One duo's mission to bring FMT to the sight-impaired

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Talking books

Despite his own blindness, Leslie Robinson is bringing FMT to other Freemasons who can’t see its pages. Along with voice-over man Chris Connop, he tells Edwin Smith how ‘masonic light’ brightens his life, and why he’s reaching out to blind brothers who may feel left in the dark

When Leslie Robinson was born, his mother knew something was wrong. When a mum smiles at her newborn child, most of the time, the baby smiles back. ‘But,’ says Leslie, ‘I didn’t.’ Even so, at first, his childhood was normal enough for someone born just before the Second World War. He would play on the bomb sites, like most children did. And, occasionally, he would trip on things, like most children did. Nobody thought anything of it.

At school, with wartime classes often numbering well over 40 children, Leslie’s problem went largely unnoticed by teachers. But he began to understand his limitations. ‘Even though I was sitting right at the front of the class, I used to have to ask the child next to me what was on the blackboard. But children can be very horrible, can’t they? “Look for yourself four eyes!” they’d say.’

He remembers getting lost in the playground. ‘I was trying to find the cloakroom,’ he says. Then, more quietly: ‘They wouldn’t tell me where it was.’ He trails off, lost in thought.

Eventually, Leslie was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary condition that affects the back of the eye. His sight deteriorated gradually and today, aged 83, is completely blind. ‘I can’t see the light of day,’ he says, merrily. ‘I sat down in the lounge one evening and my wife Barbara asked me to put the light on. I realised I didn’t use it anymore.’

About 40 years ago, Leslie became a Freemason. When he was initiated into the Craft and asked to name the ‘predominant wish of a new initiate’s heart,’ instead of giving the standard answer of ‘light’, he was permitted to say ‘masonic light’. And that masonic light has been with him ever since. He cites ‘friendship and comradeship’ as the most important things about the Craft. ‘I don’t think you’d find anyone you don’t trust who’s a Freemason.’

‘Leslie is unbelievable. He can lean forward and just press the right button, or find a particular CD just like that. It’s a particular faculty you develop when you lose another faculty, I suppose. He’s a lovely man’

CRAFTING CONNECTIONS

Leslie was a piano tuner for 66 years and as a result has a network of clients and colleagues from his professional life. He also counts many friends among the Eastbourne Blind Society, of which he’s a member. But Freemasonry has proved to be a way of opening up social connections that is ‘something completely different.’

For many partially sighted Freemasons, the connections they enjoy through the Craft can be especially valuable. So, a couple of decades ago, Leslie was inspired to put himself forward to play a role in the production of an audio version of Masonic Quarterly, a predecessor publication of FMT. The idea was to ensure that people in a similar position to him would be able to stay connected to their fellow members and to the Craft, stay up to date with the latest developments and ward off some of the feelings of isolation that can accompany losing one’s sight.

The magazine had been put on to tape before, says Leslie. ‘But I don’t think the chap who read it all those years ago really wanted to do it. He mumbled a bit – listening to it made me want to drop off to sleep!’ Happily, when Leslie took up the mantle, he did so with the help of a former BBC radio announcer, Simon Fernie, whose flair for delivery helped to give the recordings a professional sheen.

Simon voiced the audio recordings for several years alongside Chris Connop, a former Personal Secretary to the Grand Secretary and a Past Assistant Provincial Grand Master for Middlesex. When Simon sadly passed away a decade or so ago, it was Chris, now 72, who became the voice of FMT. ‘The first time Chris came to see me, he said, “Do you know, Leslie, I’ve never been to Eastbourne before; I didn’t think I was old enough.”’ Leslie laughs. ‘It’s often called God’s waiting room.’

Leslie and Chris are now a double act, with Chris reading the magazine aloud and Leslie on hand manning the recording equipment. ‘We only have 80 minutes on those discs,’ says Leslie, ‘so we can’t include every last thing that goes in the magazine, but Chris is an ex-headmaster, so he’s quite capable of going through and deciding what to fit in.’ In the 72 editions that Leslie has recorded, ‘there’s quite a lot that has stood out,’ he says. Anything about a fellow member who has ‘done something extraordinary’ tends to pique his interest, but he especially enjoyed a recent article about George VI, who was a Freemason until withdrawing on his accession to the throne. ‘I didn’t know that. I’ve been a Freemason for over 40 years and I’m still discovering things.’‘

Chris’s delivery is very good. What I like is that he reads with considerable expression. He also speaks French and a bit of German, so occasionally there’s a quote in a different language.’

‘I’ve got a radio voice,’ says Chris, ‘or so people tell me. But Leslie, he is just unbelievable. He can lean forward and just press the right button, or find a particular CD just like that. It’s a particular faculty you develop when you lose another faculty, I suppose. He’s a great guy and a lovely man.’

‘People should know about the service, especially as it’s free. And they should know about Leslie, what he does and why he does it. It’s an inspiring, human story’

SPREADING THE WORD

Leslie uses a minidisc recorder hooked up to a microphone to capture Chris’s voice, a method he favours because it enables him to easily go back and edit out any mistakes. Editing tends to take about two hours for each issue of the magazine. After that, once the master CD has been recorded, it takes just a few minutes to create the discs that actually end up being sent out to members. To do this, Leslie uses a special machine which can copy 10 CDs at a time. These discs are then put into plastic wallets with address labels and posted – a process that is aided by Leslie’s wife of 61 years, Barbara.

In the old days, when it was audio tapes rather than CDs that were sent out, they would sometimes come back with messages recorded over them. ‘I’ve got some lovely messages,’ says Leslie. ‘One gentleman said, “I’m 92 and I thought they’d forgotten all about me.” I still get phone calls even today though – especially when the CDs are late!’

When Leslie began making his recordings, he had a list of 200 names and addresses to which he sent the tapes. Now he sends them out to 60 people. ‘It’s dwindling all the time, simply because people are dying off.’ But there’s no doubt in Leslie or Chris’s mind that there are more people out there who would leap at the chance to receive the audio version of the magazine, if only they knew it was available. There are some three million people in the UK who don’t have the ability to read because of a sight problem or reading disability such as dyslexia, according to a report published by the RNIB. Among them, there’s likely to be many more than 60 Freemasons.

So, Leslie and Chris have a message: ‘We want to publicise the recordings and let people know they’re available regularly. So of course it would help if people reading this can pass the word around.’

‘We really want it to be broadcast more widely,’ says Chris. ‘People should know about the service, especially as it’s free. And they should know about Leslie, what he does and why he does it. It’s an inspiring, human story.’

If you or someone you know would benefit from receiving an audio version of this magazine, please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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