It’s interesting how things and events have a habit of going full circle. It seems not too many years ago when lines and queues were the norm. During school break, which we used to call ‘play-time’ in the infants and ‘break’ in the juniors and seniors, everything stopped when the patrolling ‘break teacher’ blew the whistle; after the second whistle each class lined up in twos and marched back into the building for the start of the next session. Lines, queues and whistles were just how it was then, apart from some overzealous lifeguard at the swimming baths or a motorcycle cop in London. I’d not heard a whistle used to get general attention or to give orders since the days when police officers wore tunics and routinely carried one on a chain kept, along with a truncheon, out of sight in a pocket.
Going to school at a time even then I had a choice of catching two buses. One was owned and run by a large private company which operated across the Midlands and the other was operated by the ‘Corporation’. Both plied for passengers on the same routes, but usually from different stops, some with bus shelters, although to be honest I can’t say that I ever saw a bus sheltering in one. I do remember that they usually had broken glass windows and a funny smell reminiscent of the funny smell that hung around in telephone boxes. But I digress – the point was that the bus stop sign owned by the corporation had the instruction ‘queue this side’ emblazoned while the ones owned by the private company didn’t.
In those days you did as you were instructed and queued on that side (I must admit to wondering just what would happen if one didn’t). There was a pecking order in the queue which meant that some adults, usually teachers, pushed their way in front of you when the usually nearly full bus arrived, and expected to get on first. Presumably they thought of themselves as what we now describe as ‘key workers’, or maybe they were setting an example of some kind. This, of course, was years before schools decided, unasked by anyone, that they had some God-given right to indoctrinate their pupils into particular ways of thinking or behaviour and actually just taught an agreed syllabus.
Their actions were, though, for me and my mates, often standing in the rain and cold, the first example of the maxim ‘do as I say not as I do’ that is so prevalent in the ‘big fused rules-based society’ that Cameron and May were always blathering on about, which turned out, as we know, to be such a brilliant success and proved once and for all that we are not and never were ‘in it together’.
Queuing first started in earnest in Britain during the First World War when the country came perilously close to starving as shipping lines were decimated by German action, continuing through the 1920s and early 1930s as Tommy Atkins, so lauded during the first war, found himself queuing along with millions of others homeless, unemployed and broke, only to witness a repeat of the performance during the second world war, 1940s and right up to the late 1950s.
It was said at the time that people would join a queue not knowing what was on offer, but on the credit side you at least had the opportunity to make new friends while waiting, and wait you did. Looking back, this gave the authorities and business owners the opportunity to control the population. Businesses would supply the masses with what they wanted, when they wanted it and the ever-expanding ‘helpful’ hand of local and central government, assisted by red tape and forms for this authority or that, rationing and coupons required and designated prices set for all sorts of goods and services.
As we all know the British are supposed to be the world’s best queuers. Apparently this is a bit of a misapprehension as the same resentment that I experienced as schoolboy appears to be rising again in many people as queues start again to form everywhere in this incredible new dawn of the new normal, that media hacks and some politicians who should know better keep telling us we are now entering.
This time it’s different, well it always is isn’t it? The queues are back but this time slightly different, so-called social distancing is to be enforced, yellow and white lines on the pavement to help the unwary or those incapable of judging for themselves the required six feet or two metres between each two people. It a good job that these helpful lines are in place actually as many vehicle drivers will be aware there is a growing number of drivers who apparently have difficulty in judging the length of their car’s bonnet at junctions.
Standing mostly silently in line as directed by your local shop yellow-jacketed Shop Marshall who will wave you in when a safe distance has been left by the departing shopper, you are then free to enter premises, free that is to only walk not run – just like in school, remember – quickly picking out your requirements but not allowed to touch. Fail to wait patiently while that couple in front block the aisle while they make the buying decision of the century as they stare intently at rows of identical packs of oranges or carrots is to risk the wrath of some usually middle-aged overweight woman who, judging by her over-confidence and loud voice is a furloughed teacher or something, and will loudly tut, or shout ‘too near’, ‘wrong way’ or something.
For the last few weeks the weather has been fine and warm so standing outside your favourite retail emporium like submissive naughty children waiting to be allowed into class has not yet become much of a trial, in fact, the holiday atmosphere engendered by that nice Mr. Sunak who has made sure that the government’s chosen employees remain happy and on full pay with all benefits in place, the whole thing has not been too arduous.
Part 2 will be published here tomorrow.