On last night’s The Word, Ben Morris spoke with representatives of Alcoholics Anonymous who shared the fellowship’s history.
2018 marked the centenary of the end of the First World War, and also of the visit of a certain Bill Wilson to Winchester Cathedral.
A young artillery officer sent from America to fight in France, Bill survived the war and went on to write one of the world’s best-selling books – the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous.
And on its first page he recounted the story of his wartime visit to the cathedral.
Today AA remains untouched by the modern concerns for profit, waiting lists, referrals and data collection. AA meetings are free and readily available, in most cities there’s a meeting every day of the week.
No details are kept of those attending – no names or addresses required. Nor do you need to be referred by a doctor or any organisation – you just turn up. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. Some people have already stopped when they walk through the door, others are still drinking. But as long as the meeting isn’t disrupted anyone and everyone is welcome. As the name implies, it’s anonymous so people can feel safe attending meetings.
Unlike other groups you’re encouraged to keep coming back no matter how long you’ve been attending. AA is about living a happy and fulfilling life sober – not just stopping drinking. Support is always there if you need it, whatever is going on in your life, and however long you’ve been without a drink.
The whole thing, (AA is an international fellowship) including the free 24 hour helplines, is run with small amounts of money collected at meetings. Of course there’s no charge for admission, and even the tea and coffee is free. But at the end of the meeting a basket or box is passed around, and if you are able to contribute you can drop in some cash.
The money will cover the hire of the room, tea, coffee and the odd packet of biscuits, so the meeting can keep going. And usually there’ll be a little left over to pass on to help fund the phone lines and other national costs.
So how did Winchester in the UK find itself on page one of AA’s “Big Book”, and why is Winchester visited every year by people from all over the world coming to visit the grave of Thomas Thetcher? Come to think of it – who was Thomas Thetcher?
During the final months of World War One Bill Wilson was with a US army unit en route for France and was temporarily quartered in an enormous army camp at Morn Hill just outside the city. Not in any way a religious man, he had nevertheless been profoundly moved during his visit to the cathedral when, seated quietly contemplating what was to happen to him in France, he’s had a sudden strange sense that some benign form of ‘higher power’ was watching over him – and that despite his fears everything would turn out well. It turned out to be an experience that he would never forget.
Strolling through the churchyard afterwards, his eye was caught by the wording on an old gravestone. It had been erected in 1764 in memory of a young grenadier of the Hampshire Militia. He had died ‘of a violent fever contracted from drinking small beer when hot… in grateful remembrance of whose universal goodwill towards his Comrades, this stone is placed here at their expence (sic)’ explained the inscription.
Bill probably had a wry smile on his face as he read it. By an odd coincidence the soldier’s name, Thetcher, was similar to that of his great friend back home Ebby Thatcher, and he and Ebby had certainly put away more than a few small beers together…
Bill had survived the war and returned to America only to find his life in jeopardy again – this time through his inability to control his drinking. His successful career as a businessman disintegrated, and he was told that he would either have to be permanently locked up or would die as a result of his alcoholism.
However his friend Ebby had found a way to stop drinking with the help of The Oxford Group, a Christian Organisation. Bill was initially discouraged by this approach – not being religious himself. But after much trial and error he and another alcoholic, Dr Bob Smith, began to develop a programme which would enable them and other alcoholics to stay sober – this simply asked that people had a desire to stop drinking.
No faith or belief was required, though being opened minded to the concept of a higher power was encouraged. Together they founded what became Alcoholics Anonymous.
As AA grew they decided to make a written record of the process they’d used to stop drinking and stay sober, and Bill set to work on a book that would become the handbook of the movement. And he chose to start with the story of that wartime day in Winchester.
We landed in England. I visited Winchester cathedral. Much moved, I wandered outside. My attention was caught by a doggerel on an old tombstone: ‘Here lies a Hampshire Grenadier / Who caught his death / Drinking cold small beer / A good soldier is ne’er forgot / Whether he dieth by musket / Or by pot’.
Bill and Bob had the book printed on extra thick paper with a striking red and yellow cover – as alcoholics themselves they figured that their target readership would consider a bigger and brighter book to be better value for money! Still known affectionately as ‘The Big Book’ by generations of readers, today it’s an all-time best-seller.
The 25 millionth copy rolled off the presses as far back as 2005, and around a million are still printed and sold each year, despite the text being available free online in English, Spanish and French. In 2011 Time Magazine placed it on its list of 100 best and most influential books written since 1923 (the start of the magazine). And a year later the Library of Congress designated it as one of the 88 ‘Books That Shaped America’.
The ‘Big Book’ is read and discussed at most AA meetings. It’s available in more than sixty seven languages since AA now holds thousands of meetings all over the world. There are very few members of the fellowship who don’t have their own cherished copy. Bill’s recollection of his wartime to the cathedral, together with the verse from the stone, remains on the very first page.
Thomas Thetcher’s gravestone still stands over the spot where he lies in the churchyard at Winchester, although it’s a faithful copy of the one that Bill Wilson saw on that hot August day in 1918. That stone was becoming badly weathered, and in 1966 was taken to the Regimental Museum in Winchester for safe keeping where it can be seen today.
AA’s and their families from across the world often make a point of visiting Winchester. They admire the cathedral – and search the graveyard for the stone, for they like to read the familiar inscription for themselves and perhaps take a photograph or two. And many like to sit in the quiet of the churchyard and take a little time to reflect on the gift of sobriety, on universal goodwill towards comrades, and on the strange twist of fate which joined forever the stories of two young soldiers – Bill Wilson of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Thomas Thetcher, the Hampshire Grenadier.
If you would like to know more about AA you can find their website here:
AA has a twenty four hour helpline on – 0800 9177650
All AA services are free.