If you want to meet dodgy car dealers, join the Masons
'Masonry offers bored, middle-aged men the opportunity for a faintly exotic social life'
By DJ Taylor
20 March 2001
A pretty sure sign that some timeworn national institution has its collective back to the wall comes in its eagerness not only to engage a public relations adviser but to make a point of telling the world that it has done so. The Church of England, the Women's Institute, Penthouse magazine... the number of staid-sounding and backward-looking organisations that have followed this route in recent years is so large that Freemasonry's decision to appoint a PR strategist seems seriously belated. The wonder is that the planners at Freemasons' Hall, in central London's Great Queen Street, didn't think of it sooner.
According to John Hamill, the United Grand Lodge's director of communications (the idea of Freemasonry having a "director of communications"), "we have been out of the public view and that has allowed a mythology to grow. We need to get back into the public consciousness in a proper way". The man chosen to do the job, a certain Mike Dewar of the public relations company MDA, has admitted to early prejudice, lately overcome. "They've had a bad time" he gamely concludes, "and maybe some of that has been deserved, but they are intrinsically a very good organisation. Their motto is to 'make good men better' and they gave £17 million to charity last year."
It is worth pointing out, of course, that Masonic charity is dispensed to Freemasons and their dependents, but you can see Mr Dewar's point. In terms of its membership requirements - not much more than a belief in God - Freemasonry is a deeply innocuous activity. It is only the paraphernalia of rolled trouser-legs and breast-baring that renders it comic and sinister by turns. And yet to read these accounts of how the public and press will now be welcomed into the organisation's lodges and invited to chat to its members ("Now this is Mr Jones, he's our Principal Sojourner, Barry here is the Tiler...") was to be swept back 30 years to a room in my parents' house in Norwich, with the darkness sweeping in across the garden and the sound of the tea-things being cleared away beyond the door, where I would test my father on his Masonic ritual.
Why my father let me assist in this grave and awful pursuit - strictly against the rules, it goes without saying - I don't know. Perhaps he assumed that its significance would simply escape me. He was right; most of its significance did escape me. What remains is a jumble of pseudo-biblical stuff about the Ark of the Covenant and the responsibilities of the Master Mason ("What is the first duty of the Master Mason?" my father would solemnly enquire as I waved the book out of his reach) in which dad featured as an entity named "Scribe Ezra". Scribe Ezra! Even to my youthful and sympathetic gaze it seemed to me that Freemasonry, once you took away the spiritual garnishes, was a fine excuse for a gang of middle-aged men to wine and dine themselves at festive boards, ladies' nights and other entertainments.
Oddly enough, though, Freemasonry was both more and less than this vision of steaming dishes and my father carolling his way through the Worshipful Master's Song. The charitable angle is definitely true. Should you be the widow of a Master Mason living in reduced circumstances, then an almoner will be happy to pay your electricity bill and, if necessary, arrange your transfer into a Masonic nursing home. The popular impression of a cabal of cigar-smoking businessmen all doing each other favours and passing bunches of fivers beneath the festive board I could never quite swallow. Certainly my father knew wealthy and influential Masons - a bishop here, a shipping tycoon there, a self-made local millionaire whose bath taps were popularly supposed to be made of gold - but their largesse stayed undistributed. Indeed, the only time dad consciously opted to use the Masonic network and bought a car off a dealer who happened to be "on the Square", it turned out to have a floor composed mostly of cardboard.
So why become a Freemason? Certainly not to immerse yourself in a career-enhancing social network (in fact the organisation does get fairly grand at senior level - its Grand Master, for example, is the Duke of Kent, and dad often talked darkly of the sinister forces that had conspired to "do him out of Grand Rank". The food, though occasionally lavish, is probably inferior to most restaurants. There is not even the lure of a "secret" - anyone who wants to learn the essentials of the craft can pick up most of it from Peter's initiation in War and Peace.
In the end I can only go back to my mother's explanation. This, based on four decades of attendance at ladies' nights, is that Freemasonry provides the perfect hobby for bored, middle-aged men engaged in undemanding jobs who hanker for a faintly exotic social life. Such people are not perhaps as common as they once were. Hence the guided tours of Grand Lodge, the promotional videos and - presumably - the chance to view Scribe Ezra intoning on into the darkness.