Queue up, queue upQueue up, queue upShilpi Chakraborty


When I came  to this coun try a decade  back, one grey morning I decided to take my son to the park. Fat swollen clouds swirled in the sky, hanging so low that I felt if I reached out I could touch those fluffy balls. The park was a swathe of green with lots of leafy walks, a pond where ducks swam in gay abandon and a play area for the children. There were hardly any people in the park, one little boy was in the swing, rest everything was empty. The clang of the metal swing pierced the air, the sound sharper because of the all-encompassing silence. My boy pointed out with his plump fingers that he wanted to go on the swing too. I followed him to the swing, waited uneasily, stiff as a wood. Then another little girl strutted in, her rapunzel like hair tied into a braid swaying behind her. The father who was pushing the boy lifted him from the swing and said, “Let these children have a go. You have been on the swing for a long time”.

As soon as the boy was off the swing, the little girl dashed to taker turn, but was stopped by her mother. “Emily, I think this little boy was here before us. First let him have a go,” she tells her, the corners of her mouth curved into a full smile as she looked at me. I wanted to hug her, at a time when you miss your family terribly, feel a sting of loneliness, a kind word from a total stranger felt like an enveloping quilt in a cold night. But other than that, I realised taking turn is an etiquette, Britishers held aloft and is commonplace in all social situations. Coming from a chaotic country, where you always have to make your way through or you will never get a turn, it was kind of an eye opening to me. As I started exploring I saw that even if there was no queue, like in a sandwich shop, where four five were standing haphazardly thinking which sandwich to choose, people asked “are you in the queue?”

The belief of orderly queue is a part of the national character, and it symbolises decency, fairness, democracy. Jumping queue is socially unacceptable and frowned upon by most people. Some days before, we were about to walk out of a ferry, and of course there was a line, but not an orderly one, and one man was too much in rush to wait, muscled his way through to the front. A child, I am guessing, she will be hardly 6 year old, shouted, “Hey, that man is breaking the queue. That is not done.” Yes, if you jump the queue you might be told off even by pint-sized children. The notion of queuing is embedded in a child, like a chip in a computer, as she or he grows up. Undermining the British queuing system is undermining the British way of life.

I watched and learnt. Sometimes, of course, queueing can be frustrating and irritating, if you have children with you, but it works, it helps maintain orderliness. In my case, if an elderly woman with crutches stood behind me, I would always give my place to her as I know she deserved it more than me.

The British people claim that they are known all over the world for being civilised queuers. When it comes to self-organisation, they are unequivocally the best. Queueing is such an integral part of British system that social historians have written books about it. Dr Joe Moran, the author of Queuing for Beginners: The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime, has touched on this topic among other minutiae of British everyday life.

The Wimbledon is probably a fine example of British queueing system at its best. Every summer thousands of people gather to watch this star studded event, and yet there is hardly any chaos.  Wimbledon has a strict code of conduct on queuing, all written down, and anyone who doesn’t follow the rules are refused entry.

Last month, London hosted the world athletics championships, an overwhelming number of people turned up to watch Usian Bolt run his last race. I was there at the Olympic park and happened to visit the park cafe. It was teeming with people, there was a queue to buy food but there were also people milling around the queue so it was difficult to find the tip of it. But after living in this in this country for long, I have become conditioned to queueing, come what may, I didn’t rest till I found my rightful place.

I read in an article that if you accept someone’s offer to go ahead of them in queue, you may be considered as impolite. In my case, I will always offer a place to someone who is  more in need, if I see a woman struggling to cope with her wailing baby standing behind me, I will not think twice but give my place to her. She deserves to be ahead of me, no matter what. The first come, first served may be the civilised way to do things, but if someone is more in need, queue skipping should definitely be acceptable.