Flat caps, Ferrets and Freemasons

DURING THIS PERIOD OF ENFORCED ISOLATION my mind wandered back to a few summers ago when, against my better judgement, I went to a Traction Engine Rally. In this pre-social distancing era I found myself surrounded greasy, flat-capped, Fred Dibnah types standing round, hands deep in pockets, salivating over road rollers and steam-stone crushers. There were all sorts of smoke-belching, archaic creations from the Industrial Revolution, in various stages of dilapidation, from gigantic behemoths Isambard Kingdom Brunel probably designed, right down to miniature steam trains. But, to my surprise, I found some rather interesting pieces of engineering there and, after an hour wandering round the exhibits, I was quite enjoying the experience and began to question my initial reluctance to attend. Then, it all went wrong when I overheard one soot-blackened, boiler-suited aficionado ask another soot-blackened, boiler-suited enthusiast if his fire trap had fifteen or eighteen rivets, prompting much heated discussion on the merits of various fastener combinations and their respective effectiveness. Two others were avidly poring over what looked suspiciously like an old catalogue of Replacement Gaskets and loudly bemoaning Beeching and what he did to their beloved rail network.

I then wandered into the Sanctuary aisle where stall after stall of plaintive people pleaded for me to foster their abandoned charges. Centre-stage was a Ferret Rescue stall with two rather genteel ladies encouraging folk to adopt their poor, misunderstood creatures. Now, forgive me if I’m wrong, but the Mustelidae family may be really cute on Countryfile but, from what I’ve seen, they seem to be vicious, savage predators in the flesh. Definitely not the furry companions you want hanging round the garden, babysitting your pet rabbit. How wrong I was. According to the twin-set and pearls Rescue lady they are lovely, kind, thoughtful characters who have a higher IQ than most humans (or something like that). Although I must admit the multiple lacerations on her hands somewhat threw a shadow of doubt in my mind. Then, lo and behold, in front of the stall were a couple of chaps comparing their pets’ attributes. One had a pale forehead and no mask (the ferret, of course) which apparently designated it as a polecat-ferret, whilst his mate’s was a creamy white squirming thing with tiny red eyes. It was scrabbling frantically, desperate to wreak love and intelligence on the one without the mask.

Having had all I could stomach about ferrets, I wandered over to the classic bike show where a couple of blokes were heatedly arguing over whether chain was better than belt drive. Another couple were examining headlights and debating whether Joe Lucas had, indeed, been the Prince of Darkness. Theirs was the same obsessive, anorackish type of discussion I’d heard from the steam buffs and ferret fanciers.

I really don’t know why I bother going to these events. I reckon I was emotionally scarred many years ago during my brief, tempestuous affair with a decrepit MGB Roadster. It had wire wheels and a soft-top; the engine was temperamental, it sounded really raunchy, and I loved it. But the bodywork was absolutely shot. The wings flapped frantically at anything over 50mph, the bonnet and boot resembled a relief map of the Himalayas, and the sills and doors had gone MG gossamer thin. I ran it until the MOT expired then, out of the blue, along came another Roadster. This one had a blown engine but the bodywork was sound so, to cut an extremely long and anorackish story short, I made one decent car out of two duffers. I sprayed it a rather fetching shade of off-white, with all the leftover paint I could scrounge, and when the dust settled I was extremely pleased with my Frankenstinian creation. So much so, I drove it to an MG Owners Club rally to show off.

What a mistake that was. Imagine the reaction if you proposed the wife for initiation; well me and my hybrid received a reception far, far worse. The charitable wrung hands, gnashed teeth, and greeted us with sudden intakes of breath. The hard-core fundamentalists were hyperventilating and apoplectic. ‘How on earth could anyone put radials on a 1964, Trevor?’ … ‘Oh no, it’s got bell-mouths, Arthur! Anyone knows only the MGC had bell-mouths…’

I could have been distraught. Then I saw this ‘expert’ trying to coax life into his MGA and he couldn’t. How I laughed. He was right, of course, mine couldn’t be an original because it still had a sump-full of oil after its eighty-mile journey, and its soft-top wasn’t flapping about like the concourse version that won Best Roadster. I didn’t say anything, I just started Frankie and shot off the site with my back-end fishtailing wildly.

And, finally, onto the point of this rant. In recent years, there’s been an enormous surge in popularity of ‘special interest’ Lodges. We’ve got Old School Lodges, Lodges for Golfers, Rugbyites, Scouts, Rotarians and many, many more. It wouldn’t surprise me if there’s a Lodge somewhere for Ferret Fanciers and Steam Enthusiasts. Not being a member of these new-fangled Theme Lodges I’m worried they too could be a bit anorackish. And, more to the point, I wonder what makes them so different from your mainstream Lodge? Does the scout from the St. Anne Greavsie Lodge, No. 2 in the Premiership, tout for members in his padded jacket, chewing gum, and spitting ‘It’s a ceremony of two halves Harry?’ Do all the brethren of the Literatii Lodge, Letter Aa, of librarians, hush the preceptor when he prompts?  Does the RugLodge, No. First XV, all have a bath together after the ceremony? Does the Goingoingone Lodge, No. any advance on a pound?, brethren all speak at three-hundred words per minute and no-one dares gavel in case they buy it?

I never had counselling after my MG experience so it probably accounts for my somewhat jaundiced view of special interest groups. Then, I accepted an invitation to attend a Biker’s Lodge.

We set off, at some unearthly hour, from our northern wastelands, and rode over one-hundred miles with the weather throwing everything at us: mist, fog, rain and even the odd sunny spell. When we finally arrived we looked like we’d just done a world tour. I had enough bugs in my beard to send David Attenborough into raptures, and the pair of us presented a sorry, grimed and weather-beaten sight. But the bike parking at the Masonic Hall was more secure than our Treasurer’s wallet, and a variety of machines were already there: big tourers, commuters, race bikes and even a couple of classics. Some, from more civilised parts (you know who you are Bob C), had the foresight to travel down the previous day and relax overnight in a nearhotel. They turned up, fresh and spotless in their morning suits and crash helmets, replete after their full English, loudly complaining the sauna hadn’t been quite hot enough.

I thought it was going to be another anorack event, but was delighted to find it was much like any other Masonic meeting. The ceremony was top-notch, the lads all worked hard on ritual, friendship was superb, festive board first class, Past Masters all prompted, and the DC got stressed. Then, to cap it all, the sun shone all the way home and, amazingly, my twenty-year old Harley never missed a beat.

Perhaps, after this experience, I might have changed my mind about theme Lodges. I’ve had an invitation to the Rigormortis Lodge, No. 666, who are ‘undertaking’ a Third next month (sorry!) That might be worth seeing. I’ll let you know.