A classier waiting experience

Observations on queues

In How to Be an Alien (1946), the Hungarian emigre George Mikes joked that "an Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one". Mikes saw queuing as "the national passion of an otherwise dispassionate race", the daily embodiment of our eternal sense of fairness and civility. Ever since, cultural commentators have taken the decline of the queue as a sign of incipient social anarchy. The latest jeremiad comes from the Qm Group. According to its survey, 34 per cent of people have shouted abuse while in a queue, and 69 per cent have witnessed an act of "queue rage".

The Qm Group specialises in queue management systems, which are now big business. The most common system is "electronic call forward" (ECF), its seminal manifestation being the Post Office queue. Each cashier presses a button when he or she is free, which activates dot-matrix displays and a recorded voice informing the person at the head of the queue where to go.

This cutting-edge technology is supplemented by more mundane queuing furniture. The essential piece of kit is a metal pole with a rounded base and a strip of retractable webbed tape at the top, which is drawn out and attached to other poles to form queuing channels. Some hotels and cinemas, however, have posher poles with a chrome finish and twisted, coloured rope - an altogether classier waiting experience.

Queuing channels have their drawbacks. Trapped behind barriers, we cannot escape those invitations to impulse-buy, or those videos informing us of new postal services we don't want. Even the retractable tape on the poles can carry promotional messages or logos.

But anyone inclined towards a Patrick McGoohan-style response to the regimented queue ("I am not a number!") should consider the alternatives. At least the single-line system does away with the multiple-queue lottery still prevalent in Continental post offices. Other public services have no queue discipline at all. I have seen the absence of proper queues at bus stops lead to near-fist fights as hordes of passengers clamber on to already packed buses in no particular order, and drivers with half-full buses speed past stops swarming with angry commuters, because they know they will have either to let everyone board or no one at all.

Simon Garfield's recent book Our Hidden Lives, an anthology of Mass Observation diarists writing just after the Second World War, throws new light on this supposed golden age of queuing. For these generally decent people, the long queues for basic necessities simply became a focus for their resentments and prejudices, particularly if anyone ahead of them happened to be Jewish or American.

Yet the impulse to romanticise the queue as a civic ritual is not confined to Britain. In the old GDR, the queue was officially named eine sozialistische Wartegemeinschaft (a socialist waiting-association), in an attempt to persuade citizens that waiting in line was a practical lesson in collectivity. But queuing isn't good for the soul, comrades. It is boring, and anything that makes it visibly fairer and quicker should be welcomed. Long may we hear that sing-song voice chanting: "Cashier number five, please."

Joe Moran lectures at Liverpool John Moores University

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The Bling Bling List