Forsooth, Mr Straw refused to return my handshake

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
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The Independent Online
EVEN my worst enemies (of whom, happily, there are none) would agree that I am a shrewd judge of character. In assessing a stranger, I look for the tell-tale signs of worth: the firm handshake, the well- polished shoe, the straight back, the double-knotted lace, the open smile, the bushy eyebrow. If he attains a full-house, I tell myself that here is a fellow to be trusted, and clasp him to my bosom.

And yet ... and yet. Perhaps I should lay my cards face up on the proverbial table. When I refer to "the firm handshake", I am also thinking of another, more subtle, type of handshake: the Masonic Handshake. I fear that very few Independent on Sunday readers, their minds addled by years of ingesting and injecting every colour, shape and hue of toxic substance, will be sufficiently versed in the characteristics of this most brotherly of greetings. Yet it is the simplest of gestures.

Briefly, the Masonic Handshake is performed like this. First, peel a clove of garlic. Second, pummel it into a moist mush with a silver mallet or spoon. Third, mix in a little tarragon or thyme with a pinch of salt. Fourth, spread the mixture on the central finger of your right hand (those with six fingers, spread the third from the left). Fifth, clasp the hand of your fellow mason taking care to keep the central finger to the fore. Sixth, wiggle the aforesaid finger around in his palm: he will do the same for you. Seventh, once the handshake is concluded and your conversation is adjourned, smear an oven-ready chicken with your right palm. Eighth, place it in the oven at a moderate temperature and serve with lightly boiled carrots and new potatoes.

Do I speak out of turn? Until now I have been reticent concerning my Masonic affiliations, but in our new, modern, more open and classless society I feel the time has come to declare my hand. I have been Master Vizier of the Albany Lodge for five years now, and before that I was successively Grand Spanner, Inclement Tool and Hapless Wrench at various Lodges throughout the country, including the Royal Sunningdale Golf Lodge, the Central Court of Criminal Justice Lodge and finally the Distinguished United Lodge of Grand Arsonists, the latter unfortunately destroyed by fire resulting from an electrical fault some two decades past.

All of which informative preamble brings me to my earlier confession that I am a highly shrewd judge of character. Herein lies the crux. This being the case, how on earth did I come so grievously to misjudge the character of our Home Secretary, Mr Jack Straw? To be candid, I always had him down as one of us. Indeed, the only time I met the man, at a reception in Downing Street for world opinion-formers, I greeted him with an elaborate twist of the wrist followed by a half-Nelson and a fireman's lift, the highest peacetime honour one Freemason can bestow upon another. Yet he emerged from the entire experience with a bemused, even gormless, expression on his face; to my astonishment it soon became evident that Mr Straw was not of the Masonic tendency at all.

Quite the opposite, alas: the Home Secretary has now made it crystal clear that he is quite determined to strip away the secrecy we Freemasons hold so precious. And what noble traditions will be washed away in the ensuing storm! No longer will a High Court Judge be able to signal to a defendant by means of our secret code (three long winks of the left eye followed by three short winks of the right eye, in quick succession for five minutes, on the hour, every hour) that he is aiming for an acquittal before noon the next day. And no longer will a perfectly reputable defendant be permitted to signal back to a Judge (six long sniffs followed by a double nose-blow) that the money is in the second door from the left, fifth row up, in the safe deposit boxes at Victoria Station.

I fear my colleagues in the police force will also find themselves greatly handicapped by this ruling. At the moment, my own tried and tested method of blowing into a breathalyser is in fact to blow firmly yet compassionately down the neck of the collar of the police officer in question, and no further questions are asked. But what if his colleague has yet to be elected into a Lodge? Will we now have to go through all the rigmarole of "pulling rank" in order that we will be able to drive on, unimpeded?

My dear old Fleet Street Lodge will also find its wings clipped, alas. Outsiders probably do not realise that the words "verily", "agreeable", "forsooth" and "albeit" are only ever used in newspaper articles as a signal from one Freemason to another to alert them to new fluctuations in the stock market or overnight threats to the world order. That my own columns always contain one of those words in their heading is proof that we should remain vigilant at all times; never more so than now.