It turns out we have been doing it wrong. The British, those masters of queue culture, have no mastery to speak of. It is a broken system. Queue no more!
This, at any rate, is the conclusion of a team of Danish academics, who have studied various models of queuing and concluded that the first-come, first-serve model at whose altar we worship is the least efficient queue regulator. It rewards people for turning up and standing, sometimes for hours, in line.
Much better, they believe, is a system where the person at the back of the queue is served first. If you are standing in line and someone comes and stands behind you, they will get served ahead of you. This system rewards people for not turning up well ahead of time. It also rewards them for not arriving right at the last minute (where all the other stragglers will no doubt come in a bunch). Rather, it rewards people for coming at no particular time at all. Just sort of roll up when you’re ready and see what happens.
However, the Danish team fails to factor one essential consideration into their model: that people like queuing. I once queued for 28 hours to be at the front of a queue (the first time the Berlin Philharmonic played at the Proms, I remember, in 1993 or thereabouts), and I think by the time I got in and heard the concert my addled brain would not have allowed me, not merely not to love it, but not to love it ecstatically. It was a quasi-religious experience. And all because of the queuing.
I do not feel quite so ecstatic when I queue for coffee at the machine in the school (although I have a cup by my elbow now, and I’m feeling pretty friendly towards it), nor when I queue at the post office. But the combined sense of dullness and order, of rightness and unchangingness, is also a potent one; when we queue, and when we take our queuing in deadly earnest, we embody a species of social glue. Were we to embrace funky Danish queuing, the country would fall apart.