There is something wonderfully English about queueing; not only is it the only word in the Oxford Dictionary that strings five vowels consecutively together, but it could be worth no less than 119 points in a game of Scrabble if strategically placed for a triple-word score and formed by using all seven of your tiles – the odds of which occurring are, realistically, probably in excess of those for winning the Lottery.
However, it isn’t just the word that is fascinating, but the concept that an undefined number of people can randomly assemble themselves at a given point on the planet at the same time, all seeking the same, or similar, end to the quest that called them there. Having done that they will, almost unerringly, regulate themselves to acquire what they seek in exactly the same order in which they arrived, with minimal communication beyond an inquisitive eyebrow-raise, or surreptitious beckoning hand, occasionally accompanied by a polite “after you”.
It is something so quintessentially English that it is amongst the first concepts taught by parents to their offspring, often by example thanks to that small percentage of miscreants who choose to ignore their upbringing – I prefer to see it that way, having never witnessed any parent actually teaching a child to queue-jump. When this occurs, a muted but indignant “excuse me!” is normally sufficient to restore the status quo, followed by the embarrassed apologies from the malefactor as they suffer the indignity of having to mantra them along the entire line of self-satisfied glances that greet their demotion. Should that fail, then an audible harrumph, followed by a loud reference to ‘not knowing what the world is coming to’ directed to the stranger either side of one’s selected position, will normally bring sufficient tuts and head-shaking within the body-politic to ensure that the offender either colours-up guiltily or leaves the locale by the nearest exit.
As I grew-up, I discovered variations of queueing self-regulation; there was the Doctor’s waiting room, where it was necessary to note everybody who arrived after you so that you knew it was your turn when the door opened and the Doctor called “Next!” having glanced around quickly to confirm that you recognised everybody in the other chairs. At the Barbers’ a similar technique was used, but as our local chsap never summoned his next customer, it was necessary to memorise everyone who was there when you arrived, so that you could be on your feet striding towards the chair the minute the previous customer went to the till. This was particularly important having reached mid-teens, because if you were not sitting in his chair ready to impart your directions when he returned to it, he would know you were not mature enough to be quietly offered ‘something for the weekend’ when you paid him.
One of the bastions of the tradition of queueing, however, has always been the Post Office. Every Post Office has a queue, from when it opens in the morning until the time that the last remnants are locked-in at closing time. So ubiquitous is the Post Office queue that I have often wondered if one of the reasons that the organisation failed to be profitable for so long may have been because it employed professional queuers, whose job it was to establish queues in their own office at opening time, prior to wandering peripatetically around other branches ensuring that those queues never shrank below an acceptable length. If you think that may be far-fetched, I present as evidence m’lud the person who asks for the one leaflet that is not only missing from the rack in the public area, but turns out to be completely out of stock as well, a fact eventually reported by the Cashier who, having kept them waiting whilst searching for it in the bowels of the building, thus taking one counter completely out of service for half-an-hour, thereafter had to immediately close the counter having missed their tea-break.
It was in the Post Office that one of the more important exemptions from the rules of queueing could be taught to offspring; that of allowing the little old lady, bent double in her overcoat and headscarf, to barge to the front of the queue on pension day. We may have inwardly abhorred it, but we also knew that, one day, that may be our destiny; so we looked on the lesson to the next generation as a mortgage on our future comfort. Of course, over the years the Post Office has tried manfully to disrupt such humane practices, undermining our almost seventh-sense queueing abilities by imposing a series of measures to regulate our actions, and bend us to their own system of ‘fairness’.
I have no idea who the Postmaster General was when, sometime in those hideous ‘seventies, the organisation’s trust in human nature was lost, but he was clearly a control-freak who had been spooked at an early age by a degenerate queue-hopper. We’ve all been there at one time or another, confronted by a series of queues of differing lengths, trying to judge whether the one we chose is moving at sufficient speed to allow us to escape the establishment in sufficient time to meet the pressing engagement that awaits us in the real world. Occasionally we would bottle-out, and hop to another whose occupants seemed to be moving faster, only to then discover that we were two-back from the professional queuer, and his request for the missing leaflet.
Having reached the position of ultimate power over Post Office foyers throughout the country, this individual unleashed the remedy he had been waiting to impose since pre-school; he turned them all into pseudo-theme-parks, with miles of temporary barrier snaking, single-file, from the door to the neutral zone in front of the cashier counters, where only a precise number of people equal to the number of open counters were allowed. Venture into that neutral zone before your counter was vacant, and you would find that the blind would be pulled-down on you as you approached it; this stranded you in no-man’s land and, unable to return to the front of the queue under the full glare of the waiting masses disapproving of your impatience, forced you to either return to ‘Go’ without the £200 you wished to withdraw from your savings account, or flee the building in shame.
Not everything in that system was overbearing; there were helpful signs strategically-placed at five-minute intervals advising how long you may be required to queue from that point before reaching the neutral zone. Of course, if this could cause too long a wait, you needed to make your decision to bale-out quickly, otherwise there would be too many queuers in the snake behind you cutting-off your only escape route, and sentencing you to an eternity of shuffling whilst your important appointment elsewhere faded into history.
This change allowed the Post Office to reduce their staff of professional queuers, as it was then possible to regulate the number of open counters relative to the length of the snake. Most of them were retrained as counter-staff because of their innate ability to judge queue-lengths, whereas others were converted to security staff who pretended to be topping-up the leaflet racks, as ineffectively as possible, whilst secretly monitoring the neutral zone for troublemakers. After some years, however, this irregular closing of counters began to cause confusion, with people becoming trapped in the neutral zone more regularly and refusing to leave without attaining their target counter, causing altercations with the leaflet-stuffers.
To resolve this, identification signs were added adjacent to each station that would flash their number to attract the attention of the foremost queuer to proceed to the correct free counter. This was particularly helpful for the little old lady collecting her pension, who for years had been marginalised by the theme-park snake. She could now station herself at the exit point of the neutral zone, watching like a hawk for a combination of a flashing light and a person at the front of the queue who was momentarily-distracted by some of the amazing offers for queueing away-days at coastal Post Offices, displayed on the various advertising hoardings now surrounding the snake; this allowed her to move deceptively-quickly into position at the vacant counter before the true qualifier had even moved a muscle.
To combat such anarchy, the system was further enhanced by adding an exit barrier to prevent incursion to the neutral zone, and an accompanying voice that would boom-out over the Tannoy system “Cashier number four please”, to overcome the growing number of distractions to the foremost-queuer. The voiceovers were even provided in the gender of the counter staff waiting at that position, presumably to allow any neurotic genderists in the queue to avoid unnecessarily having to face a member of the opposite sex for their enquiry.
And so we reached a new century with the Post Office queue still very much part of our heritage, the voluntary aspect albeit diluted to just a decision on whether to join the snake or not, after which our hands were tied and guided by the imposed regulation taking us past evermore tantalising offers, for those still in employment, of assistance with claims against their employer for dubious accidents in the workplace. The queue-jumper had been all-but eradicated, as had polite conversation along the vertebrae of the snake. Parents, devolved of the traditional examples of politeness used to control their offspring, would now struggle with the conflict between allowing them to run-riot beyond the barriers disrupting the leaflet racks, or lose their hard-won position in the snake in order to retrieve them unwillingly to a relegated position at the back of it. But in this brave new world where the impression of progress is preferred to actuality, that could never last, as I experienced the other day when I encountered the latest Post Office queueing system for the first time.
I was visiting a Post Office in a large town to send a Recorded Delivery letter, and walked into the foyer to be confronted by acres of open space. It would have been almost like stepping back in time, apart from the prerequisite uniformed young lady approaching to proffer assistance; I politely raised my palms in rejection of her approach convinced, wrongly as it transpired, that she was about to offer me a free MOT test to tempt me to transfer to the Post Office’s Motor Insurance Plan. Instead I looked, vainly, for the end of the queue.
There were people at the counters, there were people loitering in alcoves all around me, but there was no queue. Had I entered a parallel-universe where a brewing company owned what were probably the best Post Offices in the world, and you were served immediately on entering? On further examination, however, I noted a small gathering in the centre of the room, and my genetic-coding assured me that this was the essence of a queue, so I sauntered over to join it. Having arrived at the elected point, I then realised that the young lady had, apparently, not abandoned her attempts at interesting me in indulging in a fifteen-day free trial at my local slimming club, and was actually expressing some concern for my general welfare. She diffidently approached asking “Excuse me Sir, but do you have a ticket?”
I looked at her in, I must confess, a degree of confusion; had I missed something, and finally crossed the threshold of life to the stage where my mental faculties dictated the constant presence of a carer? The sign outside said ‘Post Office’ and the red decor seemed to confirm that status, but maybe I had mistakenly wandered into the foyer of some new-style entertainment venue that had trendily named itself after the institution; if so, this had doubtless been broadcast to the world via Twitter, thus bypassing everybody who, like myself, has little control on where they are heading and thus fails to understand why anyone might wish to follow. I shook my head, wondering what was coming next; but she simply said “No problem Sir, I will get one for you.” I watched her wander over to a machine on the wall and hit a button which produced a numbered ticket which she brought back and handed to me. “There you are Sir, number 128” and off she wandered again, in pursuit of her next prey.
I was still mildly confused; I had a ticket with a number, but what was I to do with it? I looked at the counters; they had the flashing signs over them, but these were displaying letters, not numbers. Cashier number ‘4’ was now capital letter ‘D’. All of the counters were full, so I waited for something to happen. Eventually the person moved away from counter ‘D’, and the sign changed to ‘119’. I breathed a sigh of relief realising I had ten numbers in which to acclimatise. The Tannoy announced in a female voice “Customer Number 119 to Cashier D please” at which point a middle-aged lady emerged from an alcove to my right and made a bee-line for the appointed counter. All was now revealed; the person who invented the delicatessen counter at Sainsbury’s has now got the job as Postmaster General.
I looked around and located the big screen with all the numbers on it. Sure enough, there I was – number 128 with another eight numbers ahead of me. I watched as the performance repeated itself, and suddenly felt, somewhat reminiscently, as if I was back in my old local Co-op, where they had the cash desk in the middle linked to the various counters by those overhead wires I used to watch as a child. The person serving my mother would cram the ten-bob notes into a pot, screw it into the carriage overhead, then pull down the handle, and with a ‘phtoom’, the carriage would whirr over my head across the ceiling until it hit the capture point above the cash desk with a ‘thunk’. The cashier would then unscrew it, take the money out, put the change back in the pot with a receipt, then send it back to the counter with another ‘phtoom-whirr-thunk’.
“Customer Number 122 to Cashier F please” – a young girl appeared from my left and hastened across the floor; “Customer Number 123 to Cashier A please” – a man emerged from my right; ‘phtoom-whirr-thunk’ and he was at the counter. Then the next, and the next; it was fascinating. The next announcement was for customer 126; I looked up at the board – I was next but one, but who was number 127? I felt strangely concerned. If I was back at the Barbers’, I would know who they were, because they would be the last face I recognised; if it was the old snake queue, they would be in front of me in full view; even at the delicatessen counter they would be close-by, allowing me to scan the crowd looking for the one crouched in the starting-blocks. But here, in this vast foyer full of scattered loiterers, who was number 127?
Then it came across the Tannoy – “Customer number 127 to cashier B please”. The sign over counter B flashed the number, but nothing happened; the announcement came again, sounding somewhat more earnest – “Customer number 127 to cashier B please!” Was the earnestness imagined, or did the software actually enhance the tembre; and if it did, would the next announcement be the equivalent of the hands-on-hips/raised voice of a mother exasperatedly calling her errant child in to tea? What if number 127 had become fed-up with waiting, what would happen then? How long would they continue announcing? After a few minutes would the manager come out into the foyer, exasperatedly tell everybody to stop whatever they were doing and then tick us all off for not paying attention? The tension was palpable.
Then, off to my left I heard the voice of the young lady who had brought me my ticket. “I think that’s you dear” she said softly, at which a little old lady in a scarf and overcoat rose to her feet from a bench and shuffled towards counter B, her body bent almost double by the burden of her years. I felt somewhat relieved that, as my years advanced, there would be a retrained professional queuer available in every Post Office to assist me to cope with any new anti-queue-jumping system, allowing me to collect my pension in good order.
My number was called, I strode confidently to counter D and sent my recorded delivery letter with the aid of another very helpful young lady who, at the conclusion of my business, smiled warmly and asked me if there was anything else she could do to assist me. I said no, but thanked her for this new and interesting experience. She replied:
“In that case Sir, could I interest you in our new Credit Card? It offers 0% for balance transfers……….”