THERE’S NO SMOKE WITHOUT FIRE

A FEW YEARS AGO I TRAVELLED to a picturesque market town, nestling in the heart of rural Yorkshire, to attend a Consecration. After a perilous journey down narrow, winding, manure-encrusted country roads I eventually arrived, paid an extortionate fee to enter the municipal car park, and was swept up in a tide of Saturday shoppers ambling round a plethora of stalls along the ancient cobbled thoroughfare. A double-take at my watch showed I’d arrived early, which was slightly worrying as I’m either just in the nick of time or embarrassingly late so, as the sun was shining, I took the opportunity to partake in the lazy ambience.

Understandably, given its rural setting, the bulk of the market seemed to focus on farming and I quickly realised you could easily acquire a rich variety of bits of dead animals at, I was assured, ridiculously low prices. I gazed in wonder at the gruesome collection of butchered livestock parts, impaled creatively on the stalls, like self-assembly cow/pig/sheep kits. Some were vaguely recognisable, especially those still clad in fur jackets or feathers, whilst identifying others required more than my rudimentary knowledge of the abattoir trade. Moving quickly on, in case I succumbed to the rural hard-sell and becoming the proud owner of a dubious bag of entrails or cloven hooves, ‘You won’t find these any cheaper in any supermarket, I’m cutting my own throat at these prices…’ I arrived at the
rural crafts.

This was far more my style, evoking images of bygone times; of quaint, genteel, laid-back folk (read retired on a final salary pension scheme – remember them?) stitching, baking, stewing, carving and whittling, to their little hearts’ content, in their Grade 2 listed cottages in sleepy Yorkshire. You could buy, again at ridiculously low prices I was told (albeit somewhat less forcibly than by their ruddy-faced colleagues on the agricultural aisle), cross-sections of trees emblazoned with slogans like Dun Roamin and Costa Lotta; rustic bird boxes lovingly crafted from old pallets; a phalanx of technicolour gnomes, arranged like the Terracotta Army, to guard your chateau; a selection of oversized concrete animals to squat on the pillars of your stately driveway. Then I saw it, just what I needed for my front-garden: a stunning full-sized sheep evocatively sculpted from alloy in a neo-Soviet Constructivist style. In a flash I was convinced my long-suffering wife would, in time, grow to love it. Alright, even through my rose-tinted ‘love at first sight’ spectacles, I knew it needed a bit of work. To the uneducated, the alloy looked like old tin cans, a lot like old tin cans if I’m honest; its nearside rear leg was kicked out at a dramatic, possibly raunchy, angle reminiscent of next door’s poodle when it passes our lamp post, which caused it to list drunkenly to starboard (the sheep that is, although the poodle sometimes has a slight wobble); and its right eye was fixed on the jam stall, whilst the other was staring high into the sky. Mere trifling oversights which, I convinced myself, would surely be reflected in the price. From the scars and lacerations on his gnarled hands it was evident the stallholder had created this masterpiece himself, and the numerous smelt burns and scorches adorning his soiled boiler suit and greasy flat cap were a glowing
tribute to his craft. And, as I gazed at his grizzled face, it became all too obvious where he’d got the inspiration to give the poor creature a somewhat opthalmically challenged countenance. Determined to embark on some serious haggling, I tried to catch one of his eyes but, at that moment, the market square clock struck eleven and suddenly realised, true to form, I would be late for the meeting.

Vowing to return after the Consecration and negotiate a savage deal for my aesthetic beauty, I sped off through the shoppers to the Lodge rooms. Luckily, I just managed to miss the Deputy Grand DC’s pre-ceremony pep talk, which seemed to concentrate on when we could and could not applaud (mainly the latter). Then the proceedings began. No-one put a foot wrong in the processions, the singing was melodic, in fact I’m delighted to report the entire ceremony proved to be a perfect example of copybook precision, again proving that us Masons can put on a top-class show when we need to. It was timed to perfection, everyone recited their ritual faultlessly, and the circumambulations were like watching a carefully choreographed military parade. The only deviation preventing this extravaganza getting a perfect mark came about halfway through. The Chaplain, a clerk in Holy Orders they’d parachuted in from Grand Lodge, was doing a wonderful job circling the Lodge Board swinging, a bit too enthusiastically for my liking, his ornate ball and chain censer, liberally wafting plumes of pungent
effusions around the temple, and all over the Founders. I reckon he must have over-stoked it, or was using some high octane incense because, as he progressed, the atmosphere became foggier and foggier until, from my vantage point on the dais, I could just about make out the Junior Warden, but anyone further west was lost in his rolling barrage. The asthmatics had coughed up ages ago and now even those with more robust respiratory systems began choking and spluttering. Soon there wasn’t a dry eye
in the house. I did notice there were two old boys, next to the secretary’s desk, who were blissfully unaware and continued snoring peacefully, like those Fire Brigade adverts for smoke inhalation. The Consecrating Officer, now unable to see any of his brethren, wisely called for a comfort break and asked the Inner Guard to open the door. Just as the organist, who had a cracking sense of humour, cleared his tubes and launched into a timely rendition of George Frederick’s From The Censer Curling Rise, it certainly did, straight into the ultra-sensitive sensors of the smoke alarm in the hallway. As the sirens blared you would have thought there’d be pandemonium, or at least some movement, but there was nothing, no reaction at all. There were a couple frantically turning down their hearing aids but, apart from them, nobody budged. The Grand Master asked my mate Gerry to open the emergency exit, at the top of the fire escape, to let out some fumes. So we sat, progressively getting deafened and smoked,
watching the reactions of the Saturday shoppers as great wafts of scented aroma billowed out from the temple. I imagined they would soon be floating around, wearing peaceful smiles, loving everybody, and saying things like, ‘Oh wow, that’s a beautiful sheep, man!’ Two brethren left to turn off the siren whilst we all sat in the smog, patiently waiting to resume the ceremony. But, the worrying bit was, whilst we were all behaving in the highest traditions of Freemasonry: stiff upper lip, don’t panic type of stuff, we all assumed the swinging pyromaniac Chaplain had activated the alarm and no-one gave a thought to the possibility there may indeed be a fire! After all, two flights below, the caterer was busily cooking roast beef, Yorkshires and seasonal (Masonic carrots and peas) vegetables for one-hundred folk. For all we knew it could have been like the Towering Inferno out there and we were all sitting patiently, like kippers, waiting for the air to clear.

When they finally turned off the wailing sirens, there was a collective sigh of relief and the Grand Officer next to me whispered, ‘It’s a good job they don’t have sprinklers, or we would all have got wet,’ which I thought was priceless. Although, if you fancy adding a touch of realism to our next Royal Ark Mariner consecration this could be an idea.

I left shortly after the meeting and, on my way out, passed a photographer taking commemorative snaps of the Founders. I reckoned he’d need a fairly advanced software package to get rid of red-eye on those pictures. I was giggling so much about that one, it was only when I was half-way home, I realised I’d completely forgotten to go back and baaarter (sorry) for the twisted sheep.

My wife and neighbours were so disappointed!