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Well, QUEUE you, madam

June 28, 2014

Snooker, that’s a very British sport. Firstly because it is actually dominated by Brits, but also because it’s loosely called a sport when it involves barely any activity; so like darts and curling, it tends to pick up a selection of either portly or weedy middle aged men.

Secondly, because they’re all still wearing waist coats and bow ties, and the umpire glares at people in the crowd who make too much noise. In gloriously pointed tones, he asks them to “Be quiet, please.” In a world where sports crowds are often positively encouraged to jump up and down screaming blue murder, it’s always nice to see someone politely remind them that someone in the room is trying to concentrate on something, and seats are there to be sat on.

It’s also one of those sports where it’s quite common for a player to “concede” (defeat), which happens when the point difference between the players becomes too large for the number of balls left on the table. I couldn’t image such a thing in any other sport, where players seem ready to fight to the death. In snooker, it’s more of a fight back to the chair. Much of the game is spent quietly sitting in the corner, sipping water through pursed lips.

Then there’s the vocabulary, the best bit. Listen to the commentators. You’ll hear at least once per game: “Has he got a pot on?” and “That’s some nice cuing action,” referring to two behaviours Brits have long held very dear: tea making and queuing.

Or, so I thought. Canadians and Americans do like to make fun of our love of queuing. But oh, it’s not such a laugh when they come to London and stark reality rears its head. To demonstrate, allow me to outline for you an incident I experienced recently with my One American Friend.

We’d gone to a low budget event, taking place in someone’s attic, as is typical. All low budget events in London take place in either basements or attics, which isn’t as bad as it sounds, since they take every step to make sure the basement or attic the most interesting room in the building to mitigate the fact that its almost impossible to find; you may have to go up some stairs on the outside of the building, the opposite side to the room you want to get into. I’ve spend many a frustrated evening walking round and round the outside of one building, frustratingly able to see the place I want to get to, but not the route there, contemplating climbing up the drain pipe and in through a window.

At the end of the event, there was a souvenir stand set up, promoting stuff from the show, T-shirts and suchlike. The table was hastily erected while we were all in the other room and took up about of half the narrow hallway. People squeezed past, meandering to-and-fro, socialising. My One American Friend decided she wanted to buy an item of tat, so “queued”, or rather, stood vaguely near the place that was selling the stuff, to the left of some other lunatic.

A hunched middle aged women wanders up and stands vaguely in front of the table, to the right of us, where there was a gap. For no particular reason I pass a glance to my One American Friend and find that her mouth has crunched up and stiffened, they way it does when someone is clenching their jaw tightly.

“What’s up?” I ask her.

“Nothing,” she says, with a brisk lack of conviction. A pause. “It’s a cultural thing.”

So I shut up. I know better than to ask for details when someone says “It’s a cultural thing.” You’ll only find yourself on the receiving end of a rant. Which, while funny, doesn’t usually help the person ranting feel any better, even if they think it will, and sometimes leads to what an acquaintance of mine calls “a bit of a debate.”

At that moment, the hunched women turned slowly upwards at an odd angle to look at my reasonably tall One American Friend. The hunched woman speaks in terms which anyone whose lived in London a while knows can indicate one of two things: genuine absent mindedness, or a hasty attempt to smooth over a situation they created on purpose because they sense they have been rumbled and are on the receiving end of a hard stare that would make Paddington bear flinch.

“Oh, sorry,” she says. “Was this a queue?”

My first response was: Queue? Are we in a queue?!

My One American Friend, however, says: “No, it’s fine. Don’t worry,” with that same brisk lack of conviction, plus that trace of huffiness people give off when they want to forgive you but they’re just too annoyed. This, I guess, is the “cultural thing” my One American Friend was referring to; my One American Friend is not used to people pushing in, whereas I didn’t even notice.

Don’t get me wrong, Brits don’t like pushing in either. But to me, this particular scenario doesn’t count. In a disorganised rabble like London, there are rarely any queue lines marking where you should stand. Up-market venues, banks, doctors surgeries and your average cinema will have signs up telling you where to stand. In places other types of places, no chance. So, much as we love to queue, we usually have no idea when a queue is occurring. I daresay when one is used to the bright cleanliness of San Francisco, one can smell the filth of a germ-infested queue a mile off.

My experience of going out is more like this:

Having finally found the entrance, perhaps having had to cross over to the adjacent building, climb the stairs to the top and paraglide down onto the opposite roof, I come across a lone counter in the middle of a room or hallway. It could be anything from a bar, a lone table or an unmarked reception desk. I wander vaguely up to it.

The place is deserted, making me think I have (as many a time before) gone into the wrong side of the building or the wrong building all together, and this is a night-working legal office or something. A lone woman stands behind the counter or table, picking wood splinters out of her nails from where she’s been scratching at the counter top in sheer boredom. Either that, or she’ll be filing them.

I hate to interrupt people when they are doing this, because they always behave as though they have been interrupted from doing something dreadfully important. I feel gut-wrenchingly sorry for them then, because it occurs to me quite how arse-achingly bored you’d have to be in order to get yourself into the mindset that finds filing one’s own nails interesting enough to be annoyed when interrupted

“Um… Excuse me,” I utter. “Is this The Thing?”

She stares at me coldly for a full five seconds. These days, I know better than to think that this means I’ve made any kind of mistake. I think they just like staring you out for a while. It passes the time.

“Yeah,” she says, finally.

“Is this where I buy tickets to The Thing?”

“Yeah.”

“Um… Could I buy a ticket please?”

She faffs around for a bit behind the desk, punching numbers into a till, if there is one.

“£4,” she says, producing a used tissue with some writing on it, presumably my ticket.

“I… I’m a student!” I blurt out. I never know quite what the etiquette is when announcing one’s financial status in this euphemistic way, so I tend to leave this confession too late.

I get the cold look again, and a heavy sigh. She makes a big show of deleting all the numbers in the till and types in some new ones.

“£3.99,” she says. It won’t be one of those venues where they bother checking your student ID, perhaps because the lie would be pointless. The best proof I’m a student is the fact that I’m there in the first place, since I’m about to sit in a dark room and watch an obscure act involving a person of indeterminate gender gyrating while reading poetry.

That, and the price reduction isn’t worth the effort to lie. More likely, the facilitators just leave it to the ticket receptionist to gauge whether you look lost and naïve enough to be a student. In that case, I’ll be able to get in on concession prices for the rest of my life.

I pay the woman.

“You got 1p?” she asks.

I faff about a bit, checking every pocket and clothing crevasse, even though I know damn well I haven’t.

“No, sorry.” I say it with such heavy-laden sorrow that, if I was calling my apology down a deep well to someone whom I had just knocked down there by tripping over my own feet right into them, the person in the well would use their final breath to call “That’s OK!”

However, hardened receptionist extraordinaire is not so easily softened. She gives another deep sigh and brazenly produces several 1p coins, almost as if to say: “I was just testing you. Next time, you’ll have no excuse.”

Then I stare at her and she stares back. I’m sort of waiting for her to say something like “Bye” or “Enjoy the show”, but not a bit of it. She looks at me as if to inform me that I am an idiot.

“It’s down that way,” she says, as if such a thing is obvious, pointing to some camouflaged and minuscule door I would only have found with some kind of special door dowsing machine, even if I had been looking. I meander about a bit, with her eyes on the back of my head and squeeze through the door that opens neither fully outwards nor inwards, but rather just a fraction both ways. Late, panting, sweating and fired with adrenaline from all the stressful striding back and forth trying to find the entrance.

So no. Queues aren’t really a worry for me. The unpredictability of a disorganised rabble posing as a queue is one in a long line of other mild inconveniences and annoyances that make you late when you set out on a trip to London “in plenty of time.”

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From → British Culture

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