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Sunday, 7 August 2016

How we became who we are

The English queue; Americans, prosaically, stand in line. Perhaps because queue is harder to spell.

The English joke about queueing, claiming to be “good at it” but it’s not a joke. Secretly the English see it as the basis of a calm and ordered society, whereas it could suggest national passivity. I’m sure Italians, who are very bad at queueing, especially for ski-lifts, view the English as passive.

My theory is that the English docilely form queues because we must, it is now part of our psyche born of the period 1945 – 1955 which should have been triumphal but was instead devoid of hope. We had just won a war (or that’s what we told ourselves) and we had virtually nothing. What little we had we queued for: infrequent buses, seats in the cinema, a pitiful range of groceries, sweets (US: candy) and – for all I know – accommodation in the cemeteries. Also the services of a doctor.

Then, you didn’t book a doctor’s appointment, most of us didn’t have phones. You turned up, stood then sat in the packed waiting room, went in when it was your turn.

“When it was your turn” – how freighted with emotion those words are. You were met by the bovine stare of two-dozen middle-aged people, all clearly suffering, all wearing worn overcoats probably bought pre-war. You memorised their faces and counted them off as they responded to the doctor’s buzzer. But 24 faces are a lot to remember. And don’t forget, latecomers were replacing those who had gone before.

Nervous tension was palpable. Did the trembling woman in widow’s weeds, carrying a basket, arrive ahead of you? What happened if you accidentally jumped the queue? Tranquillisers hadn’t then been invented but the English were inventing themselves.


  1. I have some kind of a reputation for being passive, or patient, but not in a queuing situation. In fact I reckon I have such an aversion to queuing that it borders on the irrational; I have even been known to walk past an overcrowded café on some of my long walks!

    In the past I have done a lot of hitchhiking (I like the French verb for that, "faire le stop"), and rather than stand there making the thumb sign I would prefer to walk along the road to my own disadvantage because I would often be at an inconvenient place for a willing motorist to stop. So, I make myself what I am (Stephen Pinker, and others of his ilk may disagree), but I enjoyed your little post; only people of our age would appreciate that picture of post-war deprivation you describe, and oh, those doctors' waiting rooms, and thinking about it that is probably the origin of my queuing paranoia.

  2. Sir Hugh: It took me some years to realise - in France at least - that crowded restaurants were where one should eat. Especially if the noise level suggested most of the customers were French. That empty restaurants were empty for a good (or bad) reason.

  3. You describe the dreary '50s perfectly, RR. We "won" the war (with American help - which we finally paid them back for in about 2000) but "lost" the peace. Indeed, I think Germany and Japan resurfaced more promptly with vast cash injections from America (which they did not have to pay back) and lots of hard work - whilst we appear to have relaxed, spent, on our laurels.

    Oh those doctors' waiting rooms! So boring and interminable to a youngster.

  4. Brits rarely refer to the help they got from those other guys in their badly-fitting uniforms who harried the enemy on the east and who died in their millions doing just that. There were three leaders at Yalta you recall.

    But you've touched on a point I failed to make. A good word "spent"; in fact tiredness more than anything else characterised the decade I refer to. There is a limit to just how far you can go on boiled cabbage.

  5. I seem to remember that Germany and Russia were mates until Hitler jilted Stalin. Certainly Russia was a great help in winning the war against Germany, but Stalin was fighting for Russia and intended annexing (and did) all that he conquered in Eastern Europe. Post war Britain was a paradise compared to East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia.

  6. Oh, that was drear--a good portrait of the times.

    Queueing is a strange thing. I don't notice it much in this country except at the opera, where there is always queueing for the "ladies room." I remember long queues at the New York World's Fair when I was a child. Bizarre how we dislike it, yet feel a kind of commitment to staying put and not losing one's place. So as we become more annoyed by it, we also become more fettered to it.

  7. Avus: But a little earlier weren't we trying desperately to become mates with Hitler? And if Stalin was "fighting for Russia" what were we fighting for? Democracy in the remnants of the Sudetenland? Stalin's bad luck was to kick off rather too late in the colonialisation game; best to have got it over and done with in the 18th and 19th centuries when it was called something different: bringing enlightenment to the under-privileged or some such. The fact that the Poles, etc, had it bad didn't make me any happier in my early teens. You'll be telling me I'd be much worse off these days as a citizen of the ironically named Democratic Republic of the Congo. Even more so drowning in the River Wye.

    I wasn't saying we should love Stalin, just be thankful he was around at the time. Glad he helped postpone Operation Sea Lion.

    Marly: As far as I remember we managed to struggle through WW2 without bread being rationed. Imagine how it felt when bread was rationed post-war!

    Queues tend to develop in response to a sudden and profound need, eg, food kitchens and (probably) after Hurricane Katrina. Americans lack the temperament for queues, seeing them possibly as an admission of failure. Interestingly, situations like queues (flight delays, etc) bring out the best in Americans although many would not agree; they're good at complaining - inventively and effectively. A stark contrast with Brits who tend simply to endure. The French respond in quite a different way, refusing to cohere, standing around randomly - in effect emphasising individuality. There's a thesis to be written.

  8. Have you read "The Queue" by Basma Abdel Aziz?