I’m in a giant domed hall listening to the sound of 1,400 men in white gloves applauding. It’s a freaky noise, whose muffled weirdness is only heightened by the extraordinary surroundings. The ceiling is adorned with Biblical-ish inscriptions; “He shall build me an house… forever his throne shall be established for ever more…” and pictures of Biblical-ish people in robes.
The walls are decorated with giant blue and gold eyes, sunrays, stars, hearts, and dragons. It’s like sitting in a giant Doodlecraft poster. Yet this fancy décor is as nothing when you examine the elderly chaps packing the hall in serried ranks. With their decorated aprons, V-shaped sashes, rosettes, ribbons and badges they could be extras in a Wachowski brothers film.
Welcome to the Quarterly Communication meeting of the Freemasons at their eponymous Hall in London.
Is there any society as festooned with myth and supposition as the Freemasons? With its rolled-up trousers, secret handshakes and accusations of nepotism, Freemasonry stands for either loving brotherhood or corrupt connections, depending on your view of the above.
Founded (allegedly) by medieval cathedral builders, Freemasonry has always been colourful. It inspired Mozart’s The Magic Flute and is at the heart of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It’s the reason Manchester City plays in pale blue (the Freemasons bailed the club out in the 19th century and it sports Freemasonry blue in thanks).
It’s still jolly Secret Squirrel, which is why producer Emma Read was thrilled to get cameras in, and is promising “unprecedented access” in a new five-part series on Sky1.
Trumpeting about “lifting veils of secrecy”, as the pre-series publicity does, should mean just that. But the series doesn’t really quite nail it on that score: we never really see the whole initiation ceremony or witness a huge amount about the rolled trousers.
Disappointingly, there’s nothing of the impossibly severe Third Degree initiation element (giving rise to the phrase “he gave me the third degree”). It’s more a fascinating analysis into middle Britain and about why being a Freemason is still such a thrill.
According to this series, Freemasonry is essentially a giant club full of men who like badges and say things about their wives like “we hold our ladies in high regard” with zero irony.
Read says she wasn’t out to turn the Freemasons over. “It’s not an investigation. I wanted to understand why men joined.” So many men. Two hundred thousand in England and Wales alone, all with aprons.
“It’s no different from the Scouts,” says Read. “It fulfils a need. In a world that basically ignores a certain type of middle-aged man, and puts them on the scrap heap, Freemasonry doesn’t do that. It’s like mindfulness, only with better aprons.”
Oh, blimey, the aprons. And the mallets. And the pennants, and the chanting. “People want a bit of flamboyance,” says Read, in defence. “And to be recognised for what they do. It’s for people who like structure in a world where there isn’t much. It’s why it attracts a lot of sportsmen and army people. People who want to know where they stand, who like history and order, that’s the kind of man who is a Freemason.”
There is a lot of chat about generosity to charity and the badinage and sociability of the Lodges, although every time we venture into one, they all seem to be full of the same person telling the same 1970s joke.
In the Hall, I spot one black person. There are, of course, no women. Neither are there many people under 65, except one, intense Francophone rapper.
So why has the Freemasons invited the cameras in? “Because the organisation is 300 years old and I think 300 years is something worth celebrating,” says Deputy Grand Master Jonathan Spence, a former City banking executive. “Also we wanted to deal with a lot of the misunderstanding and myths.”
In the hierarchy, Spence is third only to the Grand Master, the Duke of Kent. According to the affable Spence, the Masons is simply a fun friendship group. Albeit with a bizarre get-up. All else is tosh.
“The business of advancement, all of that is actually forbidden by the Freemasons. People don’t come to it hoping membership will further their career. They come to it for a variety of reasons.” Such as? I ask him, praying that he won’t go on about charity again.
“There is a huge amount of camaraderie. There is a history. You are encouraged to think about doing the right thing. It’s about moral instruction, in a way that is non-religious.”
Every Freemason believes in the “Great Architect”, or the “Supreme Being”, but who or what that is up to you. You can believe in Star Wars and still be a Freemason. You can believe in June Whitfield. You just need to believe in something.
“We have people from all sorts of faiths and backgrounds, but really what it points you to is being a better person,” says Spence.
What being in the Freemansons means to David Staples, the hospital A&E consultant has been a member for over 20 years
“Anyone can find out about the Freemasons in under 15 seconds on Google. The fact that we keep bits of the ceremony secret doesn’t mean real secrecy, in any true meaning of the word. I have been a doctor for 20 years: there is no question that I would employ someone because they were a Freemason, and not the best doctor in the room. Where it does come in useful is that we are social creatures. In Freemasonry you can meet people from all walks of life. There are no women, but there are no women in most First XV rugby teams, or in men’s running clubs.
“There are women’s rugby clubs and there are a few women’s Freemasonry Lodges. Is Freemasonry guilty of conspiratorial bad practice? There was a lot of circumstantial evidence that that did happen in the 70s, and it wasn’t our shining moment. But if you look at the Catholic Church over the centuries, it’s clear they didn’t have a particularly good time during the Inquisition.
“There are lots of things in Freemasonry that are taken out of context, such as bare breasts, slippers and rolled-up trousers. They sound absolutely ridiculous but, you know, it doesn’t seem ridiculous when you are going through it.
“This is something that I believe in and I think has a lot to offer. The worst that can happen is that I look like a pillock on TV and then everyone will forget about it. But some may think, ‘There might be something in this’. It will be difficult for critics to continue with their conspiracy theories, because they will see ordinary people doing ordinary things and enjoying themselves.”
What being in the Freemansons means to David Lallana, founder of a specialist football Lodge. His son Adam plays for Liverpool and England
Once you are inside the Temple, or the Lodge, we are all equal. Freemasonry has been practising social equality for hundreds of years. Having a specialist Lodge brings together like-minded people with a common interest and, of course, it’s important to maintain the traditions.
I think Freemasonry has a massive future. Its goals are to ensure that people of a like-minded nature get together, that they look at themselves, their own morals and take that forward to other people. And is it really secret? People can see me in my regalia on Facebook; nobody says, “Are you involved in a conspiracy?”
Adam is very aware of what I do: it’s been part of my life for the last 20 years. I devised a special song for our Lodge, which is sung to the tune of Blue Is the Colour. Yes, I know Adam plays for Liverpool, but once he understood the meaning he wanted everyone to know about it.
Inside the Freemansons is on Easter Monday 8.00pm Sky1