How We Used To Queue


History hasn't recorded the exact moment that humans discovered their ability to queue.

It was certainly before we started queuing in the dinner line.

Or when we found ourselves waiting our turn at the cubicle of a public toilet.

Can you imagine that the pyramids were built without an orderly queue of slaves awaiting their turn to carry something up the steep slope?

Maybe it goes back to the earliest moments of civilisation, where two humans found themselves standing astride the corpse of their prey.

The bigger human reaches down first, the smaller one has to wait until they've finished.

This is just speculation ...And whilst we will never know the specific reason why we started to queue, we do know the one thing that defines all queues...

...that queues occur whenever people want to occupy the same space at the same time.


Shortly after the first queue formed, something interesting occurred. Someone saw it and had thoughts about it.

The academic, Joe Moran, from Liverpool John Moore's university, identifies the 1940s post-war period as the hey day for casual queue observation.

This is because the queues themselves were anything but casual. Due to rationing, the queue had become a symbol of wartime existence and a vector through which people judged the government.

Churchill sought to benefit from the situation and claimed that Socialism was queuing. He referred to a socialist country as

This sentiment would be later echoed by a Conservative campaign in 1978 that claimed 'Labour isn't Working'. The billboards would so a long queue outside the job centre.

Back in 1944, however, the queue also represented something of the people in the queue, their 'Britishness'.

George Orwell wrote that a foreign observer would be struck 'by the orderly behaviour of English crowds, the lack of pushing and quarrelling, the willingness to form queues'.

Similarly, Georges Mikes, a Hungarian, claimed that 'an Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one'.

... we would call this a solo performance.

Back before the lockdown, back before we stood two metres apart, for our own good and for the good of others, before queuing was regimented, ordered and reassuringly prescriptive, all queues were a performance, a form of choreography, and every queuer was playing a role.


The genre of any given queue is defined by the relative balance of three qualities: Fairness, Transparency and Movement.

An ideal queue contains all three in equilibrium. The queue is fair, which means everyone is aware of the rules and abides by them. The queue is transparent. People are aware how many other people are in the queue and what they are queueing for. Finally, there is movement, because without movement towards the aim of the queue there is no queue, just a group of people standing around for an indeterminate amount of time.

A queue with transparency and movement but no fairness s a tragedy.

A queue with fairness and movement but no transparency is a mystery.

A queue with fairness and transparency but no movement is an exercise in Brechtian narrative.

It was widely reported in 2017 that researchers had discovered that queuing conformed to a 'rule of six'. That is to say that most people only like to join a queue with six or fewer performers and only enjoy a performance of less than six minutes.

The author of the study, Adrian Furnham, points out that this is merely an average and that different types of queue adhere to different durations. He says, "You won't wait for six minutes at an ATM, but you will if you want concert tickets. Although
it does depend how fast the queue is moving".

The durational titans, the Tehching Hsiehs of lines, the Einsteins on the Beaches of queues are mostly landmark based.

The queue for the Tower of London clocks in at 1.5 hours. The Eiffel Tower boasts a two hour performance, as do the Catacombs in Paris, and the Sistine Chapel.

At its peak, the London Eye held the stage for two and a half hours.

Two and a half hours queueing. A running time of 150 minutes.


It is, perhaps, unsurprising that the largest cast can be found at Disney Land. With a capacity of 85 thousand customers, there can be up to 50 thousand queuing at any one time. Disney Land may be a magical place of rides, experiences and
associated merchandise, but it is also the largest density of queue-based performance in the world.

The corporate machinery required to maintain this scale of performance is vast. Performers are provided with ample opportunity to eat and drink, and other, secondary performers, often in costume, entertain the queuers in specialised queue-side entertainment.

Also, unsurprisingly, Disney has invested large sums of money into discovering exactly why people enjoy queuing in its park. This has led to the rise of formal queuing theory.


This part is about you, and what you do before you queue. Do you rehears your performance or do you prefer to improvise?

Do you find yourself readying your money so that you have the exact, correct change?

Do you practice, in your head, what you are going to ask when you get there?

Do you plan the most efficient way to pack?

Do you want to be seen as a good queuer?

Are you a good queuer?


Q - u - e - u - e.
Q - u - e - u - e.
Q - u - e - u - e - u - e -u - e -
u - e - u - e - u - e - u.
Q - uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu -
eeeeeeeeeeeee - uuuuuuuuuuuu -
Q - u - e - u - e.
Such a strangely complicated word
for one where we only pronounce the
first letter.


Where does a queue start and where does it end? The natural assumption of any line is that if one end is the start, the other is the end, however, with a queue that is not the case. There is a front and a back. The front is at both the start of the queue and the end of the queue.

The back is at the other end. You join at the back, and you leave from the front, which is both the start and the end.

Now that we have cleared that up, let's look at choreography.


Balking occurs when a performer approaches a performance but decides not to join it. The reasons for this are varied, and possibly related to their assessment of the relative qualities of fairness, transparency and movement.

In other words, balking often occurs when a performer is not interested in the genre of the queue.


Jockying is the term given to a performer that moves from one queue, one performance, to another.

This is almost always related to the movement of the line, although anecdotal evidence suggests that no matter which line you choose, it will always be the one that eventually moves slowest.


Simply put, renegging is the leaving of a performance before it is complete.

There are two main styles of renegging, the first is to silently leave, maintaining the integrity of the performance. The second is to signal, loudly that you are leaving, and perhaps detail the reasons why. Either way, the performance generally continues.


Subject to regional variations, and possibly dependent upon class, transposition is the tolerated process where any two adjacent performers may swap with consent.

The performers must be directly adjacent and other performers may be consulted about the suitability of the transposition.


One of the most controversial choreographies involved in queuing performance is termed 'substitution'. This is where a
performer is replaced by another during the performance. In other words, someone in the line steps away and someone else takes their position. The reason this is so controversial is that it highlights one of the fundamental assumptions about queuing.


Fairness, transparency and movement.

These are the three qualities that make a good line... But who judges them, and what happens when they change during a performance?

As with many things, money can buy you a better quality of fairness.

You can buy your way into any position of a line. A non-performer can just walk up and take the place of a performer, and this is how they do it.

In Disney land the call it a 'Fast Pass'. You pay extra and are given a time at which to return. A virtual you has queued whilst the physical you has not. And when you return, you go straight to the front of the queue.

This isn't very transparent to anyone waiting in the queue. They do not see a virtual representation of the fast pass queuer. They have little way of knowing how long the queue really is.

Similarly, in many situations, you pay for someone to queue on your behalf. You can obtain the benefits of being in the queue without actually being in the queue.

The assumption that queuing is a socialist activity is wrong. It is a two-tiered system where the poor wait and the wealthy, and privileged, have the poor wait on and for them.

Whenever someone can buy their way into a queue, it is no longer fair, it is no longer transparent. It becomes a tragedy in disguise.


We are in a darkened room.

There is a row of black and white CRT monitors illuminating our faces.

We are looking for hands in pockets.

We are looking for unseasonably large coats.

We are looking for unease and deception.

Or a checkout assistant in distress.

Or a potentially dangerous spill in aisle four.

But mostly we are watching the performance of the queue.

The way people shift from foot to foot. Or how people all move forwards together, even without really looking at each other.

One performer looks at the front pages of the magazines. Another arranges their food for optimum density on the belt. They are stopping a bottle of red from rolling back and forth.

One performer swipes casually at their phone. It is held out in front of them, somewhat closer to the person in front than the
recommended minimal distance of two feet.

The queue grows as a performer at the front is slow to pack, seemingly overwhelmed by their shopping as it slides towards them.

An avalanche of ready meals and special offers.

The queue holds fast, no jockying, no balking and no renegging.

This is, at most, an eight hour performance. The performers appear for a fraction of it each, like shift workers.


What can you do in a queue to subvert it?

You can attempt to swap with someone that is not directly infront or behind you.

You can choose to not move forward when the person in front of you does, leaving a gap. This is a transgression of continuity.

Perhaps you can have someone bring you more items as you queue?

Stand uncomfortably close to omeone in front.

Place your shopping next to theirs with no divider.

Leave the queue whilst leaving your items in place.

Converse loudly with someone who isn't in the queue.

Only make decisions at the front of the queue, not whilst you are waiting?

Argue with the server about paying cash at a clearly marked car-only checkout.

Have more than ten items in a ten items or less lane.

Become aware that the queue is also an audience and decide to perform at it.

And finally, break the rule upon which all queues are formed. Try to join the queue at a point that is not the back.


Aside from the queues at the London Eye, or the ones at Disneyland, there are a few well known queues.

In these cases, the queues deliberately subvert the equilibrium of fairness, transparency and movement.

A great example is found outside the renowned Berlin nightclub Berghain where entry into the club is not gauranteed when you reach the front of the queue.

After a few hours in the cold European air, you may simply be turned away with little explanation. Perhaps you don't fit,
or you look like a bouncer's ex. In Russia they call this 'Face Control'.

This queue is not fair, nor is it transparent, but being part of itis the reason to queue. It is a story to tell and a right of
passage. The club is secondary, the queue is the thing.

Then there is Dishoom.

Dishoom started, as all restaurants start... In Dalston.

Rather than take bookings, they asked that customers turned up and queued. And they did. The queue grew and more people joined it, not because of the restaurant, but because of the size of the queue.

One that big must be worth joining, right?

And so Dishoom opened in Manchester too. Here they did the same, but to get things going, they made sure they maintained a queue outside, even if there were tables available inside. Again, not fair or transparent, and frequently not
moving too.

The Dishoom effect can be seen around the launch of a new product. Perhaps an iPhone. Queuing all night to be one of the first few thousand people through the door to buy a product that will be generally available to anyone that wants one from that point onwards.

Here, the queue is about status, it is about being seen to be waiting.

And finally, The National Review of Live Art in Glasgow boasted one of the most arcane queuing systems ever recorded.

Discarding transparency altogether and swapping it out with pegs, and badges and tickets and parallel lines. It is said, although not officially recorded, that most of the festival actually took place within the queues themselves.

Perhaps this was the birthplace of queues as performance?


And here we are in 2020. A pandemic has changed us, and it has changed how we queue.

Perhaps, one day, we will go back to the semi-improvised, hidden-ruled world of the casual queue, but, for now, that seems a long way off.

The rules that define our current queues seem rigid, and prescriptive, and necessarily so.

Safety was never a primary consideration in pre-pandemic queueing.

But none of this means that there isn't a performance to watch.

There are queues everywhere.

There are subtle movements, transgressions and anxieties.

There is a choreography of bodies in a semi-autonomous space.

There is a near limitless cast of performers.

And there is an audience.


as Adam_Y on mastodon