Jumping the queue

THE way a nation chooses to queue says much about its culture and economy. A queue represents, the theorists would say, an imbalance between supply and demand and it is at this margin that the tout and the black-marketeer make a living.

Whatever kind of queue it is, whether in Moscow for the bare essentials of life or in Glasgow for tickets to the big game, there are always people who beat the system. They have friends in places high and low; they pull strings; as the French say, they have pistons. I suspect that I always pay more for my air tickets than the chap sitting next to me because beating the system takes more nerve, time and energy than I am prepared to invest in the task.

The French show a lofty disregard for queues. They jump them with a complete lack of shame which leaves you open-mouthed. But in our country because of our cultural traditions, or wherever real shortages exist, the queue tends to be well disciplined. In some places those who breach its rules run the risk of being lynched.

An acceptable queue, above all, has to be well organised. Nothing is more upsetting than thinking that the little old lady just behind you is trying to edge quietly in front. It makes you feel angry — and ashamed at your own anger. In Glasgow, a happy-go-lucky sort of a place, it comes as something of a surprise to discover that the discipline of the queue is strictly enforced by the communal ethic. I have always been struck by the perfect order in the long queue that develops at Central Station for taxis on a Saturday night. Perhaps it owes something to an egalitarian political tradition.

In Moscow, at least before the reforms began, the system was equally disciplined. But it was extremely tedious for the unfortunate people who had to wait hours for some simple commodity. In fact, in most shops, you had to stand in three queues — the first to select the goods, the second to pay for them, the third to collect them. Under an informal system you could reserve your place in the last queue before you went to the kiosk.

I have seen similar methods operating, in quite different economic circumstances, in delicatessens in Milan and New York (where a queue is called a line). In Moss Bros, London, and MacSween’s, the famous butcher’s in Edinburgh, they used to, and maybe still do, give you a numbered ticket: you are served when your number is called or displayed. (I am told that the Saturday morning queue at Volvona & Crolla’s Italian food shop in Elm Row is as agreeably chaotic as ever, an exception to the general rule and something of a social institution for the Edinburgh bourgeoisie working up its thirst for the lunchtime pint.)

The numbering method, I discovered on Thursday, is applied by the authorities at Heathrow to the taxis that ply there. They are held in a pound and called forth in batches. The cabbies when they enter the pound are given a numbered ticket and usually have some hours of idle time before their number comes up on an automatic display.

This arcane information about the economy of Heathrow would no doubt have continued to escape me had it not been for an incident as we drove through the tunnel under the runway en route for Central London. My cabbie, in the right-hand lane, suddenly slowed so that his speed was equal to that of another taxi in the inside lane. He shouted to attract the other driver’s attention, flourishing a ticket as he did so.

With great skill, the two drivers brought their cabs close together until they were almost touching. My driver stretched over, leaned out of his nearside window and handed the ticket to his colleague. There was a bit of a lurch but nothing more alarming.

What were you doing? I asked. Saving him about three hours, my cabbie replied. What about the traffic warden who is supposed to collect the tickets as each driver leaves the rank at the terminal? I conned her, said the cabbie. I put my arm round her and chatted her up, distracted her attention, like.

Was that a mate of yours? No, I recognise him but don’t really know him. It’s a bit of a bonus for him. Why did you bother — you might have bashed your cab? One day he’ll do me a good turn.

For my cabbie the potential dividend from the favour was remote. He had done it because he enjoyed beating the system. It made his life more interesting. He also had that essential quality for the queue jumper — brass neck.

There must be some law-abiding gene in my hereditary map because I simply could not bring myself to do this sort of thing but I have known many journalists who have brought queue jumping to a fine art. They do it with such aplomb that the people in the queue tend to stand back in deference, assuming they have some official status.

Men like Robert Maxwell would not queue on a point of principle. An old colleague in production management went to work for him in Manchester. One day they were heading in some haste to London (Maxwell was always in a hurry) when they passed a hamburger joint. The great man decided he was hungry. He marched up to the head of the long queue, ordered six hamburgers and then, turning to the open-mouthed and law-abiding victims of his imperiousness, loudly introduced himself and advised them all to buy the Daily Mirror on a regular basis.

The transaction was completed without protest. The people in the queue did not exactly doff their caps but they were respectful. The Maxwell party then set off to the airport where his private jet was waiting. Instead of going through the normal entrance, which was a considerable distance away, he made his party climb the perimeter fence.

From such actions you could construct a profile of basic attitudes which, with retrospect, we now know would have told us much about Maxwell’s basic contempt for legality. The failure of the hamburger queue to stop him became the failure of the financial community to prevent his thieving. Most of us are too timid for such behaviour but, in the interests of the commonweal, that is just as well. OBJECT_ID:=