Speaking as a Freemason

Speaking as a Freemason

Robert Hartley defied the discouraging careers advice he was given at school, becoming a successful negotiator and rising through the ranks of Freemasonry. Here he talks about what helps him with the speaking rituals involved and how he raises awareness at his Lodge.

My early years were spent on an austere 1940s Northern council estate. Back then there were more basic problems to worry about than the way I spoke. My world changed, however, when I found myself in the local grammar school, aged 10.

That’s when I realised I had a stammer – and a bad one. I had difficulty saying my name and was completely unable to read aloud in class. My ‘careers advice’, upon saying that my favourite subject was geography, was: “Well with that stammer, boy, you will never be able to teach, so don't bother with university.” Having managed to gain three good A-levels, this devastated me.

I decided, therefore, on a career that I thought would not require me to talk much: surveying. However, I soon discovered the horrors of having to knock on people's doors, seeking permission to enter their gardens. It was difficult to be convincing and persuasive with a stammer.  

My ‘careers advice’ was: “Well with that stammer, boy, you will never be able to teach, so don't bother with university”.

Negotiation became an increasing part of my work. At first this was difficult because the words 'acquisition' and 'purchase' were both block words for me, rendering smooth arguments awkward. However, I persevered, developing a technique of word substitution and breath control, together with the use of visual tools such as sketching on paper to amplify a point. This actually improved the logic and clarity of my thought processes and I ended up a successful negotiator.

I took up singing as a hobby. A few spoken links between songs became the first mode in which I became fluent and able to communicate easily.

Remembering being told that I could never be a teacher challenged me. I had reached a high level of professional competence, so began lecturing at various colleges and universities, and was appointed an Ofsted Inspector and a Magistrate. In that latter role I was still cautious about fluency and so declined the opportunity to become a Chairman of my Bench — I felt that to stammer whilst telling an offender the error of their ways would dilute the effect.

Becoming a Freemason

At age 60, two family friends suggested that I might like to become a Freemason. I did, and cannot speak too highly of the aims, objectives and activities of Freemasonry, which is much more open these days. There are no real secrets; Lodges hold public open days and Freemasons speak openly about their membership. For me, however, joining was almost a disaster.

When becoming a Freemason, it is explained to you that to be the Master of the Lodge for a year is the highest honour your Lodge can give you. It takes about seven years to work your way up the ladder through the offices and I wanted to try for this. The ceremonies involve acting out short plays with moral themes. However, although I thought that I had developed enough fluency with my technique of word substitution, I found to my horror that the words had to be learnt and repeated exactly as in the book. Learning the words is what every Freemason has to do, but one who stammers has a further hurdle: one brother will be sitting near you with the book open, ready to prompt you. Those of us who stammer will know how daunting this is — an over-enthusiastic prompter who speaks up every time you pause for more than a couple of seconds immediately destroys any fluency you may have got going. I developed a system where if I looked at the prompter it meant I had forgotten the word and wanted a prompt, but if I didn’t look at him I was simply having trouble producing the sounds and he should wait.

I cannot speak too highly of the aims, objectives and activities of Freemasonry. For me, however, joining was almost a disaster.

I have recently spoken in Lodges on masonic history, its symbolism and the future of Freemasonry. However, I still avoid formal ritual whenever possible. I find that I am at my most fluent if I’m standing, not rushed, know what I am talking about, and can choose my own words. Most people who now see me lecturing, or compering a concert, do not recognise me as a person who stammers. All is not perfect, though. I still stammer with my family and some close friends, because in those circumstances I am not trying too hard to mask it.    

So, where am I now? I eventually reached the Master's Chair and was even awarded the Provincial Lecturer prize for a piece of original research I had done and presented to a dozen or so Lodges. The subject matter related to the practical use of surveyor's tools to the symbolic use to which they are put in Freemasonry. I am now a Provincial Officer and a Mentor and I’m planning a presentation for Lodges who would like suggestions on how best to support a brother who may have a stammer. All that despite being told I’d never be able to teach. 

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(Photo courtesy of Alan Jarman)

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