'A Freemason is not supposed to use Masonry for selfish reasons. But there is no doubt that a percentage of people do try. Accepting that, do you think they can succeed?'
I was speaking to a Master Mason, a retired barrister, at his home on the top floor of a Middle Temple chambers. He looked into his sherry and said, 'Oh, I should think to a very limited degree. If you join any club there are always some people who hope to gain something by their membership apart from the normal things in the club. Yes, I'm sure some people do, but it's very indirect, you know?
'You might say, "That's a nice doctor in our Lodge. Perhaps I'll go and see him when I'm ill; that chap's a nice estate agent - yes, well, who should I put my property in to sell with? Oh, well, there's Joe in our Lodge, I'll give it to him to do." That sort of thing. That does crop up. It applies to some more than others, probably solicitors more than barristers. Estate agents, doctors, tradesmen, people like that.
'This doesn't happen so much in London. It's more likely to apply in a smaller, more integrated local place -but then they know each other anyway, so I expect Freemasonry doesn't mean anything one way or the other.
'I think if someone's really hard up, then Freemasonry comes into its own. "Joe's very hard up, can't you put a bit of business his way?", or something like that.
'I'm not a very enthusiastic Freemason. In fact I suppose I'm a very unenthusiastic one, because I like having the dinner with my friends but I get rather bored with the little ceremonies they go through before. I can't be bothered to learn it, anyway.'
'What happens if you don't learn it?'
'Oh, well, you just sit back and don't take an active part in it. They don't like you to write it down. Well, quite frankly, I can't be bothered to memorize it. I wouldn't mind doing it if I could have a sheet, a sort of brief in front of me. That's my attitude to it, so you can see I'm not a very good Freemason.'
A former Worshipful Master of several Lodges of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Province, a master builder, told me how after a lifetime of devotion to Masonry, he no longer took any part in it because he had become so despondent about its deteriorating standards.
'There was a time,' he said, 'up to about twenty years ago, when it was a proud thing to be a Freemason. They didn't let just anybody into it in those days like they do now. There was a real feeling of comradeship. And we had real power then, as well.
'All the top-notch people in the community or parish or whatever would be in it - the police chief, the magistrates, the coroner, the doctors, tradesmen, solicitors, architects, builders, dentists and the like. And a lot of good men of lower station. It didn't matter what you earned, it was your character which mattered. That meant that if anything ever happened in the community, we would have the authority to do something about it.
'Like when, years ago in the fifties, there were some attacks by a pervert on some young girls. I phoned up the senior policeman in the district (he was in the Lodge), and a deputation of us Masons went to see him to find out what we could do. All the Lodges in the area formed into vigilante groups and we did house-to-house searches. We found him all right and by the time we'd finished with him he was in no state to interfere with anyone again.
'But we can't do those sort of things now. All the same people are in the Lodges but they've gone namby-pamby. With all this talk about rehabilitating criminals and leaving the law to take its course. It can still happen in some places where standards haven't dropped so much, but the old fellowship and trust isn't there any more. It's got bad all over. They are even taking blacks and Jews into it now.'
A Warwickshire Mason of Provincial grand rank, a leading figure in the construction industry, had different reasons for suggesting that Freemasonry was in decline.
'If you became interested enough in Freemasonry after what I tell you tonight to want to join, and asked me to sponsor you, I would say no. If you came back to me in two years I would say no. If you came back in five or eight years I would say no. I would want to know you well for at least ten years before I would consider supporting your application for membership. That's the way it always was, but it's not like it any more with most Masons.
'Interest in the Craft has been steadily decreasing among young men for the past twenty or twenty-five years. Because Lodges wanted to reverse this trend and give recruitment a boost, they gradually began to lower their standards. Now it is very easy to become a Freemason. Some members sponsor people they hardly know, or workmates of only a few months. It is not possible to know someone enough in a short time to be certain he genuinely has the values of a real Mason. Because of that, the Craft is now full of people who have joined because of what they can get out of it, not for what the Craft can get out of them.'
'I never found Freemasonry the least bit of use to me. I don't think in this country people understand it. It has a reputation that is completely misinformed,' said one of my informants, who has been a Master Mason for thirteen years. 'Obviously, if one belongs to a club, and I wouldn't put Freemasonry much higher than a dining-club incidentally, one meets people. If one meets people who get to know you, they probably give you their business. I happen to be a barrister so I don't really seek business. I never sought business or expected to get anything out of it except comradeship.' 'And you got that?'
'I belong to a Lodge which includes most of my friends anyway, so it's just another occasion where I meet my friends.'
'Would you agree that the majority of Freemasons do put it higher than a dining-club? There's the ritual, for instance
'I've noticed people do seem to like ritual, and I've been surprised once'or twice how seriously some Masons do take all that side of it. .. One of the problems with Freemasonry is that you don't really know what it is before you join.'
'Does that worry you at all?'
'No, not if you're being introduced by your friends. I mean, some people think it's a secret society, but it's not a secret society because a secret society is one that you don't know exists.'
This definition of a secret society, repeated to me so often by Freemasons I interviewed, is inaccurate. The existence of many secret societies is known. What makes them secret is that their inner workings are unknown to outsiders, and their secrets are protected by initiation ceremonies which impose penalties on those who betray secrets. There is usually some ritualistic element to the secret society. These elements in Freemasonry justify the application of the term to Freemasonry just as they do to societies which are generally thought more sinister like the Ku Klux Klan, the Italian Carbonari or the Chinese Triads, whose ritual has much in common with English Masonry.
When a man seeks admission to Freemasonry he must find two sponsors within the Brotherhood. In theory, a Mason must not approach an outsider with an invitation to join. In practice, an invitation from a friend or business associate in the Craft is the most common kind of introduction, although United Grand Lodge steadfastly denies this.
One of my contacts within Grand Lodge, a man who thinks of the secrecy with which Masonry surrounds itself as ludicrous and childish, told me what follows a would-be candidate's application to join a particular Lodge.
'We have a little preliminary committee of senior Lodge members who interview the Candidate informally, to look at him and to ask questions like, "Why do you want to come into Freemasonry?" and "Why particularly this Lodge?"
'He might say, "An uncle of mine recommended this one," or a business associate, or a neighbour spoke about it.
'The very first question he is asked is: "Do you believe in God?" and invariably they answer, Yes. Maybe they were told by other Freemasons that they'd better, but they do. I had one case only in all my long experience in Freemasonry when a man began to vacillate, saying, "I'm not really sure, I don't know . .."
'We wouldn't have anything to do with him.'
It would seem, therefore, that atheistic or agnostic Candidates canny enough to know the rules in advance and to lie about their beliefs are preferred to those who have genuine doubts and are honest enough to say so. My informant continued:
'After that, we send one or two of our committee to go into his home, by appointment, to see how he lives, that he is living in a decent way. I mean, I'm not a judge and you're not a judge, but if we go to his house and it looks reasonable, lived in, and it's nicely decorated, we know that we've got a man of standing. And I don't mean in the material sense. I mean that he is living as a human being should. He can be very modest, in two rooms, very modest. But, you see, a man in two rooms won't be a Mason because the fees are a bit costly, and you're expected to give charity. We don't say how much, but you're expected to give. If it's a pound or a thousand pounds, you give charity. Nobody will query.
'So we go into his home. We speak to his wife, if he's married. And we ask if she approves of her husband coming into the movement.
'We see if there are children. We ask him, "What about family life?" We're entitled to ask. If you want to come into my club, I'm entitled to ask you certain questions. If you resent it then it's a shame, then you can't come in. Same everywhere. This is how we accept people. If a man is a bankrupt we don't accept him. It sometimes happens that after joining, a man becomes bankrupt. That's too bad. We ask jf the Candidate has any convictions. Someone who has been fined for speeding or not putting two bob in the parking meter is not rejected, they aren't criminal acts. But if a man has had a criminal record, we don't accept him. It's a pity, because a man might perjure himself to get into Masonry and say he does not have convictions. But if he admits he has, we don't accept him because we want men of standing, or standards. Not standing so much as standards. The ones that you and I try to live up to.'
I asked if a would-be Freemason in England had to be 'whole', or was there a rule here, as there is in America, forbidding the initiation of people with serious illnesses, or those who are chairbound for any reason.
'We've got men with wooden legs, we've got men who are lame. There is a lame man at one of the Lodges I go to. No, I suppose in parts of the ceremonies which are to do with legs it may be difficult, but we make special allowances, even if they don't do exactly what is laid down in the ritual. The Lodge committee will discuss this kind of difficulty and find ways to cope with it. So, yes, we accept people with a physical disability. If you had a mental disability you wouldn't want to be a Mason, and it would be embarrassing for a mentally handicapped person, and for members of the Lodge.'
As a Lewis, or son of a Freemason, author and Sunday Times feature writer Philip Knightley was able to join the Brotherhood at eighteen instead of twenty-one. When I contacted him he said that he had been wanting to tell someone about his masonic experience for years. He said, 'My father had been a Mason for years. I don't know how he joined. I think he was invited by friends.
'In Australia, the Masons have to single you out and invite you to join - it's the opposite to the system in England. If you make the approach first then you're likely to be turned down.
'After being initiated as an Entered Apprentice in Sydney, I was to do my Second Degree in Fiji, where I'd gone. And so I switched from the jurisdiction of the New South Wales Lodge to the jurisdiction of a British colonial one. When the time approached for my Second Degree I was indirectly informed that they were not prepared to put me through the Second Degree. When I say indirectly, instead of telling me, the Lodge, which I'd visited several times, told the Australian Grand Lodge who told my Lodge who wrote to me via my father. The reason was that I had been associating with what were considered undesirable elements in the island - namely people who weren't white. So for the first time I realized that all the business about the brotherhood of man and brotherly love and all that applied largely to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. And with the help of a Jehovah's Witness on the island who was brilliant in digging up references from the Bible, I composed a bitter letter of complaint about the behaviour of the Lodge, which I sent to the secretary of the Grand Lodge of New South Wales, quoting various references in the Bible about the brotherhood of man which had come up in various sections of the ritual. He didn't answer my letter. He told my father that the best thing to do was to wait until I came back to Australia and they'd continue with the process of making me a Master Mason there. His only excuse for the behaviour of the Fiji Lodge was to say that customs varied from country to country and I shouldn't be too harsh on local customs. I returned to Australia, took the second degree, third degree, became a Master Mason, continued to go to Lodge with my father, more as a social thing than anything else. But I eventually found it more and more boring, particularly because there was so much memorization. I thought that if I really wanted to tax my brain with remembering things, I could remember things of more use to me - like learning another language or something, instead of running through this endless ritual. And apart from the fact that one month it would be first degree, one month second degree, one month third degree, the repetition became boring. The food afterwards was lousy and I began to see little or no use in it intellectually.
'I continued as a Mason, but very intermittently. I went to live in Britain then in India. I didn't visit Lodges in India. I returned to Australia after about eight weeks as virtually a non-practising Mason, and I fell ill with a tropical fever, and was in hospital. This was in the early days of transistor radios, and the hospital had no radio sets or anything like that. One of our brother Masons owned a radio shop and he had a lot of transistors. My father asked him as a brother Mason, could he lend me a radio for my spell in hospital, and he said no. He said I might break it or something. That was just the final straw. It seems a trivial thing but I thought if he couldn't even lend me a radio, what the hell was the whole Brotherhood of Masonry about? And I just lapsed and let my subscriptions run out, and all that sort of thing. But, because it's once a Mason always a Mason, I could, no doubt, by reinstating my standing with the Lodge in Sydney, visit Lodges here and continue to be a Mason if I wanted to.'