By Paul Blezard
Britain is a small island, one in which the population has exploded by some 50% in as many years. Politeness is not only the code word for the repression of rage, violence and selfish impulses of all hues, it is also one of the key national traits. The old joke that runs ‘how do you tell an Englishman in a crowd? When you step on his foot he apologises to you,’ once spoke volumes about a nation that was brought up to mind its p’s and q’s of which it is the queues that have given me cause for misery of late.
In 1941 (the year that is, not a hitherto unknown precursor novel to 1984), George Orwell wrote that ‘the English are not gifted artistically’ and that they are ‘… not intellectual. They have no gift for abstract thought.’ I believe him to have been wrong on both counts. But he might have added that we do have a practical facility for happily rubbing along on this crowded island and on this issue I would have agreed with him. For nowhere is this facility more visible, nowhere can there be a more startlingly simple application of this concept than in the British ability to form an orderly queue. At bus stops, for trains and in the post office this idiot-proof form of social respect, of British sense of fair play and decorum acted out. I realise that I write this as a keen but amateur observer of the human condition as it pertains to a London, metropolitan perspective. But what happens in the capital, unlike Las Vegas, tends not to stay in the capital but leaks out to the nation as a whole. (read more below)
Daily, I see a half-hearted attempt at what might be considered to be a form of queuing, as if some vestigial national memory of correct behaviour exists to pull on our conscience. Someone will stand by a bus stop for example and in time people will join from behind in the traditional manner. But not in any ordered sense as I used to understand it. Smokers will stand to one side as if nodding to other queue members’ right to not breathe their exhaust gases. Someone’s mobile phone will ring and in the course of the conversation they will wander off and then, too embarrassed to rejoin their place directly, will hover somewhere around the region of the queue that they once claimed as their own. It doesn’t quite adhere to the ‘form an orderly queue’ ethos, but it’s pretty close.
Until the bus arrives that is and then everything breaks down. Mothers with children will assume that they have priority, as will the more elderly or those less able. They will fight and struggle between themselves, vying for comparative concession and in the chaos those younger and more able will seize the opportunity for themselves and leap on board. In the melee rudeness occurs, resentments are created, something gets lost and a little piece of Britain dies.
The Englishman in the joke is now as likely to reach for a vulgarity as he is for a phone with which to call his lawyer. It is thus my onerous duty to mark the passing of the queue.
So farewell then, dear queue, your life was long and noble. But it has passed and with the passing a part of all of us who claim Britishness has gone with it. You will be missed greatly and remembered fondly.
Paul Blezard is an Author/Broadcaster/Bibliophile and now former Literary Editor of The Lady Magazine.
* piece first published on September 23, 2009