Soldiering On

Every Sunday morning at around 11 o’clock, ever since we first dropped anchor in France, I speak to my parents back home. With the coming of Skype and the possibility of vision, things have become more ‘virtual’ over the years. During the first ten years or so, my father would ration our idle chatter by standard, expensive telephone line: an egg timer would ring at the 15-minute mark to terminate the conversation at whatever point we’d reached.

There always comes a point when I’m duty-bound to enquire about my mother’s health. As often as not, she will reply with something non-committal like, Oh well… you know, dear… soldiering on. Kate Winslet, apparently, has also been ‘soldiering on’ since her divorce. The phrase puts me in mind of the monologue of that title in the series of six that Alan Bennett wrote for television. I don’t remember much about it, other than that it starred Stephanie Cole as a woman whose fragile fortitude is both admirable and irritating. It’s a phrase that annoys me, above all, because it suggests such a deep-seated resignation to your fate that there’s little point in seeking to alter it.![](upload://8pmLe9hpdzZuFMp4BAcVAVnnEvP.jpg)

You can also see it, I suppose, as symptomatic of the Dunkirk spirit: that stiff-upper-lip cartoon British stoicism lampooned by French and Saunders’ country women in Barbour jackets given to sawing their legs off without anaesthetic to stop scratches going gangrenous. There are, I discovered, annual soldiering on awards, which presumably celebrate such heroics. I find it hard to disassociate the expression from an image of regimented unquestioning men in khaki valiantly going over the top at the Somme.

I had thought that the French didn’t have an equivalent. Ca va is used so universally here that you can interpret it as you choose: it can be just as upbeat as it can be down. Anyway, it’s so disposable an expression that you don’t need to respond. It carries nothing like the same weight as ‘soldiering on’, which seems to suggest that things are actually really awful, but you’re doing your best to grin and bear it.

But Debs taught me one that she comes across a lot in her work. It’s an expression that I’ve heard now and again, but haven’t really given it much thought. Ca peut aller is much more loaded than ça va. Literally, it must mean something like, I suppose it could be all right (with the implication again that it isn’t). So whenever she hears a client tell her this, her response is, OK tell me what’s not going well.

When my mother mentions ‘soldiering on’, it acts like a red rag to a bull. I know I should let it lie, but It’s so difficult to do so. I want to probe, because I want her to see firstly that her notion of what’s awful is relative and probably pales into insignificance compared to the genuine burden of others, and secondly that, if things are as bad as all that, rather than meekly putting up with them, perhaps she should take some action to address them,.

However, I have given up probing over the last couple of years. Since she scattered her marbles across the living room floor and lost them somewhere in the pile of the carpet, she wouldn’t even remember the reason for soldiering on. If you were to question it, she’d answer something like, Oh well… you know, dear… it’s just the way it is. In other words, she has spent so long conditioning herself to believe that life is awful, she has forgotten why that might be so. So you just accept it and soldier on in the face of constant but intangible adversity.

This week, me myself and I have been soldiering on. Despite my trusty support belt, I did my back in again lifting a manhole cover. I’ve been hobbling around like my octogenarian father. The dog doesn’t understand why I can’t play tug-of-rope. On top of that, I’ve caught a strain of the 100-day virus that my wife brought back on the train from England. So, every time I cough, I clutch my lower back as if trying to clamp the anticipated spasm in place.

Suddenly everything that you take for granted becomes an effort. It takes ten minutes just to put your socks on. You appreciate the truth of that other cliché, the one they serve up at New Year – when you wish everyone a year full of good things and good health. Surtout du bon santé. Good health, in particular. They’re right. While you’ve got it and you’ve still got a genetic memory of youthful vigour, you feel that you continue to do just about anything. But once you start feeling like a crock, you start behaving like one, too. It’s suddenly clear how easy it must be for people with health problems to get caught up in a debilitating downward spiral.

Thanks to the wonders of aromatherapy massage, I’m on the mend. Today is the first day in almost a week that I feel able to cast off my Lidl biker belt, my ‘man-girdle’. If anyone were to ask, though, I wouldn’t tell them that I’m soldiering on. Which got me thinking about whether there’s an expression one could use in times of distress that doesn’t smack so strongly of martyrdom.

I’ve come up with ‘advancing’. Suggestive, I think, of an army on the move, it even continues the military metaphor. The trouble is, you’d feel a right pillock using it.

How’s it going, then?

Advancing, thanks.


Well, you know… I’m not quite sure where I’m going or how I’m going to get there, but I do still feel aware of a certain forward momentum – even if it’s only towards the grave, ha ha.

So maybe not. Nor soldiering on, or ça peut aller. Ca va is OK. But I’ll just continue to do what I normally do when I’m asked by solicitous parents on Sunday morning, which is to give a brief but balanced resumé of the situation and move on to a more interesting subject than the state of my health. It strikes me, anyway, that it’s often those in genuine dire straits who don’t like to talk about it. Recognising that it’s not enough just to soldier on, they are often the ones who go out and do something that inspires others.

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Ah sure we love them all the same! Maybe someone should start a "Ten Best Things About the French" conversation/thread?

Conor, yes moaning as a 'national sport' seems quite right to me. About two weeks ago I stood in line at a market butcher who had a customer who spent roughly 20 minutes moaning about everything imaginable and 3 or 4 minutes for his purchases. Others at the front of the queue joined in which helped make it that long. BUT at the end of the long moan the man walked along the queue with a handshake/bise for every 'friend' waiting and a polite friendly good morning to the rest of us. That is for me something that never ceases to amuse given how different it is to all I am used to elsewhere where somebody who moans that much usually goes away continuing to moan to themselves and with no regard for or to other people present.

'Mustn't grumble', Brian. That's a great one. I'd forgotten about that and straight away it makes me think of Monty Python 'women' in curlers and ludicrous falsetto voices. As you say, it's then often followed by the kind of grumble that backs you into a corner. Despite my antipathy for the 'soldiering on' format, I must say that - on reflection - it's a pretty good metaphor for the legions of ex-pats with few resources and a lot of willpower, who cling on through thick and thin to remain in their adopted country. There's a lot of us 'soldiering on'.

Yes, you have a point there!

Oh yes, tous des raleurs that's us. But raler isn't as defeatist and poor-little-me-ish as moaning - it is stroppier!

Don't the French themselves consider that one of their national sports is moaning?

(Along with watching the girls go by and what I will politely refer to as le 5 à 7.)

Somewhere I have an A4 sized 'poster' that says 'Why stay calm when you can panic? Please do it quietly not to disturb others' or words to that effect. As is always the case in the Anglophone world, there is usually a flip side to the coin, which this is. The notion that if somebody has to have a tantrum without letting others hear it was once far more the case than now, but wobblies with loud voice and expletives are still considered rude. Try telling that to French people! When people from across the Channel are served a cold cup of coffee and are waiting excessively long for food it is still fairly commonplace to hear them muttering among themselves unlike our French friends who show signs of discontent. Then they are likely to smile sedately and say little when they have finish. Certainly among our French friends it would be more likely a discourse on every fault will be delivered. Not that the result is actually different. Finally, there is that well worn English phrase used by people of a pessimistic nature 'It could be better' when absolutely nothing is wrong!

As an afterthought 'musn't grumble' sprang to mind, which so often means the opposite so sometimes we have to brace ourselves for what follows!

I used to (there is a tense in Irish Gaelic for "used to", possibly) be going for a cup of tea (4 minutes brewing for a "Cork" cup of tea, Barry's not Lyon's) and this blonde shoulder-padded (this was the 90s) executive used to come into the canteen asking about how I was. I was in my twenties, and I would answer honestly, maybe on a variation of "Ah sure, surviving", I would reply "Subsisting" while waiting on my tea to brew. At the time I didn't think much of it, I wasn't trying to be smart, but thinking about it after, she was showing people around and was "mortified".

I like that one, Veronique. Must remember that. I'll ask my wife if any of her clients ever come up with that response. We both felt a little like the situation you describe one day at our old house when we attempted to clean out the pond by our garden that, we subsequently discovered, had been used as a fosse septique for years.

Angela, I reckon you had every right to use 'ca peut aller' in those circumstances and it certainly doesn't justify the kind of withering look I normally experience from Customer Service staff when I have a (very polite) complaint.

Nick, Conor - thank you for your regional variations on a theme. My favourite was a very upbeat one I learnt during my years in Belfast: in reply to the enquiry How's about ye?, you'd answer Stickin' out! if everything was just fine and dandy, thank you.

Thanks for the tip, Danuta. I'll try that one when I'm back on the straight and narrow.

And Celia thank you for your very poignant family tale. No, getting older certainly isn't for sissies. First your sight starts to go, then your hearing and your teeth et cetera. It's not much fun really and God knows what it must be like for my octogenarian parents. Actually, I've found myself getting a lot less irritated with my mother's exasperating stoicism in recent years, because - as she starts to revert to a little girl once more - she's lost a lot of the aggression that used to go with the territory (the If you'd ever had to bring up four children, then you might be a little more understanding kind of thing). Bon courage alors. I hope things start to sort themselves out.

Ok now I understand the reaction of my daughters' flute teacher at my "Ca peut aller" to his proposed extra lesson time on a Saturday afternoon!! (which clashed perfectly with an already planned event) He looked at me like I was a slug, and I'm not joking.... all I really meant to say was 'I might be able to rearrange things but it's not very convenient'.

Mark, I understand only too well your frustration with your mother's comments. I suffered pained and distant 'Hello's' if I hadn't called often enough and other times drove an hour to their home in response to a summons to the death bed only to find Dad was right as rain after all. This happened at least once a week and was pretty stressful, along with raising my own family. Now it's 14 years since she died and I wish I could hear her voice again, and feel so guilty that I might have done more to listen to the real meaning behind those words.

As Mae West and my dear Uncle both would say, Getting older isn't for sissies. You've begun to see that yourself through your recent injury, but you're still young enough for it not to affect the rest of your life unless you allow it to. I now find myself saying exactly those things, and I quote, "Oh well… you know, dear… it’s just the way it is." because I frankly don't know how to tell my lovely son that it's all gone to shit and I don't know how to make it right, and the last thing I want to be is a burden like I perceived my own mother to be. And so I suppose he might see me as you do your mother. Oh expletive deleted.

Oop North us lads ud say "Not Bad" or "Fair to Middlin" - when asked "Ow ist ?" On thinking about it more I'd suggest its the older generations who reply in a stoic manner; whilst the younger generations these days are more up-beat and cool in their response.

I also like the way the French greet everyone, kisses, handshakes, ca va and the rest. Sometimes the ca va-ing can get a little repetitive.

The British Army award the "Long Service and Good Conduct Medal" to those who soldier on for umpteen years and have their crimes undetected.

Thanks for that!! Here's something one can do before soldiering-on, might make it feel a little lighter, I came across it in a TED talk ( check them out on you tube, often funny, and always informative short talks) Okay, research has shown we can feel more positive by standing for 2 minutes in a ''power-pose'' there are a few of them the easiest to describe is stand with your feet apart, raise your arms above your head in a wide stretch. for 2 minutes. It increases the levels of testosterone and decreases cortisol ( think its cortisol) Conversely, sitting with your arms folded or even worse rubbing the back of your neck, and legs crossed too, has the effect of dis-empowering one by lowering testosterone and increasing cortisol. Try it and see, before an interview, or some other potentially stressy event.

Mu usual cynicism aside, I find that nothing cheers me up as much as a few old friends (mostly male and heterosexual) greeting me with real smiles, manly bises, and a genuine "Ca va ?", proper eye contact and a swift move to the bar to get the first round in!

(As an added bonus the "Ca va ?" will often be a "Ca va mon Irlandais préféré ?"...the fact that the individuals in question mostly only know one Irishman doesn't make the compliment any less touching!)

I'm sure there's a better expression in Hiberno-English, but in Ireland, someone might say, "Ah sure, not too bad, thanks", indicating that things could be worse and/or have been worse.

"Can't complain", in a Cockney accent (!), is another way of saying that things aren't as bad as they could be.

Depends, of course, on whether you are a glass-half-full or -half-empty man under normal circumstances, and whether "Ah sure" is part of your usual vocabulary!

You should also note that the old "Ca va ?" / "Ca va ?" routine is mostly devoid of any real communication and any discreet request for sympathy by way of saying "Ca peut aller" may be met with surprisingly uninterestedness!

Even more soldiering-on-ish is "On fait aller" (which means life is like the bottom of my septic tank but I'm wading through, teeth gritted).