Patience, good humour and a touch of the Blitz spirit

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The Independent Online

The reassurances, the pledges and the promises were not enough. Once again yesterday, long, patient, orderly queues had formed outside Northern Rock branch offices hours before they were open for business. They stayed until 6pm promptly, because staff had been instructed to close up at the normal time, no matter how many people were waiting outside.

Staff aimed to deal with one request every three minutes, but one customer, Abdul Wahab, who kept a close check on the progress of the queue outside the Moorgate office in central London, calculated that no more than 16 cases an hour were processed. Hundreds were turned away – suggesting that today's queues will be as long as yesterday's – yet what was remarkable was how good-natured and sociable it all was. Lasting friendships were probably forged in the queues.

Barry Yarrow, 77, who ran a tailor's business in Islington for 45 years, said it reminded him of Londoners during the Blitz. "Out of tragedy comes togetherness – that's something you don't get very often these days. It's the same sort of experience as in the air-raid shelters. It has brought people together."

Mr Yarrow and his wife, Hazel, arrived at the Golders Green branch of Northern Rock at 9.30am to find the queue was so long that staff were warning new arrivals they had no prospect of being seen that day.

But they heard that there was a shorter queue outside the Houndsditch branch office, in the City, so the Yarrows took the first available tube to Liverpool Street station. "The last time I came to Liverpool Street, I slept in the station. It was during the War," Mr Yarrow said.

The crisis has given thousands of Northern Rock savers an instant education in modern banking. There were people in the queues who could quote from memory the exact proportion of Northern Rock's turnover that was borrowed on money markets. Reports passed quickly along the line that share prices in Leicester & Alliance and Bradford & Bingley were falling. One saver queueing outside Northern Rock's Moorgate branch, who gave his name only as John, from Ilford, had followed his accountant's advice to spread his savings around, by opening accounts with all three of the now troubled building societies.

"This is capitalism gone mad," he grumbled. "It's a nightmare having to queue here for hours, and I'm going to have to do it again, and again. I'm going to take it all out, go on a holiday, and put what's left in the post office."

One detail that had impressed the Yarrows was that the maximum compensation for an individual saver, in the event of a bank defaulting, is £31,700 – rather less than they had deposited in Northern Rock.

"People say if you've got £31,700, you should be happy," Mr Yarrow said, "but that's not the point. It's hard-earned money, and it's taxed money as well. And people say don't you trust the banking system? Well, in my old shop we had a notice up saying 'We trust in God – everybody else pays cash'."

Next in the queue was an elderly Asian, who asked not to be named, who has been trying since Friday to reclaim almost £500,000 from his account, a fortune he had made as a wholesaler in the textile industry. His wife, Sarah, said: "We've been with Northern Rock for years. They're very good. Once it's okay, we will be back."

"I'd be surprised if they let Northern Rock go under," said Gail Smith, from south London, who was further back in the same queue. "But who wants to risk it? I'm still here."

Mr Yarrow decided to make their wait more comfortable by visiting a cafe, across the road and persuading the manager to lend them two aluminium chairs.

Northern Rock staff praised the calmness of the people queueing. "On the whole, they have been very patient," one manager said.