The social phenomenon of ‘the Queue’

What I found interesting about the Queue was that it had obviously become something more than just paying homage to a beloved Queen - it finally clicked when I heard a feature on the news about how people had struck up friendships while they were waiting

The ten days of non-stop coverage prior to the Queen’s actual burial last Monday was a feat of national broadcasting by the UK news media.

As we watched off and on, I couldn’t help but wonder how the commentators managed to find something new to say throughout the whole process. In particular, the non-stop commentary about what has now become infamously known as The Queue was an impressive display of how to keep talking over four days when not much was happening.

As it snaked its way through London, the Queue to view the Queen lying in state at Westminster Hall at one point stretched to ten miles, and the longest waiting time was a mind-numbing 24 hours. The stoic perseverance of those who travelled from all over the UK (and in some cases even from abroad) to join the Queue was a phenomenon which we have rarely seen. And while there were the inevitable jokes about how the British love nothing more than queuing, it was still quite astonishing to see how the crowds of people just kept coming, seemingly undaunted by warnings about how long they were going to have to wait.

In fact, the more I watched the more it seemed to me that joining the Queue almost became an end in itself. Rather like a social experiment. It was as if someone had set an impossible challenge to the nation, like something out of a reality show: just how long are you prepared to wait in line? And without flinching, the average British citizen, sporting an anorak, wearing sensible shoes and armed with a supply of drinks, flasks of tea and sandwiches, calmly responded with: just watch me!

I have to admit I found the whole thing intriguing; for while I can understand those who wanted to be there because they had a personal attachment to the Queen during her reign, it doesn’t explain the reported 250,000 who actually waited in The Queue to file past her coffin. Now this might be because, personally, I cannot think of any situation where I would be willing to wait in line for 12-17 hours, which was the average length of time people waited. I’m afraid I just don’t have the desire, inclination or stamina for that kind of thing, no matter who the famous person may be.

However, it occurred to me, as I listened to people being interviewed, that for many it became a matter of being able to proudly say, several years down the line that, “I was there”. The whole experience was transformed into a sort of personal achievement and a feather in their cap for not only surviving the famous Queue, but to be able to say that they saw the coffin of the deceased long-reigning monarch with their own eyes, rather than just on TV.

All of this is understandable; this was undeniably a major historic event which we have rarely seen in our lifetime, and the pomp and pageantry of the funeral itself was something to behold. What I found interesting about the Queue, however, was that it had obviously become something more than just paying homage to a beloved Queen. It finally clicked when I heard a feature on the news about how people had struck up friendships while they were waiting and how this was so “unlike” Londoners who are often very brusque with each other, avoiding eye contact and any interaction if possible as they rush around in their busy lives. As people stood in line, all there for one common purpose, they suddenly started doing something which technology often prevents us from doing… they actually started talking to each other, face to face. They shared stories about what the Queen meant to them, they traded anecdotes about where they were from and how long they had travelled to get there and they found a measure of camaraderie in coming together for this once in a lifetime event.

It is probably this, more than anything else, which led those watching at home to think, “I want to be there too”. Instead of putting people off, the constant TV coverage magnetically drew more people to join the Queue because they wanted to be a part of it; they wanted to feel a sense of belonging that only being physically present could give them. Human behaviour can be unfathomable sometimes, but in this case there was an element of logic to it – the mortality of a Queen who was a permanent fixture for 70 years was a realisation for many of how things can abruptly change in an instant. For all its quirkiness, and despite the fact that I could never do it myself, the sight of that never-ending Queue was oddly heartwarming.

The fact that so many hundreds of thousands felt the need to pay their last respects to the Queen in the orderly, organised fashion for which the British are so renowned, somehow made the world, which is so obsessed with filtered selfies and posting stories on Instagram, seem less superficial and narcissistic… and for a few days it seemed like a more humane, civilised place.

Now imagine The Queue in Malta.

We cannot help ourselves. Any time we see something like The Queue take place in another country, we immediately turn to each other and ask with a snort and a dose of sarcasm… can you imagine something like that happening here? If you have lived in Malta long enough you will know that while we are too touchy about others criticising us, we can be absolutely scathing about our own foibles.

So, inevitably, on seeing that very patient, four-day Queue, we began imagining the sheer chaos which would have ensued if something similar had to be played out on our island. First of all, I cannot think of any prominent figure who would have brought the whole country together in the same way. Despite the fact that the UK has its share of anti-monarchists, I did not see much evidence of them (except for the incident by Celtic fans during the Champions’ league). Maybe they just sat at home and tweeted insults into cyberspace.

Here, however, there would be definite battle lines drawn along political lines, dividing the country in half, no matter who it is. So one side would be weeping and writing eulogies while the other would be cheering and gloating, depending on how adored/hated the person was. And, even if there was such a person whose death would have attracted hundreds of thousands to queue for miles, I can only imagine an unmitigated disaster. We simply do not have enough wide-open spaces for such a queue to form itself, and enraged drivers would be livid if streets were to be closed off to accommodate a queue which is miles long. Unless, that is, people could be allowed to queue while sitting in their car, which would be just like any other Monday morning in rush hour traffic.

But let us fantasise that an actual queue could be formed. I know, right? It’s almost impossible to visualise. The Maltese are to queuing as the Brits are to avoiding sunburn on their first day on holiday – it simply cannot happen. As a people, we have an aversion to forming a straight line and instead it is more of a squiggly, deliberately haphazard mess where the sneakiest ones can creep on you, and jump five spaces ahead, while studiously avoiding any eye contact.

I can picture it already, the loud arguments, the elbowing and the jostling, the picnic coolers packed with timpana and pastizzi, the makeshift umbrellas and tents and (before you know it) there would be a row of vans selling donuts, burgers and hotdogs. As for accepting the long wait with a stiff upper lip, forget it. There would be constant moaning and complaining for the entire time despite the fact that they were told ahead of time that they had a very long wait. Have you ever been to Mater Dei or any other public place where people have to wait? Well, then you get the picture. Waiting is not our strong point. Huffing and puffing, and long exaggerated sighs peppered with swear words are our M.O. It doesn’t make the queue move any faster, but somehow people enjoy venting their frustration like this.

One thing we would excel at is talking to each other. Wait, scratch that. We would be talking AT each other but no one would be listening to the other person and five, loud, simultaneous monologues would be happening at once. So, try as I might, I really cannot picture anything like The Queue happening here.

Despite being a British colony for so long, that is one aspect of Britishness which simply did not rub off on us.