Wednesday, 15 January 2014

On Queuing

If there is one thing Britons are proud of, and one thing that seems to encapsulate "the British way of life" it is the ability to form a queue. If I had a pound for each time someone (usually a recently arrived expat) told me "The Germans have never learned to queue", I'd be very rich indeed. It's also something every foreigner feels obliged to admire.

In fact, it isn't just the Germans who don't form an orderly queue. Europeans tend not to. Or have you ever seen a queue in Italy -or, say Finland? No. The now defunct Soviet Union would be the only other queuing contestant.

And that's what queuing smacks of to me  - deprivation, wartime, rationing, dark times. Queuing says. "I know my place, I am a number and I know it." It says: "I'll do as I'm told. I'm obedient and subservient, I don't make a fuss even if I have to stand in the rain for hours."

Harsh words, I know, for such a beloved institution. But I've always found it quite off-putting. When I first lived in Oxford, I took photos of the endless snaking bus queues that would merge into the next bus queue... of people standing there - motionless, patient, obedient. I found it unnatural and a source of mirth.

Also - not forming a queue does not mean other nations just push and shove their way to the front, elbowing and if necessary head-butting others aside. Not so. When you look closely, queues are mostly a waste of space, and it is much more economical to form small gathering (say in a shop). People have a good eye for  judging when they arrived and who came after them. There is no free-for-all. Quite the contrary, it often makes for polite exchanges "Were you before or after me?- No please, go ahead , I've got time." Or there are enquiries whether it's possible to go first - and so on. This is a very Continental type of small talk which contrary to British expectations isn't at all aggressive or anarchic.

It's how social life generally works in my books, by consensus and negotiation -not via a rigid, pre-ordained structure which is sacrosant. I was therefore pleased to see that in London - probably through lack of space - the endless snaky bus queues don't seem to exist anymore. People also negotiate access more freely. Progress indeed - at least that's how I see it