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BRITISH ETIQUETTE: QUEUING

Where other nationalities mass frenziedly, the British queue. Turn up at a railway station, or a supermarket, or a post office and you will see an orderly queue.

It all dates back to the days of rationing in the long years during and after the World Wars of the last century, when queuing effectively meant the difference between an empty plate and a plate filled with the delights of powdered egg and leaden bread.

In such dark days, the queue was an opportunity to catch up with the community, check that your friends were still alive and moan about the privations. Even today, grumbling in a queue is one of the great British joys - there is a liberating anonymity in conversing with someone whose back is to you; the grumbler in front will turn enough so that you can hear them but not enough so that you exchange eye contact and graduate to actual personal interaction and the implications of intimacy that that might entail.

For foreigners, the art of queuing must seem esoteric at best and maddening at worst: queue-barging is the worst solecism a foreigner can commit; even the reticent English will feel justified in sharply pointing out the back of the line to any errant queue-jumpers. If in doubt, it's always a good idea to ask "is this the back of the queue?" and avoid giving offence.

But there is the finest of lines between queue-barging and proactive queuing - and anyone that isn't fully committed to moving forward an inch for every inch that opens up will earn the equal opprobrium of the crowd queuing behind.

Wheelie bags are a new spanner in the works of the immaculate British queue; gaps cannot be closed sufficiently; bags that should be held in front or put on the ground and kicked forward are now loitering in such a way as to trip the unwary.

But we can absorb such wrinkles into our queuing science: for nothing can sully the joy of being in the queue (say, at passport control or at the supermarket) that beats another queue. Such moments of pure adrenalin are what life is all about.

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