Simon Kelner: Demonstrating your Britishness? Join the queue

Kelner's view

Simon Kelner
Tuesday 28 August 2012 10:49 BST

This has been, we are told, a vintage summer for Britain. Not the weather, obviously, but a time when, from the Jubilee to the Olympics, our nation has been seen at its best, whether it be at staging a pageant, or at offering a helpful hand to others, or at displaying courage, skill and determination in a sporting arena, or even at exhuming a collection of old rockers to entertain the world.

We may be sinking deeper into recession, but we certainly know how to put on a show. And maybe there is something in the idea of Britain as a giant theme park to attract visitors from all corners of the globe. The Olympics proved we could do it. We made everything work, and everyone welcome.

We are not going to lead the world in manufacturing any more, so what about tourism? As a London resident, I hardly ever experience the capital's tourist attractions: I last went to Madame Tussauds on a school trip, I haven't been to London Zoo for almost two decades, and I have never been on a tour of Buckingham Palace. So do visitors go away think they've been ripped off – "that doesn't look the least bit like Terry Wogan!" – or enlightened - "I never knew the Queen liked toile de jouets wallpaper"?

Has the success of the Olympics really made others look at us in a different, and more benevolent, light? Have we now been inculcated in the have-a-nice-day rather than the I'm-sorry-we're-closed style of service? Has our hospitality industry woken up and smelled the Starbucks?

In a spirit of inquiry, and with some trepidation, I undertook a Bank Holiday trip to Chessington World of Adventures. My daughter is of an age when she finds a free bar more exciting than a big dipper ride, so I accompanied my friend and his five children – ranging from two years old to eight – who were already theme park veterans. They weren't fazed by the queues – some of the rides entailed a 90-minute wait – and I have to say that, if evidence was needed that the British liked to stand in line, here it was.

We all shuffled along uncomplainingly, snaking around endlessly, reading the notices about how to spot a queue-jumper (including the chat-and-cut technique immortalised by Larry David), and, bizarrely, letting people go past unchallenged if they said: "Excuse me, can I get through please." We just assumed they had a genuine purpose. What a polite nation we are, I thought. The staff were helpful and friendly, taking their cue from the Olympic volunteers, and, as at Games venues, most of the fast food was of a generic, unbranded variety.

The audience profiles, however, were very different. Chessington is not cheap, but it is – in contrast to the Olympics – within the financial resources of most people. So while the Olympic Park attracted what felt like an affluent cricket crowd, here there were tattoos, football shirts and beer bellies – and that was just the women! But everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, and after queuing for hours in the park, then sat in massive traffic jams. Britishness at its best!

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