The new age of the queue


The British are famous for queueing, but during the pandemic we’ve gone to new lengths. What does our ability to stand patiently say about us?

The line snaked ominously around the forecourt. I knew B&Q mid-lockdown would be bad, but I hadn’t quite appreciated how bad. “They should call it Q&Q,” my son remarked. There were at least 50 people in a socially distanced trolley conga, braving airborne particles and suspicious glances to lay their hands on shelf brackets, parasols, titanium-tipped screws.

What was my excuse? Just as a driver complains about being “in traffic” when they are in fact, traffic, so the queuer laments the phenomenon they create. I was painting my kitchen, I had run out of paint, a retail park just off the M5 was the only place where I could lay my hands on the right brand and shade, the government had said it was OK and we were wearing masks. But I also wanted to subject the queue to the sort of study that the anthropologist Kate Fox pioneered while researching her 2004 classic, Watching the English, which spends a lot of time discussing the commonly held notion that we are a nation of queuers. “An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one,” noted the Hungarian émigré George Mikes in his bestselling 1946 book, How to be an Alien. In his 1944 essay The English People, George Orwell remarked on “the orderly behaviour of English crowds, the lack of pushing and quarrelling, the willingness to form queues.”

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