Much is taken, much abides

I’ve been having some strange thoughts of late, having been beset by self-doubt, and it is partly as a result of a number of things coming together, which on the face of it appear to have little relation, but the culmination of which came only today and it was sparked of by an unlikely source reading lines from the poem “Ulysses” by Tennyson:

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

That unlikely source was “M” (played by Judi Dench), James Bond’s boss in the last of the Bond movies – Skyfall. I have to make an admission, which may come as shock to some, given I am a Bible thumping preacher – I rather like James Bond movies, despite and to my embarrassment the gratuitous sex and violence. I suppose it is the format that appeals – here we have a flawed yet heroic figure intent on and effective in saving the world from some incredibly devious arch baddie, commanding a formidable array of under baddies, with all sorts of tricks up his sleeve and irons in the fire. Despite the odds being heavily stacked up against him, and having to navigate through all sorts of impossible situations, amusing interludes, bureaucratic hurdles, twists of fate, action filled suspense, global travel and a whole host of other outrageously, unexpected stuff on his way to achieving his goal, often helped by some pretty neat high tech gadgets, unlikely allies, pretty girls, ingenious back office support, unexpected assistance, and through sheer audacity, guts, improvisation and determination, manages to save the day and win the girl and the gratitude of those who know what is going on. Bond’s disdain for misdirected authority and pretentious pomposity, his sense of calm and assurance when faced with adversity,  suave, sophisticated demeanor, resourcefulness and ability to adapt, are features that attract even if I don’t share them.

I watched Skyfall when it came out (in 2012) and gave up part way through, out of bored disappointment. This time it was different and I enjoyed it as much as I did when watching the early Bond movies in my younger days. But it was different this time and it was hard to say why exactly. While the standard Bond mix was there, maybe not quite as prolifically as previous, there was an added dimension and I could see a subtle yet clear underlying narrative to do with the old and tradition coming up against the new and modernity and often coming off better and as always Bond saves the day. One bit of the film that particularly resonated was when Bond was reported as having died on duty and he decided to go along with this, leading a fairly aimless existence, that is until he saw a situation where he knew he was needed and he decided to needed to respond. What happened next is in essence the main part of the film. While I was mulling over these thoughts and the meaning and significance of the Tennyson quote, coming as it did at a critical point in the film, I felt a degree of vindication when I googled concerning the matter, and found one hit which had arrived at similar conclusions, even arguing this thought, backed up by the quote, was the film’s main point.

Besides wondering what use this old dodderer, who finds it hard to adapt to and accept change these days, despite once being involved in cutting edge computer technology, two things hit me today. The first was as a result of bumping into an old friend who had in his younger days been a heroic figure, and like Bond a flawed one, when we shared our news and reflected on our place in the modern world. The second was listening to the latest episode of my favorite soap, the Archers, where there was a lively debate comparing the old ways of farming with the new (high tech, intensive, large scale etc.) ways and asking which was better, suggesting it may be the former? This brings me nicely back to Tennyson, Skyfall and the role of we oldies.

As I reflected on those last few lines of the larger poem concerning Tennyson’s ancient Greek mythical hero, Ulysses, I found my spirits being strangely lifted. It isn’t merely a question of our hanging on to the old ways, when there are good reasons for not doing so, or for us oldies refusing to make way for the younger generation when it is that generation that needs to take over carrying the baton. Neither should we give up in despair, for there is much worth fighting for. There may come a time when we need to recognise the old has to give way to the new, but when we discard the old ways entirely we do so, more often than not, at our peril. While we oldies are “made weak by time and fate”, we may also be “strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”. While we may not and cannot expect to be heroes in the Ulysses or Bond mode, there is a place for us. The world still needs saving but in a way that Bond movie makers and ancient Greek adventurers could never have imagined. We can still be heroes with the little we have left and we can still play our part.

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