Firstly a definition.
Queue – A line or sequence of people or vehicles awaiting their turn to be attended.
Concatenation – a linking or joining together into a chain.
(verb) takes ones place in a queue
“In the war they had queued for food”
(Why is this always only attributed to the British? The Germans also had rationing and queued for food. Perhaps it’s part of the ‘myth’ of the blitz to propagate the image of fortitude / waiting that the British people have now morphed queuing into a tolerance bordering on a national virtue – but is this not also a conditioned response?)
I have more problems spelling the word queue than standing in one. Often I write qeue or queu. Is this a defiant gesture? Do I refuse to join the queue? Pull back, once in line, when some authoritarian voice shouts Next!? (As it does so cuttingly in the Scot Walker version of the Jacques Brel song as the harshly instructed soldiers queue up to lose their virginity in the army brothel truck – only it’s not sex I pull back from but obeying orders.)
It all depends on what I am standing in line for: whether it’s for pain or pleasure. And if I’ve freely chosen to join a queue and not been made to. This essay could be re-titled “Great queues I was in, wasn’t in (missed) but wanted to be in and those I left.”
My queue musings began two days ago when I experienced a void in the afternoon. I’d arrived at the back-steps leading up to the Albert Hall. I’d gone to collect a cloakroom ticket number for my Arena Day Ticket Place in the queue for that night’s concert. It was 3.30 and there was no queue in sight. A steward informed me that the new rule was that once you have a cloakroom ticket you then only return to begin to form a queue at 6pm, for moving in at 6.30sh – an hour before the concert begins.
I’ve learnt that since 2017 (post – terrorist incidents in Manchester and London)that a long straggling queue, outside of the RAH, is considered a security risk. This has proved to be deeply anti-social. Part of the charm of being a promenader has been to join a queue, for a longer and more leisurely time, with its aim to meet people who are also passionate about music.
“There are no great conductors anymore, only musicians who occasionally deliver a great performance.”
“The territorial attitude of some people in the Proms arena creates a defensive, Little-Englander clique.”
“Thirty years ago you could stand even closer to the conductor on their rostrum – remember that pause between movements in Bruckner’s 5th when Bernard Haitink, wiping the sweat from his face, glanced down at us, smiled and said “Almost there.”
Aside from the nerd-queue arguments and anecdotes once upon a time people shared food and drink and allowed their queue to operate as a slowly moving vehicle into the RAH – that also functioned as a high-class pick-up joint.
The Proms queue was a concatenation that broke the links of its affable chain. It regrouped and co-operated with stewards who were once more eccentric, or less stressed, characters. I miss that often meandering line broken up by picnics and card games on the pavement. We still have a rump queue – a 40 minute assembling. Yet somehow the Proms queue, as a piece of performance art, has been horribly foreshortened (BBC2 once filmed a documentary about the Proms queue – maybe including too many Prom ‘characters’ – yet, exaggeration apart, this very human queue was seriously considered as a newsworthy phenomena.)
It appears that a genuine, democratic ‘peoples queue’ that might spiral ‘out of control’(Such was the Proms queue of 1984 for the Leonard Bernstein Mahler concert that went all the way round several streets, near the hall, ‘taking over’ Kensington) has to be avoided in our age of terrorist threats. Therefore any long queue, spilling into the borough’s space has gone as someone, driving a truck, might now plough into you.
So what of the other queues which have shaped my life? Here’s my 10 best list.
1. The Proms experience that ended in 2016 in its purest form (Even though by then Proms queues where a pale reflection of the Bernstein event, but reduced or not we had more control, steward assisted, on the shape and size of them.) I hope it returns one day.
2. Queuing in 1980, by a butcher’s shop in Warsaw, for their daily meat ration. I was waiting, with a Polish friend, and hoping to buy some scraps of stewing steak for his mother. It was shortly after Solidarity had been formed. When people realised I was English they thought me mad to join in with their ordeal.
3. In 1965 a new fish and chip shop opened in Liverpool 8. The owners held an introductory sale of fish, chips and mushy peas at 50% off. I stood for ten minutes until some spots of rain and my teenage restlessness made me abandon the idea of a bargain bag of chips.
4. My overnight queuing outside Harrods in London in the 90’s. I hoped to get a cheap, portable colour TV set. I didn’t. In fact I ended up buying nothing, convinced that every item was over-priced even after its reduction. My ‘reward’ was not a material one but a Guardian newspaper photograph of me rushing through the opened doors of Harrods. From the staircase shot I appear to be in full flight with the leaders of the queue. But I was soon knocked to the ground by a burly Chinese woman. Dazed, but not confused, I re-joined the mob pouring into every floor. Things now looked like a posh jumble sale where people physically fought on another for a scarf or coat. Twelve long and sleepless queuing hours for zilch!
5. Joining the queue for passport control at Luton airport. I opt for the faster queue dealing with electronic passports. It never works for me. Maybe I don’t position my body correctly for their camera or they’ve screwed up the micro-chip in the passport.
6. Realising that the word queue is not part of Indian vocabulary. I fell into the path of a hysterical mob that attacked a local Calcutta bus. My orderly line mentality was junked by a mass force intent on physically possessing the bus. It was the last one out-of-town that day. I joined in with the attack.
7. Queuing at school. I was a queue controlling prefect on the steps as the younger kids made their way up to their classrooms. I never sent back children who disorderly or noisy. The queue moved on and upwards. I stood there hating my job, trying to dream.
8. The dole office in Renshaw Street, Liverpool, in 1970. You stood in a long line to sign on. It was a vast building: like an aircraft hangar overtaken by hard benches and counters. I always thought of the Soviet Union – a Stalinist, Gulag Archipelago of a building where you were expected to wait for them.
9. My queuing for a Bob Dylan concert at the Brixton Academy. I was surrounded by too many Dylanogists, of all ages, who extolled Bob’s triumphs but never mentioned his mistakes. When the queue moved my partner and I were benignly pushed forward, moving us further to the front. Inside we ended up inside standing only three rows back from the stage. That panicky surge and queue re- assembling propelled me past the English Dylanogists towards a small group who spoke their fervent Dylan gospel in Japanese.
10.The description of the queue in Kafka’s The Trial and visualisation in Orson Welles’s film version. Frightened clients wait for an appointment with their advocate. Of course this is the queue pushed to its aesthetic extreme. And I was never in it. Except of course in my imagination, where I’m forever a miserable and anxious client.
And speaking of Kafka, there is now a distributed streaming platform called Apache Kafka. It’s a sort of queue software for computers.
“Apache Kafka is used for building real-time data pipelines and streaming apps. It is horizontally scalable, fault tolerant, wicked fast, and runs in production in thousands of companies.”
Elias Canetti once wrote a brilliant book called Crowds and Power about the sociology of the crowd in history and a lot more besides. However he didn’t have anything to say about queues. If he had done Canetti might have thought a queue to be a reformed or contained small mob itching to be an unruly crowd?
Canetti is now dead: but ought to return to us to write a new chapter on the queue and technology. In this members of a queue for a train, forced by a poor service, ignore any queuing and rush to get a seat or standing place, in order to get to their offices and work on PCs all queued up and ready for us – being now so “horizontally scalable, fault tolerant and of course “wicked fast”.
Hurrah for the new virtual queue as we un-merrily stream along!