To answer many a modern problem we must often look to the past. So it is with a very modern problem. The queue.
There is an apocryphal saying known as the oriental curse, it goes “may you live in interesting times”. There is no history of it actually being from the East but more likely English. It sort of sarcastically says I hope it all fecks up for you or all life becomes difficult. So here we are living in very interesting times with plenty going wrong for all sorts of connected reasons.
Life has recently been dominated by Queues, they may have subsided to a sort of manageable level, but are here to stay for the near term. That we are happyish to see a queue of ‘only’ about a 100 meters long is a bit of an anomaly in the 21st century and in itself worthy of an article. The queues are not as long as one thinks they are in reality when people are spaced two meters apart. It looks long but fifteen people can cover a lot of ground when spaced apart. It is still miserable but the sight of queues took me back to my youth and watching the news about Soviet Russia, and particularly Moscow. In my early days in the financial markets we even had a phrase yelled across the trading floor. If a popular price came up and everybody shouted for a piece of the action the cry would go up “in your dreams curly there’s already a Moscow bread queue for that” Note the early ironic hair gags too! But that phrase said it all really, a Moscow bread queue was only superseded by a “ Polish butchers queue”. Night after night we would see these poor sods queuing in bitterly cold temperatures for hours all for a bit of gristly meat. Queue-standing in the USSR was not only a means of getting something — it was almost a sport, an activity in itself. Queues were a good enough reason to socialize, share news, gossip and pass time. The retail in the USSR was inefficient, if not to say almost non-existent. The way it was organized, buyers had to stand in separate line for specific products — meat, dairy, vegetables, etc. — and then wait in another, general line at the cashier. That noted I guess we could say that with click and collect we have a modern digital type queue. I ordered from Halfords, then went to the store and queued up at the front door , nice young lad goes into store and collects the shopping for me. Ordered with 21st century technology and paid for by plastic in the electronic ether. The goods however were delivered to me the oldest way of all. The queuing in Russia even produced some home spun jokes. There were 10 year waits to get your own car, and you had to put up the money in advance. One man laid down the money, and the fellow in charge said to him: “Come back in 10 years and get your car.” The man answered: “Morning or afternoon?” And the fellow behind the counter said: “Ten years from now, what difference does it make?” The man replied: “Well, the plumber is coming in the morning.”
The mother of all Soviet queues happened at the first ever McDonald’s on Pushkin Square, Moscow, in January 1990. Initially the company projected 1,000 people coming to the opening of the restaurant. They were off by several thousands — five thousand people queued up pre opening of the doors. Throughout its launch day, Moscow McDonald’s set another record by serving more than 30 thousand visitors. Though it took people over five hours to get to the front, it wasn’t anything they haven’t experienced before — in the Soviet Union, waiting was part and parcel of life. Another Russian joke,. A man is waiting in line for vodka, but because of new Gorbachev laws, the man’s already been waiting for hours, with no end in sight. He finally loses it and yell: “I can’t take this waiting anymore! I’m going straight to the Kremlin and I will kill this damn Gorbachev!” The man leaves but after an hour, the people in the queue see him come back. “So… have you done it?” whispers someone. The man replies: “No. I got to the Kremlin, but the line to kill Gorbachev was even longer.”
So we know once again adversity produces some good and bleak humour. We all know it is a sort of coping tool, witness the first weeks of the lockdown. My inbox of computer and telephone was groaning under the weight of comic memes and cartoons. My phones started to run out of memory as a result. Managing the deluge of humour became a daily chore in itself, let alone queuing for sodding toilet rolls! We have now started to settle into newish routines, working out the best times to queue and how to obtain the things we need by different shopping and delivery methods. Some of the more iffy parcel companies now have almost legitimate reasons for dropping the parcel and running like hell.
It wasn’t unknown in Moscow if you saw a queue to go and join the end of it, regardless even if you knew what the queue was for. Chances are that if you got lucky and you didn’t need a distributor cap for a Lada car somebody else would and a trade could be done. So maybe it is time to start a bit of Russian queuing techniques , if its short then join it and see what happens. At worst while queuing one can indulge in the English habits of having a moan about things, exchange pleasantries like the old days. Lets face it there is nothing more an Englishman likes to say when asked how he is than “Mustn’t grumble”. This of course is an opening to do exactly that and launch into a tirade about late busses, his lumbago and the price of fish since we joined the European Union.
Even when life returns to normal and it will one day, a fact I am repeatedly telling our very own Prophet of doom and erstwhile fish finger shifter the EE, we must remember the key fact about queuing. If you see an Englishman standing by himself, remember , he is not alone but merely in a queue of one.