“Minding Their Queues” is an excerpt from the work-in-progress, A Season in Scotland: Reeling Through the Highlands and Lowlands, a travel memoir. Jan is also writing a third novel, a comedy of baby-boomer manners, and has completed a book-length parody, Toujours Cleveland and A Year in Cleveland, and a humor book of answers to rude questions, Who Did Your Breasts?

The idea that the British love to wait in line may be true of the English. It is certainly not true of the Scots.

By Janice Harayda

One of the enduring myths about the British is that they are more civilized than Americans. The evidence typically cited for this is that they queue. Let a horde of Brits find themselves a bus stop or ticket booth, the argument goes, and they will instinctively arrange themselves into an orderly line and maintain it though Armageddon might arrive while they are waiting for the No. 62 to Peebles or the late show at the Odeon.

This sentimental fiction rests on the odd premise that Americans don’t queue—that commuters going from the Port Authority bus terminal to Princeton will whack the bus driver over the head with their briefcases instead of lining up and sports fans hoping to attend the World Series will smash the ticket window instead of unfurling sleeping bags. In fact, Americans are often as quick to queue as the British and do so more efficiently. The film critic Richard Schickel noted in The New York Times that Broadway-show ticket-holders recently have adopted the remarkable habit of forming queues in Shubert Alley in the sweltering heat even when they are free to walk into air-conditioned theaters.

Then what explains the peculiar idea that the British queue and Americans don’t? The answer seems to lie in another myth—that the Brits like to queue. They don’t mind standing for hours behind red velvet ropes at clubs once frequented by Madonna or Gwyneth Paltrow. But even this argument collapses under the scrutiny of its parts. The idea that the British like to queue may be true of the English. It is certainly not true of the Scots.

In Scotland I never saw people form a queue in a situation in which Americans wouldn’t. And I saw far more evidence that the Scots loathe queues than that they love them. In St. Andrews the graduates of the Caddie Connect project began camping out overnight in the hope of loosening the old-timers’ privilege of carrying Jack Nicklaus’ bag the next morning. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club moved swiftly to quash the practice, and The Scotsman inveighed against it in an editorial that said that if queuing is an unavoidable part of life, it shouldn’t be allowed to go too far.

One sign of the Scottish aversion to queues was paradoxical. As I traveled from the Lowlands to the Highlands, I found queues almost nonexistent. Except in Edinburgh during the Festival, I rarely had to wait in line for more than a few minutes to buy a newspaper or get into a restaurant. When I had to do so, the line moved swiftly. If Scots are so fond of queues, I wondered, why didn’t I see more of them? The answer clearly didn’t lie in a slump in tourism or in overstaffing. The number of visitors was up sharply from the preceding year owing to a heat wave and other factors. In some cities you could have gotten tickets to a World Cup final more easily than a hotel room. The travel boomlet should have led to more lines, not fewer.

In Perth I talked about the dearth of queues with the owner of a bed-and-breakfast not far from the center of town. I said I was surprised to see few lines in places where they occurred routinely in the U.S.—for example, at pharmacies. Perhaps, I suggested, a weak economy was keeping Scots away from places where they might spend money?

“Oh, no,” she said. “We never have long queues here. We hate to wait in line. We would think we could be doing something else.”

It made no sense that people who could endure haggis and bathing in the North Sea couldn’t bear a 15-minute wait to buy a package of Walker’s Marmite crisps at the Alldays. I told the owner of the bed-and-breakfast that a lot of Americans hate to wait in line, too, but regularly form longer queues than I saw in Scotland. What happens, I asked, when Scots routinely encounter long lines at a certain spot? Do they take their business elsewhere, or do they save it for times when they won’t find a queue?

“Neither. We try to arrange it so there won’t be a queue.”

This idea might sound bizarrely utopian to anyone who has ever had a car inspected at an American motor-vehicle department. But I knew what she meant. At supermarkets Americans typically form as many lines as there are checkout lanes. Scots form one or two lines that feed into the lanes as they become available. So checkout lines in Dundee move faster than those in, say, Chicago. But is this a sign that Scots love queues? No, it’s a sign that they want to get out of them as quickly as possible.

I began to understand why Scots dislike waiting at line when, at His Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen, I had my first experience with a dysfunctional queue. The line for the evening’s performance consisted of two groups of people—those who hoped to buy tickets and those who wanted to pick up tickets they had ordered earlier. (Those who had tickets, unlike Broadway denizens described by Schickel, just walked in.) I imagined that the management would provide a separate queue for each group as happens at American theaters of comparable size. Not so. The management of His Majesty’s provided one queue until theater-goers began to grumble. Then it sent into the lobby a man clutching a fan of prepaid tickets, who waved them above his head in the hope that people at the end of the line could see that there was another “queue.”

I did see queues form regularly at bus stops and public rest rooms, but these often seemed to defy logic. One rainy evening I waited for a bus in front of the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh with about a dozen others. The bus shelter might have kept all of us out of the rain had we crowded in willy-nilly. But the queue held. About half of the people stood in line in the shelter while the rest of us waited for the bus in the rain. At other times, I stood in lavatory queues in which nobody gave up a spot to someone who was old, pregnant, or in a wheelchair.

I’m not complaining about all of this, only pointing out the obvious: The idea that the Scots love to queue has as much foundation as in reality as moonlit sightings of Nessie. Kirk Elder wrote in The Scotsman that while queuing might remain a quirk of the English, “it is an anathema to the Scottish psyche.” As a case in point, he described his reaction when he read that tickets to the Edinburgh Festival Fireworks would be sold to those hardy enough to wait in line on a Sunday morning:

“A Scot will do many things in order to locate a bargain. He will clip coupons from the yellow press. He will jostle with jumble-sale matrons, inhaling the vinegary aroma of desperation. He will even, on occasion, visit a hypermarket, despite a deep-seated antipathy to anything that can be described as ‘hyper.’ But queuing? No, sir.”

Elder overcame his reservations and went to the line for the Festival Fireworks tickets. He was startled to find that many people had arrived early and better prepared: “They had deck chairs and sandwiches, maps and compasses.” They wore raincoats or heavy outerwear, though the day was sunny. He didn’t say it, so I will: They were probably Americans, scarred but cheerful veterans of Bruce Springsteen concerns and National League playoff games.

To his dismay Elder reached the front of the line just after the last ticket had been sold. He left, more convinced than ever that queues tax the Scottish soul. I could have told him that. I only wish I had known about the ticket offer so I could have showed up with a picnic blanket, the Sunday paper, and a few macadamia-nut brownies to share with my fellow soldiers and keep my spirits up when the line stalled. Americans may have their faults, but an inability to turn a queue into a party isn’t one of them.


© 2005 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


© 2005 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
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