Damian Thompson

Party Tricks

Who's Afraid of Freemasons? The Phenomenon of Freemasonry


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When I first went to university I was determined to rebel against my middle-class Catholic parents. The only problem was that I wasn’t sure how. This was the early Eighties: the era of revolutionary politics was over; drugs and casual sex were frustratingly unavailable (to me, anyway). And then, unexpectedly, a brilliant solution presented itself, one which reduced my parents to gratifying speechlessness.

I became a freemason.

Let me explain. Unknown to most of its students, Oxford University possesses its own distinguished masonic lodge: Apollo Lodge, membership of which is confined exclusively to members of the university. At the time I joined, however, it had adopted a policy (long since sensibly abandoned) of allowing undergraduate brethren to put forward their own candidates, sometimes with the minimum of screening or preparation.

The word went round college bars and the Union that Apollo was the ne plus ultra of dining societies. Sometimes late-night parties would be invaded by adolescent masons in white tie just back from the lodge. Some of them, I am sorry to say, would then drunkenly enact snatches of ritual. A favourite trick was to launch into an after-dinner routine called ‘sharp fire’, in which masons trace a square and compass in the air with their right index finger while chanting ‘point, left, right; point, left, right; one, two’, and then loudly clap out a masonic rhythm: rat tat-tat-tat tat-tat-tat tat-tat-tat! Junior members of Apollo were always snobbishly proud of rattling out sharp fire in five seconds, ie about three times faster than dull old provincial lodges. Of course, it wasn’t supposed to be performed away from the ‘festive board’ (the masonic dinner table), but people did, and I can tell you that it certainly stops a drinks party in its tracks.

This and many other weird memories came surging back as I read Who’s Afraid of Freemasons? by Alexander Piatigorsky. This book is, in fact, an intellectually demanding study of the phenomenology of freemasonry with particular emphasis on its historiography rather than its origins (about which no one really knows much) and the underlying meaning of its rubric. I didn’t expect anything in it to remind me of my own frivolous masonic career, in which any strands of ritual or esoteric tradition I picked up were rapidly dissolved in alcohol. But Piatigorsky demonstrates that the Craft has always had to endure the bad behaviour of people like me and my friends. As one eighteenth-century masonic purist noted despairingly, ‘At the meeting of 5 January 1769, the Brethren present were unanimously of the opinion that the company would be better entertained with a few promiscuous songs than by any lecture.’ Indeed, the authorities realised from the start that where ‘the company of joyous companions’ was concerned, it was not fellowship alone that made the brethren joyous. ‘You shall not go out to drink by Night,’ thunders one of the early masonic charges, ‘or if occasion happen that you must go, You shall not stay past Eight of the Clock.’ Some hope.

Much to my surprise, even Piatigorsky’s disquisition on historiography rang bells. I had entirely forgotten one dogmatic Worshipful Brother who was always lecturing neophytes about Great Masons of History, a category that included any famous figure we cared to name (plus, thrillingly, Bernard Bresslaw, the giant booby from the Carry On films). But ‘twas ever thus, it seems. Early masons not only claimed both Adam and Moses as freemasons, but the Emperor Augustus, ‘Grand Master of the Lodge of Rome’. Alexander the Great, on the other hand, was ‘not reckon’d a Mason’ because he ‘burnt the rich and splendid Persepolis, which no true Mason would do were he ever so drunk!’

Details such as this delight Piatigorsky, whose donnish wit illuminates every page of this book. Faced with a masonic bibliography of 64,000 books, pamphlets and articles, he selects just the right snippets. So, for instance, he does not bang on about the notorious throat-cutting penalty (a classic example of information so secret that it is bound to leak out and become famous). Instead, he produces an eighteenth-century penalty for intruders who eavesdrop on Craft ritual: ‘If a Listener is catch’d … he is to be plac’d under the eaves of the Houses in rainy Weather till the Water runs in at his Shoulders and out at his shoes.’

At heart, however, Who’s Afraid of Freemasons? is a serious work whose subtle arguments distinguish it from every other book on the subject. As Piatigorsky points out, these are overwhelmingly the work of masons or anti-masons. Freemasonry is ignored by writers on larger themes, so that an institution to which one adult British male in twenty belongs is mentioned in only two out of thirty-six books on British civilisation published over the last thirty years. As a result, the question ‘What is British freemasonry?’ remains unaddressed except by nit-picking Craft historians and semi-literate conspiracy theorists.

Piatigorsky’s answer is fascinatingly provocative. He believes that freemasonry is a syncretic religion without a central message or mission, but possessing a ritual which closely resembles (though is obviously not derived from) the death-obsessed initiation rites of shamanism and Tantric Buddhism. As for masonry’s insistence that it is not a religion, he convincingly suggests that this is bound up with ‘the very strong iconoclastic and anti-representational tendency in this island; a tendency much stronger than the theologies of its Churches … It is this tendency that impedes masons from seeing the religious basis and meaning of their Ritual, for in their own cultural background religion has already been separated from symbolism and ritual from religion.’

Who’s Afraid of Freemasons? is not only the best book I have ever read about masonry; it is also one of the best I have read about religious belief, offering profound insights into the process of Western secularisation, which Piatigorsky argues is more about the secularisation of religion than the ‘de-religionisation’ of society. Not the least of its virtues is its quirky structure, in which abstruse analysis is suddenly interrupted by transcripts of jolly discussions between the author and assorted masons. Some of the interviewees are amazingly candid: for example, Jim Burgh, a mason from Iowa who confesses that for him the Craft is all about the increasing emptiness of life. Facing death in the Lodge, he says, is ‘a hundred times better than to become extinct in a stinking condominium in Miami, in the company of thousands of elderly couples in shorts and bikinis – “tanned vegetables”, I call them. No, I’d rather die in the gutter.’

Reading this book did not make me regret the severing of my ties with Apollo Lodge (where, I should emphasise, I met many delightful people and for which I was proposed by a particularly valued friend). For a moment, though, I toyed with the idea of slipping back into the temple, armed with Piatigorsky’s phenomenological square and compasses, to take one last look at its strangely beautiful ceremonies. But I daren’t risk it. I’d certainly be rumbled as an ex-masonic intruder – and it’s always raining in Oxford.

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