Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Masonic Tour: are you a freemason?

Just when I was starting to suspect that all the guided tours on offer in Bath are industry standard, along come the masons to prove me wrong. There is nothing to tell you it might be unusual, it is listed in the official tourist booklets as a tour of the Old Theatre Royal and Masonic Hall and it takes place regularly in the Summer. 

Once inside I was told that photographs were not allowed; the images of the hall below have been culled from the internet. There were seven of us waiting for the tour and I was the only person under 50. We got held up by an alarm that kept going off and our guide, who was in his 80s, couldn't figure out how to silence it for quite some time.

The tour began with him asking me, "Are you a mason?" to which I replied I was not. He wouldn't let go and asked again, "you're definitely not a mason?" It turned out that almost everybody else on the tour was a mason, hence his surprise that there was this very proper looking man who was not one of theirs. It was a strange beginning that felt to me as if he suspected I was hiding something, that I really was a mason from an ultra-secretive lodge.

We passed into the main hall and he gave us a history of the building. This did touch upon its former use as a church and as a theatre but there was little detail here except the surprising one that 1000 people crammed in here once to see a show. Under modern health and safety regulations, they would be hard pressed to squeeze more than 200 in today. What he lacked in terms of theatre history, however, was more than compensated for by his knowledgable of its use as a masonic hall. He showed us shields and heraldic designs which designated different lodges, and no I still don't know what a masonic lodge is precisely. He also showed us framed certificates, outsized paintings depicting biblical subjects and wooden boards that recorded the names of the heads of the various groups that met here. I noticed the dates on these boards continued right up into the present: this was not just of historical interest, this place was very current. Two of the masons in my group were visiting from Preston and they asked how the rituals were observed here. At this point the conversation rapidly turned esoteric, at least it was for non-masonic (really!) me. There was a woman on the tour who looked as lost as I was; she later told me she was researching Theatre Royals (next stop Harrogate) and she said to me, it all sounded like 'mumbo jumbo'. She was right, this was professional jargon designed to keep us out. That in itself made it quite interesting, and every now and then, a crack in the surface would open up and meaning emerge. The guide forgot his words once or twice, understandable for his age, and would then search for the word in the air in front of him until someone offered it to him. This was quite a nice participatory side to the tour.

We then descended into the basement where there was a display of masonic medals, paintings and paraphernalia. It was not particularly beautiful, it had a stiff aesthetic that was at once opaque, coded and yet also very establishment. Our guide talked about bodies being exhumed from below the building and then he got onto his lodge, the Knights Templar. There was a great deal more mason talk and I could hang on to bits here and there about certain lodges being very secretive ones whose meetings even other masons would not be allowed to attend. The tour concluded with him telling me they are the UK's second biggest charitable organisation and then suggesting I seriously consider joining. He gave me a DVD with this video on it, which the Preston men said was, "very good" and that was that. The overriding impression was that there is indeed a state within a state quietly directing things at the micro and macro level. Rather than allaying my suspicions, it rather made me ask myself whether I should be more aware of who they are and what they do. What's more, I also felt that they are attempting to create positive publicity to counter the conspiracy narratives that circulate but do so reluctantly as the masons natural instinct is to be discrete and act in the background. I was not expecting such a tour, I thought it would be a standard architectural tour focussed on the theatre's past. Instead what I got was a slice of the masonic present.

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