A sense of urgency in the air

Glen Baxter

– “I have noticed that when moving trolleys through the food store … there seems to be a basic obliviousness about the patterns of motion around them, whether or not there is a sense of urgency in the air, etc.”
– “This is one of the irksome things which seems to be a foreign concept in this country – queuing. You see it all over daily, on the roads, in supermarkets, in lunch bars. It’s almost as if the mentality is ‘What are you doing in my way?’ Just another sign of immaturity or childlike selfishness I believe… And the other thing, did you notice how they tend to stand and have conversations in doorways? They seem oblivious to the fact that they are blocking others from getting in/out of shops. Another sign of never learning the basics of common courtesy. A lot of maturing and growing up is required in this country.”
Comments on Expat Exposed, “an information and community site that lays out the downside of emigrating to New Zealand”.

In London, the queue is King. It is all-seeing, all-knowing. On Saturdays, the queues to get cash from ATMs on Brixton Road weave and waft all over the footpath. You have to wait behind six other cyclists to get your gears fixed at the bike co-op at 9am on a weekday. (You don’t have to queue to get your bike stolen though, thank God.) You queue to buy a newspaper. Queue to buy apples, oats, and butter – you just want to make a crumble. Queue for the loos; not having to queue for the loos is a bad sign. Queue for booze, queue to schmooze. It’s part and parcel of living in a city with 7.5 million others, and I hadn’t thought about my lack of queuing skills until I found myself in my first queue: a queue at the tube station to load money on to an Oyster card. It was a sinewy, chaotic queue, like an unfinished symphony by Morton Feldman. I left the queue with my card triumphantly loaded, but I myself felt defeated. What had happened?!

Then I read those quotes on the Expat Exposed blog, and I was outraged. I thought: how dare they judge my culture on its queuing abilities. As if, if you can’t queue properly, you’re uncivilised, uncouth, and lacking in the most basic spatial awareness! Most outraging of all was that I recognised some of these failings in myself. In a queue, I have what the second commenter would call a “childlike selfishness”. You could go so far as to say that I struggle to comprehend the “patterns of motion” around me. I feel patterns of my own relative hunger, discomfort, and impatience, but not many others. And I’ve definitely had more than one conversation in a doorway. The best conversations are held in the doorways of crowded shops, a truth that the rest of the world has been slow to realise.

Queueing is set to become part of the citizenship test for immigrants to the UK, so I thought I’d better learn the art. “It is very important that newcomers take their place in queues whether it is for a bus or a cup of tea,” says Immigration Minister Phil Woolas. Until I get a new bike I will need to take the bus or the tube, and I’m always in need of tea, so I need to be ready. Thus enlightened, I will bring my learnings back to my home country.

  • Even in the most chaotic of queues, there is an unspoken order. Do not question the order. Do not speak of the order. Just stay very still and quiet. It’s a bit like fishing with your friend and her dad when you’re twelve. You don’t know what you’re dealing with until you sense some kind of pull, some kind of flicker of life, at the end of the line. Bide your time.
  • If there are lots of queues, take your pick – but if you choose badly, accept the fact that some will move faster than others. Accept the fact that you chose badly. Accept your failure. This is the queue of life.
  • Tempting as it is, try not to have conversations in doorways. Doorway conversations are the polar opposite of highly effective queues – they hinder progress and they create bottlenecks in the world. In fact, if you’re a New Zealander, don’t have conversations at all. You’re so oblivious to any sense of urgency around you that whenever you enter into conversation, the odds are that you will be in someone’s way.
  • If you’re at the checkout and you suddenly realise you’ve forgotten some vital ingredient, don’t ask the person behind you to save your place. You will make them feel uncomfortable, like you have told them a secret they never asked to hear. People in queues treasure their privacy because it’s all they have here, in this wasteland of personal space. Instead, give up your spot and get to the back of the line, where you belong. The queue teaches us humility.
  • Some women’s magazines tell you to practise pelvis lifts and/or bottom exercises while you’re standing in a queue. Don’t do that. People can tell when you do those exercises. The magazines tell you that they can’t, but they can.
  • Practise the art of spatial awareness in crowded places. Imagine yourself as an asteroid thundering through space trying not to be hit by other asteroids, or similar.

So what’s the way forward? How can we retain any sense of self-esteem in the lengthy, often hostile queue, when we are defined by our level of in-the-wayness? My preference would be to not talk about it, because this gives the queue power over us. But from what I’ve seen in London, the most successful queues, the ones that the commenters above would praise, are those in which we are least like sentient beings. We don’t move around. We don’t indulge in displays of exasperation or aggression. We don’t make faces at people. We don’t rummage through our bag looking for our wallet for ages and then realise that we must have left it at work, and then – no, WAIT, it’s here after all! None of that.

To queue well you must not only civilise yourself but dehumanise yourself. If you can’t do that, keep in mind that you’re not just holding other queuers up: you’re holding up the cultural advancement of your country. Get out of our way!

Les Queues de Sardines by buckhouston

About ashleighlou

Person, usually on bike
This entry was posted in Recklessness, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to A sense of urgency in the air

  1. Great blog Ash – by the way I checked out that expat exposed site – how thoroughly depressing! Reading it with my mouth open from all the jaw dropping! Are we really that bad??!!


    • I know, awful eh?! Some of it equates to hate speech. I see that one of the members recently tweeted: “Been here ten years and have to go to save my sanity.” I’ve also just read this terrible post called “Things that drive you mad.” Included on the list (and I quote – and please note that NONE of the following apostrophes are mine):
      – The utter lack of intellectualism in society generally.
      – The treatment of the Maori’s by the ‘Pakeha’ Kiwi’s.
      – The utter stupidity of some Kiwi’s.


  2. Jennifer Compton says:



  3. jamespurtill says:

    As someone trying to be a Londoner, I’ve joined plenty of queues for which I didn’t even know the destination. The longest one I’ve never joined is for the Eye – could this be the original queue, the taproot? No. It’s not that old. But it is incredible long, slow and orderly. So in light of your blog post, maybe the Eye queue is like the Final Boss Level of a game for tourists who have successfull handled a hundred queues since booking flights to England. Queue jumpers not allowed.


  4. That’s a definite idea. I’m sure there’d be money in it. A business venture could be helping tourists get through the fateful hundred queues. There would be a blackmarket where you could BUY the answers, like in video games, so you could jump to higher levels without having completed the lower ones. Mercy!

    In my travels I also came across a blog that was a kind of “queue-watching” exercise. Lots of photos of people in queues for things. Sort of ridiculous, but also fascinating. In a way, I suppose you CAN tell some things about a society by how it queues – the levels of hostility/calm/latent aggression, and the physical pattern of the queue, can give us interesting insights. But it’s deeply unfair to judge a country by how well its people tolerate queueing. Hence, I was very annoyed (on behalf of all NZers, actually) at those idiots on the Expat Exposed blog.


  5. I just read this great essay by James Brown, “I can’t wait to hear myself read”, in the latest issue of Sport. He describes queuing up with his friend Al to get a book signed by Simon Armitage and then Seamus Heaney at a poetry reading in London, the T.S. Eliot Prize Shortlist Readings: “At the signing queue, Al has been kicked out for not holding a book and therefore being guilty of place-holding. The Brits take queuing very seriously. This one snakes in and out a fenced-off grid like an airport check-in in a country where the regime backed by the West has just been overthrown. I’m sure some of the organisers have guns.”


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