Friday, 7 April 2017

7th April 2017 - They really like their aprons !

Thought for the day:"The knack of flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. (DOUGLAS ADAMS)"

For no other reason other than it is sitting on my desktop - I thought I would share this map of North America....

Maybe it is a little late to build the wall !!

But in other news - the April Showing of "Inside the Freemason's" on Sky is building some more press... this is from the times today :

"In they file — the provincial grand masters, the grand stewards and the right worshipful brethren — out of the December cold, down the marbled antechambers into the Grand Temple. Freemasons, we are told, come from all walks of life but here, in Freemasons’ Hall in central London, as they take their places for one of the year’s big masonic set pieces, they mostly look the same — not just because they all wear dark suits, garish sashes, mayoral chains and prissy little aprons, but because, although occasionally there may be a neat beard, a black face, a turban even, mainly, mainly what you see is white skin and grey hair, and often no hair at all.

After years of decline, the masons are on a modestly successful recruitment drive for members under 30, but five times as many Freemasons are over 80. Nevertheless, more than 200,000 Freemasons remain extant in Britain and six million around the world, quite enough for the alarmists and conspiracy theorists to wonder aloud, as they have for centuries, about what these old, or prematurely old, men are really up to. There are, I am told, 1,400 here today.

I am allowed to spy, from the balcony, on the otherwise top secret “quarterly communication” for which they have assembled. The chief executive of the masons’ charitable foundation is speaking about the mountains of cash it has raised (two thirds, it must be said, going to charities dedicated to their members and families). Each sum is greeted by applause that might well be rapturous were hands not muffled by white gloves. We are assured that new “grant-management software” and the “unified accounting process” are “fit for purpose”. Progress is being “consolidated”. Thud, thud, thud go the white gloves.

If I am now Inside the Freemasons — to steal the title of Sky 1’s forthcoming five-part observational documentary, which inspires my visit — I may be in the wrong place. Where I need to get is inside Freemason heads. These arcane and violent-sounding rituals, those small-town meetings and womenless suppers, the considerable charitable donations and membership fees — what is in it for them?

In the 1980s the correct journalistic answer would have included favoured business deals, local government backhanders and your misdeeds covered up by fellow masonic-belonging cops. Continuing from a pioneering exposĂ© by the (to some suspiciously) short-lived Stephen Knight, the journalist Martin Short published Inside the Brotherhood in 1989. He concluded that if freemasonry did not reform soon, “more and more scandals will emerge and more and more books will be written exposing them”.

Well, maybe it did reform. In the past 25 years, fewer and fewer scandals have been exposed, fewer books have been written. Of all the controversies, only the whiff of police corruption lingers a little. Secret membership by officers is still allowed. Indeed, the Manor of St James lodge, set up for the Met Police, meets in this very building. The Independent Police Complaints Commission is investigating whether freemasonry was linked to the Hillsborough disaster cover-up, both David Duckenfield, the former chief superintendent in charge of policing the match, and his predecessor, Brian Mole, being Freemasons. (The United Grand Lodge of England assures me it is “entirely openly” assisting the IPCC with its inquiries.)

Peter Lowndes, the UGLE’s pro grand master, second only in grandness to the Duke of Kent, presides over proceedings today from his throne. A few hours before, I meet him in his office. A retired property consultant, he is an Old Etonian in his late sixties with Winston Churchill’s face. He answers all my questions with good humour, candour (so far as I can tell) and a slight air of bafflement.

He insists not only that membership has never won him a business deal but that he has never heard of one being negotiated in that way by anyone. “I am never going to say it never happens. I couldn’t. I don’t see everything that goes on. But I have never experienced it.”
The Manor of St James lodge is still going but it was actually formed mainly by retired officers. If only, I say, police officers, magistrates, judges and crown prosecutors did what a home affairs committee inquiry recommended nearly 20 years ago, and declared their membership.

“We strongly approve of that idea,” Lowndes says. “We encourage everybody to talk about their membership. That is why we allowed this Sky programme. We want people to become better at talking about it. When that inquiry started, we were accused of being a secret society. It is now accepted that we are not. The European Court decided that [in 2007]. So there is now no compunction for anybody to disclose their freemasonry. There will be certain organisations that discriminate against Freemasons and I think those people in such organisations have a right to decide whether they disclose it or not, but disclosure is strongly encouraged.”

Lowndes sees the secrecy as a historic mistake. Before the war, masons paraded through streets and advertised appointments in local papers. Then Hitler began to round up the Freemasons in Germany and, fearing invasion, the British freemasonry went underground, neglecting to come out when the war was won. Partly in consequence and partly, perhaps, because by the Sixties there was other fanciful garb for a bloke to wear, membership fell off.

In 1984 the grand master, the Duke of Kent, declared enough was enough and demanded greater openness. Glasnost began, albeit at glacial speed. Now in the year of the Freemasons’ tercentenary comes Sky’s Inside the Freemasons and its boast that it “lifts the veil of secrecy”.

After a year of negotiation, the series does get some unusual access to events, but none of them, dare I say, very interesting. We do not see the dubious sounding initiation ceremony, in which a trouser-rolled rookie is blindfolded and a noose passed round his neck, or the later “third degree” in which there is re-enacted the grisly end of the principal architect of King Solomon’s Temple, Master Hiram Abiff: in this, the candidate is almost, but not quite, struck on the forehead by a “heavy maul”.

As per their name and aprons, the masons love their central metaphor of building, reading across it to the construction of themselves as better people. In his book Freemasonry Inside Out, however, Hugh McFarland claims these rites are a form of hypnosis, which Lowndes, who thinks they are about the “drama”, denies. Since a real ceremony has never been filmed, we non-masons cannot judge. As for the masons who have gone through it, they, I suppose, may still be hypnotised.

Nor does the series show punishments being meted out. It would be too much to hope for tongues ripped from roots. They never were and even the verbal references have now been relegated to the past tense in the ceremonies. What about the deliberations, however, over expelling members? Lowndes says there have been more than 100 central expulsions over the past five years, all of them for criminal convictions.

Where the series makes some progress is into the minds of Freemasons. Every episode has at least one member who defies expectations. Andy Green, whom I talk to at Freemasons Hall, is, for instance, a cancer scientist at Nottingham University. You would think him far too practical a man for this nonsense but he belongs to six lodges. He credits the feats of memory and performance required in masonic ceremonies for curing his phobia of public speaking and has no difficulty as a scientist with acknowledging, as masons must, the existence of a supreme being — but freemasonry is not a religion. “We don’t have a deity. We don’t confess our sins. It is a way of improving ourselves.”

Garry Hacking, a nurse from Greater Manchester with a hipster beard, is quite open with me about one of his reasons for joining. His colleagues were great, but he needed male company. The masons supplied it: after all, the reason a recruit exposes his left breast in his initiation is to prove he has not got one. As in Green’s case, belonging has been transformative and, indeed, proved so for his fiancĂ©e.
“I wasn’t very happy. It was a logical thing to get engaged to her rather than what I wanted to do.

When I went through the third-degree ceremony, it changed me. It made me think you need to make the most of your life. It makes you face the idea that you will die eventually. It woke me up to a lot of things and I did a lot of soul-searching and I had to make some changes in my life.” One of which was his girlfriend? “It sounds really cruel,” he concedes.

Then there is Peter Younger, whose wife died of a heart attack two Decembers ago, leaving him to bring up a young daughter. “It has been a difficult year. I lost my job at the same time,” he tells me. “I mean, I got a new job straightaway. That wasn’t the issue. I only work part time now so I can look after my daughter. She is just eight but the professional support I have had through freemasonry, arranging counselling et cetera, was fantastic. Getting that support for my daughter was essential as far as I was concerned and seeing her improve as a consequence has helped me. On a friendship level, the support I have had is immeasurable.”

His father and grandfather were also masons but what is perception-smashing is that Younger is a leading light in the masons’ motorcycle lodge, the Widows Sons. Named after the unfortunate Hiram Abiff, it has 600 members, 26 in Younger’s chapter. “We are not just a bunch of businessmen swapping contracts,” he says, although I am sure he means to leave out the “just”.

How, though, could this rebel in leathers be a member of such a conformist set-up? He says my conception of bikers is outdated. Bikes may once have been a form of cheap travel for the young but the one in his garage costs £18,000. He asks me what I would expect to see if I came upon 5,000 bikers drinking beer in a field. A punch-up, I suggest. “Nothing,” he tells me. “We are just ordinary people with an extraordinary hobby.” Whether he is referring to bikes or masonry, I am not too sure.

All at once I see the connection between my four nice, rather different, masons: Lowndes, 45 years in the same firm, no doubt wearing a business suit every day of the working week; Green in equally sober work; Hacking, an ex-boy scout and former soldier, for whom uniforms remain part of his life; and ton-up Younger — his leather jackets may recall James Dean, but he may be the biggest conformer of them all.

A few months later, I meet Emma Read, the producer of Inside the Freemasons, for a sandwich. For a while, she admits, her team “grasped at air” working out what the programmes were about before realising the subject was modern men; men who like structure and tradition and performing and feel safest in the company of their own sex. Freemasonry is, she thinks, a huge “support network” for men in the 21st century.

“You have got all that ritual, and you meet behind closed doors and you have all these ranks, all that pomp and circumstance and ceremony — we think there must be something more to it. Actually, it is just a really big boys’ club. It is like the scouts.”

Surely, I counter, the defining quality of your model modern mason is his total absence of a sense of the absurd. Read laughs, then laughs some more. “They love their aprons. They really do love their aprons. Because what they say is: ‘I belong.’ ”

Inside the Freemasons starts on Sky1 on Monday, April 17, at 8pm"

Andrew Billen - the Times 


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