The British relationship with the queue is renowned around the world but few realise how deep-seated and sophisticated that relationship is.
I was reminded of this earlier as I queued at the ticket check before boarding a train at London’s Euston Station.
This particular train is primarily occupied by people with seat reservations.
(The British train fares and ticketing system is also a uniquely British institution, but not one I’m going to attempt to get into today. There simply isn’t the room in one post.)
A seat reservation means precisely that; it means that you have a seat that is reserved for you. The worst that can happen is that someone sits in your seat and you have to ask them to move. In most instances the person will apologise and find themselves somewhere else to sit. I suppose it could get really nasty and you have to ask the guard to help you, but I’ve never witnessed such behavior. At the end of the day, you have a seat reservation and are guaranteed a seat.
Euston Station has one of the most unnerving places for British people, it has an open concourse. People join the open space in front of a set of screens. These screens tell us the status of the trains available for boarding, the trains being prepared for boarding and the trains that are to follow in the schedule. This is a place where, in our minds, anarchy rules. There is no queuing, just people standing around waiting for a screen to tell them where to go.
Then it happens, the screens change and a platform is announced for a train. People are so uncomfortable by the anarchy of the open concourse that they run, yes run, so that they can participate in the far more familiar surroundings of a queue.
Moving from the open concourse people queue up on the ramp to the platform ready to show their tickets. There’s a well structure etiquette to this situation, an order that we find comforting. Stood between two metal railings inching forward so that the ladies and men in bright red can inspect our pieces of paper we are happy. There’s no pushing or shoving, no one is trying to get ahead of anyone else, we have formed an orderly queue and we know what we are doing. All is well with Britain.
Then a betrayal happens and not a minor misdemeanor, this is a full-scale breach of all that is British. This is the type of scandal to make every British person question where our country is heading.
“Use both sides!” were the words that ignited consternation among the masses.
We all turned and looked in disbelief as they opened a second line.
They opened a second line!
THEY OPENED A SECOND LINE!
Those in the first line were trapped between the metal barriers left with no option but to stay in the first line as others further back in the queue had the audacity to move onto the second line and get through ahead of the first line. How dare they!
A man behind me issues the most typical of British retorts: “That’s just typical!”
Others use the full force of tutting. Tutting is the ultimate British complaint, no words can convey what a well-placed tut communicates.
A woman further back is so outraged she climbs over the barrier and joins the betrayal in the second line.
The fact that most of us have reserved seats makes no difference to the way that we feel about this situation. The opening of a second line makes no difference to the final outcome to the vast majority of people in the queue, they’ll sit in exactly the same seat whenever they get through the ticket check, we are still outraged.
At the front of the queue we hand over our tickets for inspection and say “thank you” as they give them back to us; no one complains. We are British, after all, and a tut is enough to register our outrage at every conceivable scandal.
Once through the barrier we scurry along the platform to our designated carriage and sit down in our reserved seats.
This is the second week that I have caught this train and the second week when this scandal has happened, I’m seriously considering writing a letter, but I won’t, I’m writing this instead. British people rarely complain to someone who could do something about our issue, we prefer to mutter and grumble, that’s why we love social media so much.
I’m using the same train again next week and if the same thing happens again…
(The heading picture is from a couple of weeks ago when the concourse was completely full of people due to train delays caused by adverse weather conditions, in these situations special queueing rules apply.)