Freedom of speech

I WAS ONCE SUMMONED to attend a strategic committee meeting for the Province; one of those ultra-secret jobs where you only discovered the location, date and time a few days before. There was no written communication; I only received notification by an anonymous phone call, like on one of those covert Mission Impossible operations (I later found out this was entirely due to an oversight by the secretary but that’s another story). To this day I have no idea why they invited me but I strongly suspect it was so they could tick a box for being inclusive and consulting with the brethren. Anyway, full of excitement, I turned up under the strict instruction not to contribute anything. I was merely an observer and definitely did NOT have a speaking part.

As the meeting progressed I soon realised it was going to be just like every other committee meeting it had been my misery and misfortune to attend. For starters it was staged in a darkened, musty Lodge ante-room lit by a solitary energy-saving bulb, to reduce Masonry’s carbon footprint, which eventually reached its full, glimmering 40W potential during Any Other Business. Around the room were bookcases stuffed full of dusty, dry tomes no-one ever read, nor wanted to, and the rest of the sepia painted walls were covered with ancient portraits of long-gone Masons hanging at such frightening angles it resembled an exhibition of Dada.

The secretary began by reading reams of apologies from brethren who all instantly went up in my estimation for the creativity of their excuses. One had actually sent apologies on a postcard portraying an idyllic beach scene in Florida protesting, a little too much in places, the meeting had been called at such short notice it had been impossible for him to re-arrange his holiday but he would move heaven and earth to attend the next one. From where I was sitting, I couldn’t quite see the smudged postmark but I swear it looked remarkably like Barnsley. Mind you, the Queen’s head on the stamp may have given the game away. Luckily, for him, no one else seemed to notice.

The one part of the meeting, which really impressed me, was when they didn’t read the minutes. They’d probably been secretly circulated beforehand, written in ultra-violet ink on rice paper to be read, memorised and eaten before they fell into unscrupulous hands. Either that or the secretary had forgotten to bring them. They were confirmed with only two dissenters who complained he’d got their ranks wrong. Then the meeting quickly degenerated into a stereotypical affair, getting bogged down in minutiae and speculation around who may, or may not, do something. I stuck it out for just short of two hours listening to everyone claiming how things were far better organised and more efficient in the other Orders they were in. But long periods of inactivity do nothing for me, especially without any opportunity to contribute. After these two hours I could stand it no longer. We’d reached Item six on an agenda of eighteen; I’d counted every hair on the Chairman’s head, which hadn’t taken half as long as counting the Masonic Year Books gathering dust and mites on the ancient library shelves. As a diversionary tactic I spent a while speculating why 1970-1 was missing. What could have happened that was so bad this edition wasn’t allowed on display? I vowed then I’d do some investigative journalism on this and, if I come up with any juicy snippets, you’ll be the first to know.

When I drifted back to reality they’d spent the last twenty minutes debating if a harpist or a Primary School recorder ensemble should headline the next Charity extravaganza. From what I gathered it was quite obvious the only events management experience they had was from around the time the earth cooled, and reality and fantasy were in imminent danger of becoming inextricably linked. The other worrying aspect was the notable omission of modern tastes and lack of consideration for ordinary people’s preferences. Everything after the tragic demise of Glenn Miller was singularly ignored. Now, having a modicum of experience planning and organising events, I felt I had something credible to contribute so, after over 120 minutes of masterly inactivity, my mouth opened and I started talking. Vociferously, I laboured the importance of consulting the audience; of making sure families were catered for; of having a cutting-edge marketing strategy; of making it affordable for all…and on it went, a right Royal rant. When I finally finished there was a stunned silence. Then more silence, before the

secretary gave an awkward cough and said ‘So anyway, the Primary School recorder group only want their bus fares, whilst the harpist is charging £100.’

From memory, the recorder group won on economic grounds but, two weeks before, found it clashed with a field trip to Pizza Hut and we ended up with the £100 harpist after all. The event turned out to be a huge success, from a potential audience of hundreds, about forty turned up and most of these were the harpist’s roadies. There were even more creative apologies than for the Committee meeting, but none mentioned intolerance to discordant concerts or having to pay good money to turn out when you could have sent a Gift Aid donation and stopped in with a few tins and a takeaway.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. As I’d gone through the pain barrier twice, and was seriously worried I may permanently lose all feeling below my inert posterior, I knew I would have to leave this wretched meeting. My fellow attendees seemed settled for the rest of the day and, furthermore, the meeting didn’t give any indication of winding down. When the chap opposite began, for the fourth time, ‘Well we do it rather differently in Royal and Select…’ I knew that was it. I couldn’t pretend my phone was ringing as the chap next to me had used that one half-an-hour ago and hadn’t yet returned, so I just grabbed my papers, stood up and said ‘Bro. Chairman please excuse me,’ and walked straight out. No one looked up or said a word.

But, a few weeks later, I was at an installation and I heard one of the attendees describing that very same meeting to the Grand Officer.

‘We invited a brother along to observe and see how we work and, you’ll never guess what, he actually spoke!’

‘He never did!’ the old boy nearly dropped his G&T.

‘Yes. Not only did he speak, he made a bloomin speech!’

They haven’t invited me back yet.