Lockdown Notes #5: the art of queuing

Shopping has become a risky activity. Now when we undertake one of the state-sanctioned journeys beyond our property, we have to socially distance ourselves. On my trips to the shops so far, I have been very impressed with how retailers are managing my fellow plebs as we frantically try to think of things we can buy which may be considered ‘essential’ to counterbalance the frankly shameful quantities of booze in our baskets and trolleys. When I open my front door on a Thursday, at least a few of my claps are directed towards shop workers and all those behind the scenes keeping the shelves and fridges filled (especially in the alcohol aisle).

Retailers are playing their part. Some are taking it a little too far – I have heard rumours of a zealous member of Morrisons staff who parades up and down the queue of waiting shoppers spreading optimism and positivity through song and a bubble machine. I haven’t witnessed it myself and, to be honest, having heard the reports I am avoiding Morrisons for fear that I may have lost my usual filter to mitigate my reactions to such behaviour.

As a nation of shopkeepers, we shouldn’t have expected anything less really. The supply chains and logistics have coped and adapted to the new Covid-19 landscape. Unfortunately though, even with our retail prowess we couldn’t quite overcome one unsurmountable problem: the variable skill of the British shopper.

In particular I refer to the art of queuing. I am fairly sure that, if we didn’t actually invent the queue, we certainly, like so many other ideas, stole it from another country and refined it to the point of raising it to an art form. Were a reputable polling company to take on the challenge and ask a global suite of respondents to play a word association game about the people of Britain then our place at the very pinnacle of world queuing would feature at or near the top of the responses. The Chinese and Singaporeans may be on the peak of mathematical ability, but frankly what use is being able to calculate the cost of your shopping basket if you have no civil way of waiting for your turn to pay?

No, we Brits can queue better than anybody else. We can start and manage a queue in any situation, especially when one really isn’t needed. Even in the trenches of the Great War, valiant Tommies queued patiently waiting for their turn to get machine gunned down. If we can queue under that kind of pressure, this pandemic should be a cinch. Alas, like all forms of socialisation and cultural transmission, there are those who can queue and those who cannot. Personally I think the queuers are winning on the evolutionary front. The number of people who can queue is in a clear majority (a properly clear majority, not like 52-48%). Unfortunately the inability to queue is the most social of problems. Unlike, say, IBS, it doesn’t just affect the afflicted, we all have to pay the price.

I think the presence of queuing etiquette in so many people makes the price even greater. We can go days, weeks, perhaps months on end without encountering a member of the queuing illiterate. Then when we do come across one, we are often at a loss as to what to do – do we audibly tut and roll our eyes (another British forte)? Do we politely point out where the back of the queue is? Or do we just tell them to use their fucking eyes and see that we were there first?

I was confronted with this dilemma when visiting a Co-Op recently (the location of which is best left anonymous). Walking up to the shop I noticed a few people queuing outside. Adapting to the 2m distancing wasn’t a problem for the queuers; it’s that kind of challenge which makes life meaningful. I identified the last person in the queue and stood behind them. Two metres behind them of course. All was well with the world until a gentlemen rounded the corner, dragging along a lidless version of one of those shopping bags on wheels (I don’t think it started its existence lidless). Headphoned up, he wandered towards the shop doors, at which we, the line of queuers were aligned towards at approximately five o’clock on the clockface. There were four or five of us in the queue. Each of us had gone through that same, instinctive queue joining process. It really cannot have been that hard, but oh no, he stood by himself at approximately eight o’clock. Oblivious.

What were we going to do? Surely one of us is going to say something? He must have just not been paying attention. Nobody said anything. We looked around surreptitiously, just to check we’d all noticed, maybe to see if somebody was formulating an appropriate response. The silence continued. Then the doors opened, a shopper came out. Mexican standoff. It was all down to the lady at the front of the queue. She won’t give way will she? No! Hurrah. She just walked in. Lidless-shopper-trolley man looked shocked. His mental cogs were whirring. Then he started to move. At last, he’s realised there was already a queue. What a silly man he’d been. He was going to join the back. Oh no, wait! He’s gone and stood in the exact spot the lady had just vacated at the front of the queue. In a shocking act of effrontery to his fellow would-be shoppers and centuries of British tradition, the cheeky bastard had jumped the queue. Did he realise? Surely nobody can be that ignorant? More importantly, one of us now has to say something. The British don’t stand by in the face of such bad sportsmanship. Who will say something? I don’t need to say anything, I thought, someone else will do it. Time ticked on. It’s ok, somebody will do something, or maybe he’ll realise his error. These things just don’t happen. It isn’t allowed. Then the doors opened and through he wandered. I didn’t look around to see what the other queuers were thinking. I’d like to think they shared my sense of shame. It was a sunny day and that is why I went out wearing sunglasses; they weren’t supposed to hide my tears. For those of us who knew how to queue who were there outside the Co-Op that day, a small piece of us withered and died. Maybe a small piece of Britain withered and died that day as well.

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