Author: John Dickie

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd

Year: 2020

Pages: 242

ISBN: 9781473658196


The ‘Craft’ – as the Freemasons like to describe their association – has quaint rituals. The journalist Lawrence Donegan, writing in The Guardian in its issue of 29 July 1995, described the joining ceremony in which the novice is required to stand blindfolded with his shirt unbuttoned, his right sleeve and left trouser leg rolled up, a noose placed around his neck, and then led around by a man “muttering quasi-religious homilies”. Once initiated, a Mason learns a host of signals and phrases to help identify a brother (or sister, since the first female masonic lodges were established in France in the late 1770s).  Freemasonry dates its beginnings from 1717, with the founding of the Grand Lodge of England.

Donegan estimated that at the time of his report there were 500,000 freemasons in Britain, and the titular head was the Duke of Kent. When the Duke visited Syria in 1996, his escort and translator was Peter Clark, Pickthall’s biographer. In his laconic Damascus Diaries, Peter Clark shares a tit bit provided to him by a local political figure: “watch out for the Duke’s words, because you can recognise a Mason by introducing seven into the conversation”.  Other revelations on Masonic practices have entered the public domain. For example, the anthropologist Lillith Mahmud, in her study of a woman’s masonic lodge in Portugal in 2004-2006 picked up the word ‘V.I.T.R.I.O.L.’ and was warned to be very “discreet” in its use. It stood for the Latin ‘visit the inside of the earth and by making it better you will find the philosopher’s stone’. This lodge would hold meetings in a well behind a concealed entrance, deep underground!

 Professor John Dickie’s work is the outcome of five years of research, leading to a panoramic assessment of the association’s twists and turns from its earliest days. It displays a wide grasp of European history, befitting a Professor of Italian History at University College, London.  He unfolds the masonic experience from the Inquisition to the rise of Fascism, offering insights along the way of events such as the French Revolution and the unification of Italy. The focus is on the history of freemasonry in Britain, Europe and the United States.  

The author himself is a ‘Cowan’ – the masonic terms for those outside the fold – though he discloses an interest because a forebearer was initiated at Lodge St George in Aberdeen. His research introduces the reader to further ‘discreet’ aspects such as the types of handshake (supported by diagrams) which depend on the level or ‘degree’ held within the hierarchy – in the basic version, one person places his or her thumb on the other’s knuckle-joint. Among the special words are BOAZ and JACHIN, believed to be the pillars at the entrance to Solomon’s Temple, and MAHABONE, “its meaning is uncertain”.  Also, “the Craft has its own name for the deity: the Great Architect of the Universe”, symbolised by the ‘all-seeing eye’ at the centre of the masonic logo.  The emphasis on pillars and emblems like the builder’s square and compass are the ways by which masons link their craft to the stonemasons who built Solomon’s temple!

The title of the book is bold in its declaration that the Craft ‘made the modern world’. This is justified on the grounds that “Freemasonry was a halfway house along the journey from a world dominated by religious belief, into one that was less pious, more educated and more mobile”; “Masonry eased the transition to a more secular world”; “the Lodges were a halfway house for Jews inclined towards assimilation, because of the tolerant attitude to race and religion expounded by Masonry’s British founding fathers”; “in Spain as elsewhere in Catholic Europe, the history of Freemasonry was part of a protracted culture war between the Church and the forces of secular liberalism”.

But looking at the evidence Dickie presents, it is difficult to come to the same rosy conclusion of Freemasonry as a force for good order and progress.  In the United States, the lodges have largely remained segregated on colour lines. The author devotes 30 pages to the notorious P2 Lodge, which was a destablising, conspiratorial force in Italian life in the 1970s and 80s,

The piduisti (‘P2-ists’) – as Italians quickly learned to call them – included the heads of all branches of the civilian and military secret services, in addition to the Chief of the Defence Staff, and no less than 195 officers from the army, navy and air force – of whom 92 were generals or colonels. Three of the P2 generals had been implicated in an abortive military coup d’etat in 1970.

The P2 was also entangled in financial scandals, dramatically highlighted when the body of banker Roberto Calvi was found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge in 1982.  

Nevertheless, Dickie believes that stories of masonic conspiracies are vastly exaggerated: it is “febrile idiocy” to explain the French Revolution in those terms. He has a point when explaining the symbols printed at the back of the dollar bill: the all-seeing eye, set inside a triangle, sitting atop a pyramid. Dickie notes, “as far as we know, given the patchy historical records, none of the men who designed the definitive version of the Great Seal was a Mason . . . far from wanting to stamp a Craft logo on the national currency at all costs, Roosevelt was actually rather concerned that using the Masonic all-seeing eye would offend Catholic voters. He gave the design the go-ahead only after his Catholic Postmaster General reassured him that no offence would be taken”.   For this reviewer, it brings to mind the lectures by a celebrity Muslim speaker in the 1990s, who would refer to symbols on the dollar bill as ‘one sign of Dajjal coming’ . Unfortunately at the time we lacked “the bullshit detectors”,  to use Dickie’s robust language.

‘The Craft’ has seventeen chapters, all but one dealing with Freemasonry in Europe and the United States. The exception is ‘Allahabad: Mother Lodges of the Empire”. The overall sentiment is summarised by his view that “in India at least, the legacy of Freemasonry’s role in the British Empire is largely a positive one”. A key Mason during the days of the Raj was Rudyard Kipling, initiated at the Lodge of Hope and Perseverance in Lahore in 1886, who composed these oft-quoted lines,

So man on man got talkin’,

An’ not a Brother stirred

Till mornin’ waked the parrots

An’ that dam’ brain-fever-bird.

We’d say ‘twas ‘ighly curious,

An’ we’d all ride ‘ome to bed,

With Mo’ammed, God, an’ Shiva

Changin’ pickets in our ‘ead.

Such lodges offered an opportunity not available in the whites-only Gymkhanas: “the chessboard floor of the Lodge also became a place where British met natives on the square”; “the Masonic Lodge was one of the very few racially integrated institutions in Allahabad.”  The early Masons were from the nawab aristocracy and later the professionals who saw it as a means for career advancement. The sole political personality Dickie refers to is Motilal Nehru, “a personal friend of Sir John Edge, the Chief Judge of the Allahabad High Court, who had drawn so many other Indian advocates to the Craft.”  The Lodges may well have offered “a chance to mix with influential Brits”, but John Dickie has not captured the full story. For example, why were there exclusively Muslim-member Lodges, such as the ‘Lodge Islam’, recorded in The Indian Masonic Year Book, 1916-17? [1]

Dickie is unaware of the Hyderabad connection, where the Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan, may not have been a Mason himself, but was shrewd enough to gift the Gosha Mahal Baradan, the Royal Palace of the Kutubshahi Kings of Golconda, to the Freemasons “to practice their craft.” {2].

Dickie’s work also makes no reference to Muslim scholarship on the Freemasons. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, for example in ‘A Cultural History of India during the British Period’ – first published in Urdu as Hindustan ki tamaddun ki Tarikh in 1931 – provides an historical account of the way benefactions were directed: “the foundation stone of the new building for the Hindu College in Calcutta was laid in 1824 by the head of Freemasonry in Bengal. Similarly, the foundation stone of the new building for the College in Benares was laid with Masonic honours by His Highness the Raja of Benares and the Deputy Provincial Grand Master of the North-Western Provinces”.  Similarly, there is more to be said of the Masonic Lodges of Istanbul, reported to have existed as early as 1768. These have been the subject of some work by Professor Hamid Algar: “Originally restricted in their membership to European traders and members of the non-Muslim minorities, they began to attract a number of high-ranking Ottomans for whom the masonic affiliation had both political and ideological significance linking them in a direct and personal fashion with the European powers that were urging reform on the Ottoman Empire” [3]. Perhaps this may provide an explanation why the eminently rational Marmaduke Pickthall put up with Masonic mumbo-jumbo and joined the Misericordia Lodge in 1917 after returning from Turkey [4].  

John Dickie’s message in ‘The Craft’ is that Freemasonry today is “no more secret than a sports club or professional body”. For some, like the journalist Lawrence Donegan, this is a moot point. After his 1995 Guardian piece ‘Are the Masons on the level’, there were concerns of a ‘firm within a firm’ in the former West Midlands Serious Crime Squad, “which was responsible for more than 30 miscarriages of justice” (The Guardian, 20 February 1998). More ‘febrile idiocy’, or is  John Dickie preparing the ground for a sequel ‘The Craft II – How Freemasons made the Modern World Behind Closed Doors’?

Jamil Sherif

February 2021

[1] The Year Book lists R. B. Patel, Shums A. Tyabjee, Abdealli M. Kajj, Jal D. Romer and M. S. Mowla as officers.

[2]  Navshir S. Chenay, Letter to the Editor, The Hyderabad Bulletin, 28 February 1939. Located by the reviewer in the papers of Sir Terence Humphrey Keyes (died 26 February 1939), who was the Raj’s Political Resident in the Nizam’s Principality of Hyderabad. The report continues, “When the Freemasons of Hyderabad and Secundarabad presented an address to H.E.H. the Nizam felicitating him on the Silver Jubilee of his reign, His Exalted Highness in his reply referred to the late Sir Terence Keyes in the following words,’General Sir Terence Keyes, a distinguished British Resident who was a great personal friend of mine, took a keen interest in this matter, and his portrait befittingly decorates the walls of of the Temple’.

[3] Hamid Algar, ‘Participation by Iranian Diplomats in the Masonic Lodges of Istanbul’, Les Iraniens d’Istanbul (eds. T. Zarconne, F. Zarinebaf-Shahr), IFRI, Istanbul-Tehran, 1993, 33-34.

[4] Anne Freemantle, Loyal Enemy, Hutchinson & Co. 1938; p. 258.