We Queue in This Country

Ask a dozen Britons what most distinguishes them from other nationalities, and they’ll line up to tell you: the Queue. Even among the rebels, the rabble, the questioners of class and the enemies of aristocracy, the orderly queue is seen as one of the good things about Britain. When the revolution comes, the first up against the wall will be determined by strict social conventions. After you... No, after you.

We interlopers from abroad can find it hard to take, even if our country was founded by a bunch of poms filing off convict ships one by one. It’s not that we don’t believe in queueing in certain situations. It’s just that a healthy influx of non-Anglo stock has relaxed our idea of what those situations are.

The queue is defended here as a response to overcrowding in a relatively small country: sixty million people want to get there ahead of you, so get in line. But Italy is about the same size as Britain, and Italians would no sooner queue than sit down to a hearty meal of HP sauce and baked beans. Melbourne has more people than any UK city except London, and they don’t feel compelled to shuffle into formation every time they see an ATM.

Certainly there are some situations where queueing is important, for reasons of fairness or decorum: waiting at the complaints desk at GNER; waiting for the U2 tickets to sell out three people ahead of you; lining up for New Year’s Honours so that Liz doesn’t get the order wrong and dub you Sir Bo’ Selecta. But there are others where it makes no rational sense whatsoever, beyond queueing for its own sake. At the top of that list has to be queueing for Lothian buses.

I’ve written about Lothian before—about their card system and their lurching gearboxes. I don’t think I’ve written about their most annoying trait, which is allowing absolutely no room for error among those who want to get onboard. You must be waiting precisely at the stop, in an assertive pose which says, “Yes, I do wish to journey with you this morn, o mighty galleon of the streets.” You must not be running desperately towards it from fifteen metres away, screaming “Waaaaiiiiitttt!” until your forehead turns purple. If you’re not right here, right now, that Lothian is leavian. In three years of catching buses almost every day, I’ve seen them wait for people only two or three times.

Even being right there at the bus stop is no guarantee: because if there are other people there, there will be a queue, and if the stop is on more than one route, not everyone in that queue is going to get on your bus. So you can—you will—find yourself waiting politely one day behind Mrs Wizened Old Morningside, only to realise that she ain’t goin’ nowhere, and that the bus driver has closed the doors and started pulling away, and now you have to wait another twenty minutes, all because you respected the queue.

The irony being that the queue is almost never necessary. The buses are huge: two-storey monsters of the road, as tall as your average terrace, with room for a hundred passengers. When you do finally get onboard and Mrs Wizened has taken her Elderly Priority seat, upstairs you’ll find seats aplenty. Even at rush hour there’ll be one or two. Again, in three years I’ve had to stand only once or twice.

A year or so after getting here Jane and I experienced all of these attractive features of Edinburgh public transport at once, when walking back along Rose Street to catch the bus on Hanover Street. About thirty metres from the point where they cross, we saw a 27 sail past. (As well as having the numbers on the front, the buses here also display them on the back and the side, to taunt those who have just missed them.) This called for a split-second decision: could we get to the stop just around the corner before it pulled away again? Thinking that it would be pretty full on a Saturday afternoon, I figured we could. “Run!” I said to Jane, and we dashed after it.

We rounded the corner and, seeing the last passenger mounting the step of the bus, ran the final few metres and bounded up behind them. Only then did I hear, in the unmistakable accent of one who harbours a deep suspicion of all things Sassenach, the indignant words:

“We queue in this country!”

...with that clipped nasal “yoo” sound in “queue”; and then:


...with every letter pronounced, as if he was gargling the word before spitting.

In my rush to beat the accelerator-happy bus-driver, I hadn’t noticed the cloth-capped gent with a cane shuffling out of the shelter thirty seconds behind everyone else.

Naturally, this encounter shook my sensitive world-citizen soul to its core, which manifested itself in the usual deep blush. But my embarrassment soon turned to indignation. Had we denied the cantankerous old scunner a seat? No; at the speed he was going, I doubt he would have made it up the stairs. All that we’d breached was queueing-for-queueing’s-sake, and inadvertently at that.

Before long I was calling myself “forughner” with pride (ironic pride, at least), as a token of resistance against the unwelcoming, xenophobic side of this town. And I learned how to cope with Lothian bus queues: by ignoring them. What you do is stand off to one side in front of and away from the shelter; flag down the bus, so that the driver knows you’re getting on it; and then get on after everyone else in the entire pointless queue. After a while you’ll notice other people doing this too. Congratulations—you’ve just discovered a new way to tell the expats from the locals. Comes in handy once the tans have faded and they’ve stopped smiling.

Some of the locals, anyway. During the Fringe this year we were hanging around the same Hanover Street bus stop after a show had finished. A middle-aged man, who by the sound of a phone conversation was middle-class Scottish, was doing the same; and there was another (or perhaps the same) cloth-capped gent with a cane. The bus arrived—completely empty. The middle-aged bloke went to get on, seeing that he was nearest the door... when suddenly the old man jabbed his stick at him and said, “Some of us wuhr heer fust!”

But these are but the Quicksilver and The Confusion of my epic tale. The 900-page denouement is what happened at Prestwick Airport on the way to Gothenburg last December. For which you can form a line over there, please, and wait until I’m good and ready. Forughners.