Us Brits pride ourselves in being the best queuers in the world, don’t we? We know the drill. We form an orderly line when required, politely declaring, ‘Please, you were first’. Often resulting in a back and forth of ‘No, you go. No, you’, which must seem utterly baffling to people not familiar with the genre. There’s no scrum or pushing and shoving and shouting to get to the front that we see in other parts of the world, at which we shake our heads. We’re not like that, we murmur smugly.
However, all is not sweetness and light in the British queue in these taxing times. Because our polite, you-go-first system has never been so tested. Most of us, in living memory, are lucky enough not to have had to stand in line for a supermarket or pub, a café or restaurant, a coffee, a school pick-up etc. No more can we think to ourselves, I’ll just nip in and grab a latte/child/pint of milk, on the way home.
We haven’t resorted to scrums yet – the loo paper/pasta/baked bean fiasco was mercifully short-lived. All, on the surface, is orderly still. It’s the simmering anxiety beneath the surface that’s new.
We were in Cornwall recently. There is this wonderful fish café near a harbour. It’s famous. But it doesn’t take bookings at the moment. So for most of the day, there is a long queue snaking back over the small bridge that overlooks the café. We all stand there watching the proceedings intently. ‘They’re on coffee,’ I mutter eagerly, nodding my head surreptitiously towards a table outside. But a moment later the waiter brings them another two glasses of wine. It surprises me that the diners aren’t put off their fish supper by the collectively hostile queue-stare drilling into their heads, willing them to hurry the f*** up and get the bill. At this precise minute, we all resent the diners and the people waiting in front of us as if they’ve stolen our car-parking space.
Suddenly a trendy couple rock up – cool, urban, clearly only in Cornwall because Santorini has closed its doors this year. They go boldly up to the maitre d’ and start having an intimate, whispered conversation. Are they… are they actually trying to queue-barge? The line stiffens, all eyes fixed on this entitled pair who clearly think it’s their god given right to dispense with the plebeian process of the queue. We hold our breath. There is polite laughter, the maitre d’ nods. NO! But staunch fellow that he turns out to be, he manages to hold firm. The couple look disgruntled, surprised their privilege didn’t work this time, and reluctantly waft away. By the time it’s our turn, it’s started to drizzle. But we don’t care. Wet chips and diluted wine is just fine by us.
I have faith that The Great British Queue will survive. We won’t lose our nerve and descend into chaos. But we’re being sorely tested. And it can’t be good for us, this regular anxiety-provoking uncertainty of waiting in line.