Personally, I have thought for a long time that Masons get a raw deal for enacting their rites based around the building of Solomon's Temple. I am not a Mason, but went to the Masonic School in Bushey (motto: Aude, Vide, Tace; Hear, See, Be Silent). My father had been a Mason for three months and had died, so I received their education.
The institution, a vast neogothic pile built to rival Eton College, did not teach us anything about the Craft. Ironically, the masters took a very dim view when we innocently decided to start a secret order of ditch diggers, the Poggies. Ancient Poggie lore was written down in an illuminated book while we all dug little channels from a sacred spring. We wore cricket sweaters round our waists as aprons. Discovered, we all were beaten for 'cheek', not yet knowing what satire meant.
Our book of lore was torn up and further 'blasphemous' meetings forbidden. But since the massacre of the Poggies I have passionately believed everyone has a right to their secrets. And Masons are everywhere. The revolutionary government of the Seychelles swears allegiance to God and our Queen and Widow Twanky every month in a lodge guarded by North Korean assault troops.
Witchhunts against Masons have the same smell as anti-semitism. The French Revolution was started by Masons like Danton, only for it to be used against them at their trials. Hitler hated Freemasons and sent many to the gas chambers. 'Freemason became a hate label along with Jew, Communist, homosexual. Membership of the Craft, it is said, was one of the things the Gestapo had against Rommel. Hitler would have hated the Poggies too.
Charges of self-seeking corruption have always been levelled. But for every T Dan Smith there has been a Garibaldi, for every thousand bent detective sergeants, a Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Masons ran the Underground Railroad to help to free slaves; on the other hand, masonic influence possibly helped FBI head J Edgar Hoover to do very naughty things.
Masons maintain that the silliest assertion is that the average accountant or Duke of Edinburgh who attends a lodge worships a seven-headed, neon-blue spider which is a representation of the old Cannanite god Baal. Somehow, I cannot imagine Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett being very big on spider worship.
The door of Freemasons Hall states 'push with care' and inside the visitor is shown up to the library. 'Where are you from, brother?' inquired the man who showed me, two masons and a masonic wife, round. They've not yet had a feminist revolution. 'Not a member? You should join. It's a cold world out there. . .'
Inside, it is all marble and art deco bronze. The building is truly vast. The antechamber is wonderfully impressive with an exquisite First World War memorial by Sir Walter Gilbert. The actual temple, through two and a half ton brass doors, resembles a pre-war Gaumont or Odeon in Halifax or Bradford, but it could be the vandalised leather seats.
'That's on account of the brothers fidgeting in their sharp regalia during Grand Lodge,' explained our guide, a man bearing a close likeness to Corporal Jones the butcher in Dad's Army. Those 'on the square', ie masons, nodded. So did the token wife. No one joined for what they could get out of it, one was saying. I didn't like to point out my father did because he wanted to become a Labour MP and the Craft offered a fast track. Which makes one wonder about Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. Do they wriggle upwards, too? I made a quick visit to the loo in the Grand Master's robing room, decorated in masonic colours. I've now shared a lavatory with George V, a former Grand Master.
Back in the shop, Les was still going through a book of great Masons. Peter Sellers. Peter Sellers? So, Inspector Clouseau was a trouser leg roller. Winston Churchill, Simon Bolivar, Oscar Wilde, Oliver Hardy, Louis Armstong? Al Jolson? On the square everyone is equal. And any society that makes the great and the good dress up in bejewelled mini-pinnies cannot be all bad or lack a sense of the absurd. Remember the Alamo]