wait before he was tested.
As already mentioned, the collection from the meeting barely met expenses most weeks and some weeks it fell short. As usually happens, it falls to the secretary to make up the shortfall which Brewery Bill often did. The Sydney A.A. Central Office published a list of group contributions every quarter in the A.A. publication ‘The Reviver’. On reading the contribution listing for Brewery Bill’s meeting, an irate A.A. bloke fronted him after his meeting pointing to the dismal group contribution and accused him of stealing the group funds. This bloke thought he could put it over a newly sober A.A. but Brewery Bill was well prepared. He said, “I don’t normally tell anyone how much I earn but in your case, I will make an exception.”. He told him his brewery earnings before outlining the meeting expenses and the paltry weekly collection which he had to subsidise. Then he asked this bloke, “Why don’t you become group treasurer and take care of the finances?”. The bloke took off and never came back!
Lois Wilson, an Al-Anon co-founder was married to Bill Wilson an A.A. co-founder. In his sober lifetime, Bill and Lois travelled to many countries visiting A.A. groups and seeing for themselves how A.A. and sobriety had spread throughout the world. Unfortunately, they never visited Australia which disappointed many Australian A.A. members. Bill and Lois would have been well received and A.A.’s would have loved the opportunity to see and hear them speak. Bill Wilson died in 1971, an event that saddened many in A.A. worldwide. But in 1972, Lois Wilson was invited to Australia by Al-Anon which she co-founded and was scheduled to appear at the Sydney Town Hall on March 8th. While Lois’s visit was supposed to be an Al Anon event, A.A. became involved and pretty much took over. Lois’s visit now became a big A.A. event, in fact it became ‘The A.A. Event’ of 1972. A.A.’s from all over, flocked to the Sydney Town Hall that night.
The event was considered to be so important that many of the Sydney A.A. meetings closed down for the night so that A.A. members could attend. Brewery Bill managed to get a ticket for the event, heard Lois speak, was thrilled to meet her afterwards and even shook her hand. He left the Town Hall floating on air as he had gotten to meet Lois Wilson, wife of Bill Wilson, A.A.’s co-founder. He travelled home by bus afterwards with the feeling that he had really made it in A.A.
The Sydney traffic was heavy, backed up and Brewery Bill’s bus came to a halt. With the bus stationary, Brewery Bill was looking out the window at nothing in particular when he noticed Campsie Mick coming out of an ally onto the street. It occurred to him that Campsie Mick had just come from the A.A. meeting at the Matthew Talbot hostel. Then he realised that no matter who or what was the big attraction at the Town Hall that night, Campsie Mick would be opening the A.A. meeting at the Matthew Talbot hostel as usual. Such was Mick’s commitment to A.A. and how seriously he took his service commitment as group secretary. Another all in important element at play was Mick’s humility as he quietly did what needed to be done, no big noting or self-promotion.
Observing and understanding Mick’s actions brought the whole night into perspective for Brewery Bill as well as bringing him back to earth with a thud! But more importantly, having recognized and understood the importance of Mick’s actions, he applied this experience to his own service work. I believe these actions of observation, understanding and application coupled with humility to service commitments are essential for developing long-term emotionally mature sobriety.
Despite these new insights, Brewery Bill’s position as overworked meeting secretary became untenable as the workload took its toll on him. The problem he now faced was how to give the secretary ship to someone else when no one would take it on. He agonised about this dilemma, not knowing how to get out of this situation. Roland from Edgecliffe, another old timer, had been watching Brewery Bill’s efforts and the unfolding events. Roland was formerly Major Roland Knight of the British 8th army, a veteran of war in El Alamein, Tobruk and Monte Casino. Roland also experienced the brutal side of human nature while attached to interrogations of war criminals running the Jewish internment extermination camps. After World War 2, he experienced brutal alcoholic dereliction in Sydney before getting sober in A.A. A quietly spoken tough old bloke, who didn’t take a backward step from anyone, he was a man to have in your corner.
Roland told Brewery Bill, “At the end of the meeting tell everyone you are no longer able to be meeting secretary, put the keys of the meeting on the table and walk away. Someone will pick the keys up.” Brewery Bill had doubts about doing this but being desperate he did as Roland suggested and lo and behold, someone did pick up the keys. He was off the hook and at Roland’s suggestion he joined the Edgecliffe A.A. group which had an organised service structure with rotating positions, regular group consciences and a supportive environment. This supportive environment helped him and others gain valuable experience in A.A. service work before passing this experience on to others as Campsie Mick had done. He is still an active member of Edgecliffe, forty-six years down the track, telling his story for the benefit of A.A.’s like myself.
I am grateful to the Brewery Bills and Campsie Micks who helped me in my early shaky days. They taught me an understanding of the importance of service work for both my own sobriety as well as the future well-being of A.A.
About the Author
After eighteen years of sobriety, PJ realised he didn’t believe in god, triggering a shift from theistic to secular sobriety. In recent years he came to the conclusion that it was simply the human power of fellowship found in AA meetings that had got him sober and continues to keep him sober.