Last Thursday, The Olympic Torch Relay passed through our part of England. Along with Lesley, a colleague from (almost voluntary) work, we’d volunteered to be stewards on the streets of Gloucester. We were instructed to be at Gloucester Rugby Club for 6am (!!!) for a briefing before moving on to our designated standing area. Upon arrival, we found a large number of people standing in a line, so we dutifully joined in at the end. Did we know what this line of people were doing? No. Did we know what our reward would be once reaching the front? Certainly not. Then why were we doing it? Because we’re English. If English people are good at one thing, it’s queueing.
In fact, a couple of months ago, I ran the Sports Relief Mile with Miss Katherine. Upon reaching the venue, we were faced with a massive queue going into the sports centre. So we joined the end of it.
“What are we queueing for?” I asked the man in front of me. He shrugged.
We waited a couple of minutes. I spotted 3 enormous rugby players in yellow jackets, looking official. I approached them.
“What’s the queue for, please?” I asked.
“Erm, it’s for registering your number,” replied the 8’8″ New Zealander.
“Oh, I’ve got my number. Do I still have to register?”
He shrugged. I joined the queue again.The people behind me eyed me suspiciously, before recognising that I was in the queue with my daughter and just returning to my rightful spot.
“I’m in the queue with my daughter and returning to my rightful spot,” I announced with a smile. They visibly relaxed.
Lady Barton St Mary arrived.
“Why are you queueing?” she asked. Miss Katherine, three people behind us, two couples in front of us and a small child sucking a dummy all shrugged.
“Have you asked that young man over there who looks like Hagrid’s son?” she enquired.
“Yes. He doesn’t know either.”
Lady BSM sighed.
“I’m going inside to find out,” she said, and marched purposefully towards the main entrance. The massive queue of people stiffened. They craned their necks to follow her route, alert and ready for any queueing misdemeanour. One false move and they would be on her. In America, it’s called ‘cutting the line’. The English call it ‘pushing in’ and anybody found doing it is subject to some very English retribution, which involves a lot of harrumphing, hard stares, occasional shakes of the head and in extreme cases, somebody saying in a loud voice, “I say, there is a queue you know.”
But there is something about aristocracy that gives them special powers to overcome any fears that commoners may feel.
She disappeared into the building, leaving the queueing masses watching on, wide-eyed and blinking, like human sheep.It was eerily quiet. The silence was broken by a couple dressed as John Travolta and Olivia Newton John (leather version) from the film Grease. “Hello,” trilled Sandy, smiling, “what’s the queue for?” At least 150 people in the queue looked at her and shrugged. She joined the back of the queue with Danny. Then Lady Barton St Mary appeared once more and made her way back to Miss Katherine and I. The queue followed her every move. “This queue is for anyone who doesn’t have a number,” she said, “so you don’t need to.” A tsunami of whispers moved in both directions up and down the line of people. Within seconds, the queue had dissolved down to a dozen people. They all had numbers, but obviously thought, ‘what the heck, I’m nearly at the front, I’ve been queueing for an hour – I want my reward!’
I often wonder whether queueing is a specific English habit. For example, I have joined queues in other parts of the world. In the U.S.A., for instance, I have joined queues with the local natives, but always when the reason for the queue is obvious, like getting into The Statue of Liberty or the elevator to the top of The Empire State Building. The Spanish have their own version, where they stride past the straight line of English customers, straight up to the counter and go about their business. Italians try to form a queue, but spend a lot of time shouting at each other and waving their arms, whilst the least argumentative just get on with doing their business at the front.
But the most incredible fact of all is that the word queue has its origins in the Latin word cauda, meaning tail and – wait for it – is actually French. As you are probably aware, French people fall over themselves laughing at the very idea of queueing.
So, back to the queue at Gloucester Rugby Club. As Lesley and I edged closer to the front, we became aware of the reason for our queueing. Identity tags! Little plastic wallets on ribbons with the Olympic rings on them! As we reached the front of the queue, an elderly Englishman suddenly appeared through a door to our right, walked up to the operative giving out the tags and held out his hand. Meekly, the identity tag prefect handed over a tag. This was too much. My passive aggressive Englishness went into action.
“Don’t you like queueing then?” I asked him, narrowing my eyes.
His mouth moved silently for a couple of seconds as his eyes darted left to right.
“Oh, erm, I’m not pushing in,” he stated, before turning on his heel and walking away. The identity tag prefect looped the ribbons to our plastic wallets over our dropped jaws. Audacious. Daring. Defying all queueing etiquette required of the indigenous population .
Stunned by this amazing Jedi mind meddling, Lesley and I moved away and shuffled straight into another queue. It turned out to be for high visibility jackets. Guess who got his first?