Why do we still love the waiting game?
The British ability to queue remains a justified stereotype. As Wimbledon fans line up across south London, David Brake asks if it's a frisson of anticipation or mere politeness that keep us in place
Tuesday 28 June 2011
It's the Sunday evening before Andy Murray's fourth round Wimbledon victory against Frenchman Richard Gasquet. A gathering of more than 1,600 people with tents of all shapes and sizes is waiting to get a glimpse of the British number one in action on Centre Court; it's overwhelming.
The grand hope of the first British champion since Fred Perry's victory in 1936 inspires the expectant Brits, but what other nation of people would queue 64 hours early for an event?
The ability to queue is famously – even stereotypically – one of the key characteristics of the British, the ability to queue. The unnerving skill to wait patiently, whether it's to get on a packed bus on the way out of a festival or to pay the gas bill on time at the Post Office.
A recent poll suggested that the average Briton queues for more than 67 hours a year. Multiply that figure over a lifetime and it's a jaw dropping five months, two weeks and two days.
Ex-immigration minister Phil Woolas, prior to the election of 2010, wanted to include the "art of queuing" on the British citizenship test, stating that much tension in communities is caused by foreigners not understanding they must wait in line.
However, David Stewart-David, a leading expert in logistics, noted that Britain's apparent skill at queuing stems from its post-war mentality of rationing, but with such a distance from the war, has our our patience for queuing waned?
In contrast to the jovial atmosphere at Wimbledon and despite the British predilection for a polite queue, it's not uncommon for spots of Queue Rage to break out. On a recent journey through Waterloo station, I witnessed a woman in her mid-40s putting The Thick Of It's Malcolm Tucker's blue language to shame in the middle of the ticket queue.
That said, missing a train because of a slow station attendant is more likely to unleash one's inner Queue Rager than while sat drinking Pimm's in the line in Wimbledon Park. The wait for a treat – rather than a horrible commuter rail journey – informs another recent trend, that of hip, small restaurants like Soho's Polpo and Spuntino and the Meatwagon's Meateasy pop-up in south London, not taking reservations for tables, leaving snaking queues winding through the venue and out into the street. The joy of the wait for the punters comes from the satisfaction of the great food on offer. The benefit for the restaurant is a lack of cancelled bookings and a queue suggesting something tasty this way lies.
From macaroni to McEnroe, it seems the bigger the reward, the more patient we will be. We wait to show our inner steel, but it can often be tested by that devilish folk villain – the queue jumper. The question of whether or not to raise your voice to a jumper is a tricky one. Is the spirit of fairness worth a jab in the face? Who could help but admire the story of blogger Gareth Edwards, who went viral when he detailed his impressive tactic to outfox a smartly-dressed queue jumper?
As Edwards waited in a long, snaking queue for a bus, he spotted a businessman blatantly cutting in line behind him. Edwards decided to enact revenge by turning to an elderly woman behind the queue jumper and asking her whether she'd like to go ahead of him. He continued asking down the queue until a mass of people were ahead of him and the jumper. Eventually the lady now at the front of the queue called out: "Young man! Do you want to go in front of me?" And thus queue equilibrium was restored.
Speaking to some of the stewards monitoring the queues at Wimbledon, they reveal how they can spot the regulars with ease.
To be honest, it didn't take me too long to work it out: 10ft-long tents, gas cookers, food supplies, toilet rolls, mattresses and even a drinks cabinet gave the game away. In simple terms – when you're queuing for Wimbledon, plan for a mini holiday.
The All England Club even provides a 36-page manual on the rules of the game, with the line always referred to regally as The Queue.
Heaven forbid if Murray were to get to the final.
But, as the introduction to the guide states, Wimbledon is one of the last major events for which you can buy tickets on the door. The innovative ticketing system for the 2012 Olympics eliminated the first-come-first-served element, which was fair but, so far, hasn't allowed a small provision for the hardcore queuers.
The move of the ticketing companies to the internet, rather than the box office, may have killed the regular art of the long-distance queue. But at Wimbledon, a venue shrouded in tradition, The Queue is as much a part of the surroundings as the statue of Fred Perry and expensive bowls of strawberries. Long it is and long may it continue to be.
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