Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The End of the Line

The British are known for many traits. Our stoic reserve in a crisis, our plucky have-a-go attitude, and our ability to stand in a queue for hours. OK, so we probably have the silver medal in that latter event, coming second to Communist Russia, but since they’ve become a little more relaxed these days (which is a sidestep to gloss over my ignorance of the intricacies of Russian history and politics) we are once again contenders. The problem is, you can take things too far.

Queuing for a bus is acceptable. Queuing for tickets for a gig you’ll never get tickets to because online touts are wilfully and imaginatively abusing the system is acceptable. Queuing at the supermarket at the self-service checkout is acceptable, if sometimes confusing due to the layout. Should there be one queue or two? The norm in these circumstances is usually one of course, and heaven help the person who tries to set up a secondary queue when there’s one already in place, the stares and the tutting is horrendous.

The one place however where the traditional, stand-in-a-line queuing system should be ignored in favour of a looser arrangement is at the bar of a public house. Years and years of frequenting hostelries by us, and our fathers, and their forefathers, should have taught us this simple lesson.

A bar is long and wide, therefore we stand where there is a gap. If there’s not a gap, stand behind whoever is being served and a gap will soon emerge. There’s an unwritten etiquette about it. Yes, some people will exploit this system and so you have to be polite but assertive. I always attempt to be fair in these situations myself, I check my surroundings out and ensure that I’m not jumping in. I make eye contact with new arrivals to stamp my territory and when it’s my go I make myself known. It’s an age old custom which must be preserved.

Hence why I have become disconcerted by an alarming habit that seems to have formed at my local. There are some people, the sort who only frequent the pub on a Saturday or Sunday lunchtime, who seem to have started queuing at the bar as if they’re waiting for a bus, in a big long line. The first time I saw it I was utterly bemused and gobsmacked at the same time. There they were, about 20 or so adults queuing down through the public bar.

I didn’t know what to do so, on this occasion and despite the fact I knew it was so, so wrong, I joined this ridiculous queue. All the time I was urging us closer in my mind, hoping that no-one else would file in behind me as that meant the queue would get longer and the whole charade would persist.

That particular episode was the worst I’d seen it. More recently I found myself in the same position but the queue was half the length. I knew that I shouldn’t make the same mistake twice, especially when I could see so much unused bar space with numerous members of staff available to serve. They too seemed utterly bemused by the unnecessary line that had manifested in front of them but were also being too polite to say anything.

I decided to make a stand and I began to bypass the queue. Two men at the back of the queue saw what I was doing and felt the urge to make a comment, and I heard the use of the word “queue jumper”. I turned to them, and I could see that they, like me, were men of the world. They weren’t here to order Burgers, or Bangers & Mash , or Turkey Dinosaurs and a Fruit Shoot, they just wanted a good pint of fine foaming ale.

I asked them when they’d ever seen people queue like this in a pub before. They conceded it was unusual but used the Homer Simpson defence, “It was like it when I got here”.

“Ah”, said I, “but by standing there you’re only making the situation worse, more will come and queue behind you. It’s time to break ranks. Are you in?”

They looked at each other nervously, but after a brief moment they agreed. It was time to make a stand. So, we started to move to the vacant areas of the bar but, being British and being naturally polite, we made sure we took others with us. We weren’t here to push in; we were here to ensure that centuries of tradition were not being thrown out of the window.

Within moments normal service had been resumed. Our bold move had ensured that, finally, we were all standing at the bar waiting to be served in the normal fashion, not queuing round corners as if we were waiting at the Post Office to buy stamps. It was a truly liberating moment.

Personally I blame the identikit chain pubs for this. They’re not all the same I agree but some enforce a queuing system for ordering food with a roped area so as to shepherd the punters around for maximum efficiency. These are the kind of establishments where the entire bar staff refer to everyone, man or woman, as “guys”, but these are not pubs for intelligent free-thinking adults in need of refreshment.

Throw down your shackles and embrace the chaos. We all have to spend too much time feeling obliged to stand in an orderly line for different things, but the pub is just not the place for it.

Worse still, you don’t want your kids to pick up this weird queuing system from you. They need to know the proper pub etiquette so that when their time comes, they too will know the feeling of being stood at a busy bar, keeping an eye out for the faintest glimpse of the varnished wood serving area in front of them and squeezing their hand into the gap to make contact so as to slowly but firmly claim their place.

They need to learn from you that once they get to the bar that they should be stood, empty glass in one hand, a bank note in the other, and a look of anticipation in their eyes. They need to feel that frisson of excitement as to whether they will be served next, they need to learn the confidence to speak up when it’s their turn, and the humility and respect to let someone else be served who was there before them.

And, to badly mis-quote Rudyard Kipling, tell them that then, and only then, will they become a man (or woman), my friend.

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