The subject is innocence (sounds like I’m an old-style, tub-thumping bible preacher – but do read on!), with Philip Larkin’s poem MCMXIV (1914) my starting point:
Never such innocence,/Never before or since,/ As changed itself to past/Without a word – the men/ Leaving the gardens tidy,/The thousands of marriages/Lasting a little while longer:/ Never such innocence again.
Larkin’s poem, to which I’ll return, is about innocence lost as we went to war, an innocence of the consequences, an innocence we could never see again.
But here is also another innocence, what I’ll call ‘found innocence’, which we find by looking within, and which helps us to understand a little more about ourselves.
For me the quiet interiors of country churches are places of innocence, where we stand simply and openly and innocently before God. In one church, Winstone, in the Cotswolds they invite you to say the collect of the day, aloud, so the church is prayed in every day, even if no priest or congregation is there to read or witness. So that’s what we did, and I felt a strange and special innocence that moment, as if I was a middle man, briefly connecting God and the world.
If that’s too spiritual, there’s another innocence, the innocence of animals, from which we can learn about ourselves, and which should determine our attitudes toward animals. There’s a letter in the Economist on behalf of the Nonhuman Rights Project in New York which expresses this beautifully: ‘The Nonhuman Rights Project does not demand human rights for animals. Rather, it wants chimpanzee rights for chimpanzees, orca rights for orcas, elephant rights for elephants.’ Animals may be in our terms cruel or violent, but they act as evolution dictates. We may choose to eat animals but that doesn’t mean that we should act with cruelty toward them, or deny them a ‘natural right’ to live in their natural state.
We are in this case not so much intermediaries between God and the mankind, but between nature and mankind. We have a responsibility both to the animal world and to our own species. If ultimately we mistreat animals we mistreat ourselves, and devalue our own innocence.
And, finally, back to Larkin. I read his poem, MCMXIV, for the first time at lunchtime today. Immediately after lunch I drove to a local supermarket, and put on my car radio. It was a programme, Brain of Britain, that I hadn’t listened to for many years. And the first question: the quote I’ve printed above, and the question – from what poem with a title in Roman numerals does the poem come? This was all too much of a coincidence for me. If I innocently believed coincidence to be no more or less than an accident of timing, the absolute perfection of this coincidence challenged that belief as never before.
How it can be explained I simply don’t know. But if ever a day was a day of innocence – me thinking on the subject, rather than consciously acting innocently! – today was that day.