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AA old-timer Stephen Eugene Clarke was one of a kind

2 October 2012 3,028 views One Comment

Stephen Eugene Clarke (‘Steve from Gordon’).
Sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 48 years;
House painter when it was a noble trade.
Born Sydney, November 19, 1926.
Died Sydney, September 20, 2012. Aged 85

THERE were five great loves in Stephen Clarke’s life. First, his wonderful wife, Dawn; second, his beloved daughter, Kerry; third, his adored grandson, Larry; fourth, the South Sydney Rabbitohs; and finally, and perhaps most importantly, Alcoholics Anonymous, which made everything else in his life possible and enabled him to be a sober member for 48 uninterrupted years.

Widely known as “Steve from Gordon”, Stephen Clarke’s funeral in Sydney today was attended by more than 150 people, many of them AA members inspired and helped by Steve over the decades.

Steve touched the lives of so many people, not just in Sydney and NSW, but also throughout Australia and, in some cases, overseas. He was a committed member of the AA movement who continued attending two or three AA meetings a week until shortly before he died in Hornsby Hospital.

Brought up in a Catholic family in Sydney, he had to look after his mother and his sister, Faye, because of his father’s absence. Faye, too, was a member of AA, preceding Steve into the program. She, too, remained a sober member until her death.

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One of the many things Steve taught us was that, if we stayed close to AA and to its program of recovery, we could experience, not a stale and mediocre and unhappy existence, but a brand-new life of abundance and enthusiasm.

Although by today’s standards he didn’t have a lot formal education, Steve was one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. A great lover of poetry and of literature. At heart he remained a committed militant and a supporter of the downtrodden and oppressed.

When I think of Steve, there are so many illuminating stories that he repeated often when speaking at AA meetings and which enabled scores of people to understand the baffling nature of alcoholism.

Here are two of my favourite anecdotes:

In the last year of his drinking Steve was hospitalised for alcoholism three times. After being admitted to Sydney’s Langton Clinic in a dreadful state, on the second day, an attractive young blonde asked if she could make an appointment to see him. “I’m a hypnotherapist,” she said. “And you are very uptight.” Instead of arguing, as would normally have been his wont, Steve agreed.

The therapist hypnotised him. “You are going deeper and deeper; your right arm is rigid and stiff.” Indeed, Steve could feel the stiffness and sensed that he was going under. “You are sitting at home in your easy chair,” she said. “And you are at peace.” It’s lucky she said easy chair, thought Steve, because almost all the furniture had been pawned to get money for the booze. Even under hypnosis he felt embarrassed about the poverty of his circumstances.

“When I bring you out of your trance,” said the therapist, “you will go to one AA meeting a week, because you will want to.”

When she clicked her fingers, she said, “Do you remember anything I’ve said?” “Yes,” said Steve, “and I won’t go.”

So powerful is the illness of alcoholism that Steve was defiant even under hypnosis. Such deep resistance is often an integral part of the story of a great many alcoholics.

Two years before he stopped drinking, Steve broke his little finger in a fight with three blokes in Woolloomooloo. That evening at home, he said: “I’m going to have to go on compo.” “Yes love,” responded his wife, Dawn. “But first, you’ll have to get a job.”

On the Monday he worked for an hour as a builder’s labourer, then showed the foreman his finger. “It looks broken; you’d better go to the doctor. Hey, what’s your name?” he shouted as Steve left the construction site. As a labourer, one could hardly get much more casual than that.

A kindly old RAAF doctor kept Steve on compo for 18 weeks, which must be close to a state record for a broken finger. This meant that Steve’s drinking habit was being fed. Then the doc said, “I can’t keep you on compo any longer; the only thing I could do is amputate.”

“How much?” inquired Steve. Reaching for a sheet of paper, the doctor looked down the list and said, “231 pounds”. Steve nearly said, “Take off two.” It was from that money that he was able to put a deposit on a house in Turramurra.

Steve often used to say that he didn’t think you could be an alcoholic if you could say “Turramurra”, let alone live there!

To clarify matters, even though he then lived at Turramurra, his AA nickname was always “Steve from Gordon”. This is because Gordon was the AA group with which he identified. Steve was anything but a wowser. Indeed, he had a wonderful sense of humour.

Hence it’s no surprise that he was amused by a song by Barry Humphries’ grotesque character Sir Les Patterson, which went as follows:

Never Trust A Man Who Doesn’t Drink

Though he may not throw up on your kitchen sink.

I’d rather be half-hearted than a blue-nosed wowser bastard.

So NEVER trust a man who doesn’t drink.

As Steve often explained, even these days many Australians don’t trust someone who doesn’t drink alcohol.

It’s probably true that Alcoholics Anonymous is now somewhat more sanitised and boasts fewer unforgettable characters than was previously the case. As Steve used to say, this is in part because AA mirrors the society in which it operates and possibly because the large number of rehabilitation facilities in Australia means that, increasingly, a number of alcoholics and addicts are treated much earlier.

In the 21st century, it seems that fewer alcoholics who come to AA are desperadoes like Steve and myself and his great friend, the late “Broken Hill Jack”. Moreover, unlike 30 years ago, these days only about 20 to 25 per cent of the homeless in Australia are alcoholics; the majority of homeless people now have a major mental illness, although some are also addicted to drugs.

Those who knew him know that Steve Clarke was certainly was one of a kind.

For me, it is an absolute privilege to have known him and to have been taught by him in so many ways.

We most certainly shall not see the likes of Steve from Gordon again.

Ross Fitzgerald is the author of ‘My Name Is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’, published by NewSouth Books in Sydney and available as an e-book.

The Australian online October 2, 2012

One Comment »

  • Jen W said:

    Thanks Ross for your wonderful eulogy yesterday and for your deep devotion and rspect for Steve. Kerry textd me today for my email address so she could send me your column. Knowing th pain she is in, I looked it up myself

    The finger story which is hysterical, I was in AA for 2 weeks in 1977, was the first time I heard it, and the first time I laughed. I too would have gone to those lengths, that’s why I considered I was laughing. Steve’s other quickie was, sitting at the bar with say Ross, at the end of the day Steve falls flat on his back, the barman being concerned asks Ross – is your friend alright? Of course, says Ross, Steve always knows when his had enough. Me exactly. Though I have stolen it on occasion, I always say, Steve from Gordon says…..
    See you soon Ross, I will miss Steve very much, he was my favourite OSM. Jen – South Sydney

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