The heavy door through which I am ushered is marked "Strictly private". I had expected nothing less from one of the inner sanctums of Manchester's vastly imposing Freemasons' Hall. Yes, the Masons have become more open and media-friendly. Yes, one of the 131 lodges based here was the first in the country to advertise for members in the local paper. But they're still Masons, after all. Privacy goes with the territory.
"We're not a secret society or a society with secrets, but we are a private society," says Alan Garnett, 52, provincial secretary for East Lancashire, who greets me on the other side of the door with a warm grasp of the hand.
I'm testing his grip for the probing thumb or the crooked little finger. But as I have never been initiated into the rituals of the Masonic handshake, what I'm feeling for is not immediately apparent. A surreptitious downward glance confirms that the bottom half of Mr Garnett's immaculate dark suit is firmly in touch with his shoes.
"I've rolled up my trouser bottoms three times in 30 years," he confides.
On each occasion he was passing through one of the initiation ceremonies on the way up the Masonic hierarchy, from apprentice to craftsman to master Mason. The ranks, like many of the symbols of Freemasonry, are based on the guilds of medieval stone masons. Hence the requirement to make oaths of allegiance "on bare and bended knee" (medieval masons wore breeches). Hence the bloodthirsty threat, abandoned as recently as 1986, that anybody transgressing those vows would have his throat cut, his tongue removed and his bowels fed to the birds. And hence the handshake. It enabled a master to know at first greeting whether an itinerant mason had served an apprenticeship.
"We use it only on ceremonial occasions and when visiting other lodges," Mr Garnett assures me. "I shook hands with someone in the street the other day and my wife asked if he was a Mason. I told her honestly that I didn't know."
Wives and Freemasonry rarely mix, but they are invited to social occasions such as the annual ladies' evening. Women are employed in the Freemasons' Hall as receptionists, waitresses and bar workers. But to be a member of one of the 7,600-plus lodges in the British Isles, you have to be male. Masons tend to go to monthly lodge meetings straight from work wearing suit, collar and tie. They usually carry with them a little case. Each contains an apron to tether around their woollen-worsted girths. The plain leather version worn by the medieval stone mason has evolved into something altogether more ornate. Mr Garnett snaps open his own case to reveal a lambswool number fringed with turquoise plastic, decorated with Masonic symbols and enhanced by two rows of metallic tassels.
Two other Masons are sitting around the table in the provincial secretary's office. One is Barrington ("I only answer to Barry") Wallwork, a retired motor trader from Stockport. The other is Norman Pickles, a retired sub- editor from the Daily Mirror's Manchester office who is now East Lancashire's press and public relations officer. A sign of the times. Press and public were kept at arm's length until the mid-Nineties, when a more open policy was decreed by the United Grand Lodge of England.
Unfortunately for the Masons, it didn't stop the steady stream of negative publicity. Last March, the Grand Lodge was forced to hand over to the Commons Home Affairs Committee the names of 16 members who were alleged to have been involved in a series of police corruption scandals. Four months later, the Lord Chancellor sent letters to 5,000 judges and tribunal chairman asking them to disclose any links with Freemasonry. Only 4 per cent admitted to membership (although it was later revealed that the figure for male JPs was at least 14 per cent.)
The suspicion, though, of a society of mutual back-scratchers has done little to boost recruitment at a time when changing social trends have already taken their toll. Membership in East Lancashire is at 11,500 compared to 19,500 just 20 years ago. All the same, officials were taken aback when the Humphrey Chetham Lodge went it alone and placed that advertisement in the Manchester Evening News.
So what can they expect, those would-be Masons? A long wait in some cases. More than 20 men have applied for half a dozen vacancies, which suggests there is still a demand in contemporary Britain for all-male organisations with a strong sense of tradition.
But there are no short cuts to membership. Each newcomer must find two backers who are already Masons. He will also have to prove that he has no criminal convictions, motoring offences apart, and declare his faith in a "supreme being" (the Christian God in most cases, although there are seven books of holy law available to swear on). Mr Garnett's lodge meets in the Derby Suite, under a painting of Lord Derby. Members sit on red plush chairs and await their officers who parade in with a burst of organ music.
"It's usually churchified tunes, military marches or Pomp and Circumstance," says the provincial secretary, who is a bit of a dab hand on the keyboard. "Last week I played the theme from Titanic."
The lodge master takes his seat below Lord Derby's portrait. Minutes are read and guest speakers introduced. Recent talks have been on American presidents who have been Masons (plenty) and the Masonic link to the pyramids of ancient Egypt. There is also a steady stream of speakers from charities to whom the Masons are generous donors.
By now we are in a bar, waiting for our sandwiches. It's lunchtime and the place is hardly full. But as we go to sit down at one of several vacant tables, Mr Garnett suggests that we move to another room: "Somewhere a little more private."
Private, but not secret.
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