At 6.45 pm on Wednesday 27 January 1988 I was standing in the ladies’ toilet on the first floor of Eaglescliffe Masonic Hall. Next to me stood a man wearing a white lambskin apron and holding a sword, which he used to menace me.
‘Get your clothes off ... and put your watch and rings in that tray.’
When a man threatens you with sword, it’s sensible to take him seriously – and normally I am sensible. (Of course, you may think that nobody sensible would have got themselves into a fix like this, and perhaps you’re right, but more of that later.) My immediate problem was to check that I hadn’t misunderstood.
‘Everything?’ I asked. ‘Is this some sort of ritual naked mugging?’
‘No,’ he said, his expression totally serious. ‘You can keep your underpants on.’
As I pulled my trousers down, he produced what looked like a set of rough linen pyjamas.
‘Put these on,’ he ordered.
The light of the single bare light bulb sparkled from his sword as he pointed. I gulped but did as I was told.
This strange adventure began months earlier when I asked, ‘What is the purpose of Freemasonry? Why do you enjoy it so much?’
My questions were met with counter-questions, my interest in joining the Order was tested, and,as I will explain, I was forced to decide if I was ready to think about the underlying nature of the world. Now, on the eve of my Initiation, I was being tested again. How far was I prepared to go to gain Masonic knowledge?
All the trappings of my social and academic status had been taken from me. I was left with my body, my intellect, a pair of underpants, a borrowed suit of rough white clothing and shoes that didn’t fit. I also had my emotions: I felt ridiculous.
‘Why do I need to wear such a strange get-up?’ I ventured to ask the armed Mason who was supervising my preparation. His answer was blunt and unhelpful.
‘This is how everybody comes in.’
Not until much later would I begin to understand what was done to me that night; at the time I felt confused, and even a little let down. I donned the rough linen pyjamas, then the swordsman opened my jacket to expose parts of my body and rolled up sleeves and trouser legs. I could see no rhyme or reason for his actions but he continued to fiddle with my flimsy rags until he was satisfied.
‘Wait here,’ he said, closing the door as he went out – as if I was likely to run out into the street and risk frostbite, or arrest for indecent exposure.
The muffled sound of hymn-singing drifted across the hallway. As a regular church organist I recognised the tune as ‘Vienna’, but I couldn’t make out the words.
The music was counterpointed by a sporadic rattle of crockery and pots coming from downstairs. The smell of boiling cabbage and cooking meat crept under the door. There I sat, stripped of my worldly possessions, wearing ill-fitting, borrowed clothes, serenaded by discordant hymn-singing, and with the aroma of roast beef to remind me how hungry I was.
The singing ended with a strange, disjointed chorus I did not recognise. It was followed by a flurry of knocking that seemed to echo round the ladies’ convenience where I sat and pondered my fate.
Why did I get myself into this?