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The Queue

A strange and wonderous thing

Artillery Row

We are giving rather a lot of attention to The Queue. But when will we see such a queue again? It is remarkable that so many people are prepared to form a ten mile line, almost entirely peaceable, and trudge along it for anything between seven and twenty-four hours. I have visited The Queue several times. It was, if you were in London, unavoidable. You saw it snaking along the river bank, emerging from parks and clumps of trees. As you took the train or crossed a bridge, The Queue could always be seen. There is an unavoidable fascination in this strange organic event. I met several other people who, like me, went to see the queue, not to join it.

Where were all these people going?

Passing through London Bridge on Friday morning, I found a patient line of people, with all the expected accoutrements — Marks & Spencer cool bags, mini fold-out chairs, ancient backpacks sagging in their hands — as well as some unexpected ones. There were young children watching ipads and old men on walking sticks. They had spent four-and-a-half hours in the queue and had at least that much to go again, more likely twice as long. There was something timeless about these people, on the seats built into the Embankment wall, reminiscent of the boatmen who used to perch in carved seats beside the river before there was an Embankment at all.

That evening, I went to Southwark Park to see the queue forming. People were trundled along through fenced paths for two hours, before they started filling out of the park onto Jamaica Road. There was, at nine o’clock at night, a group of women with buggies, getting started on their fourteen hour queue. People seemed quite excited. As they joined, streaming in from all directions, there was the spirit of a major football match or a bonfire night. Tall bright lights created patches of glare in between the autumnal gloam along the paths. “Fourteen hours,” said one teenager as he passed the screen announcing the queue’s length, “not bad!” Anyone in the area who had managed to avoid the news would wonder what was happening. Where were all these people going? How remarkable that they were going to join a queue. 

The true scale of the queue and its side effects is seen in its support workers. All along the route were police officers, security guards, ambulance volunteers, paramedics, water stations, portaloos. In Southwark Park the operation was being run over radio, with fast-paced instructions to cover off corners where no-one was standing, fix the lights that had gone out. People zipped off in golf buggies to cover these gaps. 

There was plenty of feeling; but it was calm. People dropped in and out to go to a stall selling KitKats and crisps and the like. It had been like this for the last twelve hours, the stallholder said. People trundling past, chatting, sombre, looking at the view: no fuss, no bother, no worries. Everyone was there to pay their respects and they didn’t mind the queue. Indeed, I discovered at the other end that many of them quite enjoyed it.  

The Queen had been in his life for longer than his parents

In Westminster I spoke to people who had just left the Hall. Seeing Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin was surreal, they said. A lady with a silk scarf over her head called it a reverent atmosphere. They were so glad they had done it. Most of them broke into a smile, including the older people using sticks. Their emotions were big and not exactly joyous — but almost. It was incredible, they said. There was almost a buzz in the air. Something about being in a fourteen hour queue to see the dead Queen had left many of these people feeling a deep, calm, happiness almost. 

Julian Fellowes had just come out. Seeing all these people patiently queueing, creating this atmosphere together, makes you realise, he told me, that we spent so much time listening to the grumblers. This is the real majority. He too felt the uniqueness, the surreal joy. The Queen had been in his life for longer than his parents. 

There are so many factors at play: the logistics and operations, the security, managing the traffic, keeping people hydrated, setting up all the portaloos. Pausing the queue is useless. People simply form tributary queues. I would not be surprised if the queue makes it out of Southwark Park. As the queue gets bigger it seems not to put people off, but attract them. This is not just about seeing the queen. Something about the queue itself is worthwhile. 

People like to say this is nothing new. The British love queueing. There is something uniquely British about the queuing habit. But this isn’t true. Queues are a relatively recent and relatively unpopular addition to British culture.

“That talent of spontaneously standing in queue, distinguishes the French People,” wrote Thomas Caryle in 1837. In 1876 the journalist C.M. Davies could write of “a long queue, like that outside a Parisian theatre.” When it was used,  until the early twentieth century, the word was often italicised, to show that it was French. There was, for a long time, something very un-British about the queue

British people were not fond of these new queues

Supposedly, it was the Second World War that gave Britain the queue. “Now people have become so queue minded,” griped one Mass Observation diarist in 1945, “they just fall into a queue instead of hanging about the counters of shops, as they used to do before the war.” This wasn’t an entirely new phenomenon. But queues before the war were usually only used in certain situations. A Guardian correspondent recalls his grandmother telling him, of her Edwardian childhood, “people would not queue in a chip shop but would shout out their orders with no consideration for who was in the shop first and that this changed during world war one.” There had been queues for the theatre. In 1926 the Times ran a piece which said “queueing and booing” were among the most discussed theatrical subjects. 

Perhaps the low point of British queuing history was in 1937 when the London Passenger Transport Act allowed the London Passenger Transport Board to pass byelaws enforcing queue for trams and buses when more than six people were waiting. In 1938, such a byelaw was announced. It became an offence not to form a queue at a bus stop if there were more than six people waiting. In May 1939 a man was taken to court for jumping a queue of seventy people at a bus stop. He was fined ten shillings and an additional ten shillings for costs. 

What changed after the second war was the new permanence of queues. Rationing meant queues became a necessary part of British culture. For over a decade most women had no choice other than to stand in line. Queues were no longer occasional but daily. They were a symbol of shortage, not a British sense of fair play. And often the housewives who formed those queues were treated badly by the shopkeepers. The authoritarian nature of queuing seen in the London Transport Board’s byelaws became part of a culture where shopkeepers could laud it over housewives. One correspondent of the Dundee Courier in 1947 noted the “outraged expressions” on the faces of the staff in a bakery when the costumes walked in without waiting to be summoned.

British people were not fond of these new queues. Plenty praised them as fair. But discontent is obvious everywhere in local newspapers. Fordson vans were advertised with the line: “Stop Queues… Queues kill goodwill.” Dri-Ped shoe soles were claimed to be the cure for the new phenomenon of “queue-crawling.” Radox was sold to soothe “Queue feet”. In the Scotsman, a doctor called queues “one of the biggest evils of the moment” and said they gave women insomnia. The Belfast Telegraph talked about “queues for everything nowadays”. It became a political issue. Housewives petitioned against them in 1945. In the 1950 and 1951 elections Churchill speechified about the “queuetopia” promised by socialism. Rationing, and its queues, helped him win in 1951.

This strange and joyous queue

Negative associations lingered after rationing ended. Orwell associated queues with the dole, as did the Conservative Party’s famous poster campaign “Labour isn’t working.” The letters page of the Times used to be full of people carping about queues in the bank, queues in the post office, queues everywhere. In Queueing for Beginners, Joe Moran says the queue became a symbol of British malaise, of our inability to match supply to demand, to manage our businesses, or to motivate our workers. Conservative historian Correlli Barnett likened British queues to Soviet ones.

It was a major focus of corporations in the 1990s to use new science of “queueing theory” that informed innovations like ticketed queues and the announcement that tells you which cashier to go to next. There’s no shortage of cliches about Britain’s love of a good queue, but in the twentieth century, we spent a long time trying to reverse the queueing culture that characterised a sluggish and underperforming economy.

Britain’s do not love a queue, then. But they do love queuing to see dead royals. The first king to lie in state, Edward VII in 1910, attracted four hundred thousand mourners. It was eight hundred thousand for his son, George V. When George VI, the war-time king, lay in Westminster Hall, the queue was six miles long through winter frost. And no wonder. George VI stayed in London during the Blitz and visited affected areas. That’s partly why this queue has formed now. The Queen was the last surviving national link to the Second World War. This is national nostalgia mourning.

You might liken The Queue to a modern form of pilgrimage. The journey matters as much as the destination: paying your respects is about choosing to give up your time to stand all night in a cold queue while you walk along the Thames. There’s something primal about that which is easy to find baffling. Do we really still do this?

The people I spoke to at Westminster told me the queue flew by. It hardly felt like thirteen hours at all. The people around them were so nice the whole thing was quite fun for many of them. Again and again, whether they were old ladies, men in raincoats, people who had come down from the north, the midlands, or the west country, people in old style coats and hat, people in trainers, people with sticks, again and again they said the word “friend” — they described the strangers they had spent the day with, who they would likely not see again, as friends.

The queue is part of the point. Psychologists tell us that this queue is not just about royalist love of the queen: it sets off people’s feelings about the death of their own parents or grandparents, it makes people want to be part of a historic event. It is a way for people to manage their emotions about themselves and their lives. It seems remarkable that we need psychologists to tell us such things. The monarch is a figurehead, a symbol, a neutral gathering point for national feeling, which is a patchwork of the personal emotions the psychologists describe.

That’s the point of monarchy — to be primal, not tribal. Of course, there are people who take sides. But mostly, the monarchy is not a partisan, tribal issue. It runs deeper than that. It is, objectively, absurd for us to have formed this queue. But what is the alternative? To make the monarchy political would be to exchange the silly primalism of a queue for the boring, bothersome culture wars of ideology. 

Nations are bound together by one set of emotions or another. There has to be some sort of personal expression in democratic politics: this strange and joyous queue seems like rather a good one.

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