How I came to write The Craft
On the evening of 7 August 2013, police officers rang the doorbell of an undistinguished semi-detached house in the dreary West London suburb of Uxbridge. They had a warrant for the arrest of a man going by the name of Marc Skinner, who earned his life driving limousines to and from Heathrow Airport. Skinner tried to leave the house by the back door, but was stopped by an officer who had predicted his move.
‘I know who you are’, the officer said.
‘Marc Skinner’ was, in reality, Domenico Rancadore, allegedly the former boss of the Cosa Nostra Family based in Trabia, near Palermo. Since 1998 he had been on the Italian authorities’ list of most dangerous fugitives from justice.Those of you who have read my other work may be aware that I am best known as a historian of Italian organized crime. I am often called up by journalists and news organizations to comment on mafia-related stories. That is precisely what happened after Rancadore’s arrest. The ‘mafia boss of the London suburbs’ was an irresistible hook. Indeed, the interest was even more intense because we were in the ‘silly season’, the height of the summer, when the lack of news sometimes pushes minor stories into the headlines. So I spent a whole day camped in the BBC HQ in central London, talking on every show imaginable: the Jeremy Vine Show on Radio 2, the Richard Bacon Show on Radio 5, Radio 4’s The World Tonight… Every so often, a taxi would come to shuttle me to Al Jazeera or the SKY News studios for another interview.
Several times during day I was asked ‘what is the mafia?’ I replied in the same way that many mafia bosses do—at least when they have turned stool pigeon: ‘the mafia is a Freemasonry for criminals’. Like the Freemasons, Cosa Nostra has its initiation rituals and rules of behaviour rooted in secrecy. Like the Freemasons, Cosa Nostra is a vast network of contacts whose members use coded recognition signals to guarantee that their status is genuine when they are far from home. Both brotherhoods are organized into local cells, which the mafia calls Families and the Freemasons call Lodges. In Italy, Freemasonry and the mafia also overlap historically: the Sicilian mafia has its origins in the Masonic secret societies that engaged in the violent political struggle for Italian unification during the nineteenth century. In short, there is lots that we can learn about the mafia by studying the Freemasons.
So it was that I got home late on the evening following Rancadore’s arrest and checked my email. There was a message from the Head of Communications of the United Grand Lodge of England. Would I like to come to Freemasons’ Hall for a chat?
Freemasons’ Hall is an art deco pile looming over Great Queen Street between Covent Garden and Holborn. It is enveloped in the same air of mystery that surrounds the Masons themselves. Grey-haired men in black suits, each carrying an identical briefcase, glide in and out of the doors. Crank protestors sometimes sit outside, with placards denouncing the evil schemes supposedly hatched within. Most people assume that access is forbidden to all but the initiated.
Even in 2013, I had read enough about the Freemasons to inoculate myself against the silliest myths that surround them. But I could not help being slightly spooked when I first entered. The mosaic floors, gilded ceilings, abundant marble, and stained glass turn the light inside brown. With its abstruse symbols it feels like a tomb dedicated to the high priest of an alien religion.
I was met by Mike Baker, the Head of Communications who had emailed me, and the then Librarian and Archivist, John Hamill. Their welcome was more than cordial enough to dispel any misgivings. There followed a fascinating discussion, which quickly quashed the confusion arising from my radio interviews: the similarities between the mafia and the Freemasons as organizations are undeniable, but the values that inspire the two brotherhoods are poles apart. I was then treated to a tour of Freemasons’ Hall, whose highlights were the Museum, and the Grand Temple, where the most important ceremonies are performed and meetings take place.
That visit to Freemasons’ Hall gave me, for the first time, a sense of the passionate loyalty that Masonry inspires in its members, and of the prejudices that they habitually encounter. Yet as I read more about the Craft in the ensuing weeks, I became frustrated that there were really only two basic narratives about the Freemasons in circulation, whether in books, on TV, or on the Internet. The first is the ‘exposé’ genre, driven by the assumption that Freemasons are keeping momentous and probably nefarious secrets from the rest of us, secrets that need to be revealed. The second is the Masons’ own version of their history, which portrays the Craft’s development as a serene tradition of fellowship and charity, clouded only by outsiders’ bigotry. I soon learned that these narratives only give us a tiny proportion of the full picture; they do hardly any justice to the surprising and kaleidoscopic influence that the Freemasons have had across the globe. For the past three centuries, for both good and ill, Freemasonry has made the modern world. I like to think that both Freemasons and non-Freemasons will find plenty to entertain, inform and challenge them between the covers of The Craft.
By the way, anyone can join the daily guided tours of Freemasons’ Hall: you just need to turn up at the door with an hour to spare. And, as I have since learned, the Library and Archive are a great place to do research: the staff are unfailingly helpful, and nothing on the shelves is considered ‘off-limits’ to non-Masons like me. There is a Masonic world in there to discover.