At the pub history conference, someone mentioned the books The Local (sadly lost) and Back To The Local (back in print), by Maurice Gorham and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. Both offer short vignettes, in text and drawing, of aspects of the British pub. These were successful enough for the pair to produce a number of other books, one of which is called Londoners. It’s a lovely little book, but out of print, so I thought I’d share one of the pieces here.
by Maurice Gorham & Edward Ardizzone, Percival Marshall, 1951
QUEUEING has become notorious in recent years but it has long been a feature of London life. My earliest recollection of public affairs is of standing in a queue to see the lying-in-state of King Edward VII. My father took me ; we queued inch by inch from Millbank to the doors of Westminster Hall, and I had never been out so late before. But we did not see the lying-in-state. Just before we got there another queue from the other direction was let in and our queue was dispersed and told there was nothing doing that night. I am glad to think that this first memory of mine includes a dim picture of exasperated queuers fighting with the police.
Since then Londoners have formed a positive passion for getting in queues. Before 1939 the queue was usually a symptom of distress, like the sad shabby lines that waited endlessly outside the Labour Exchange, but during the war everything was in short supply so everybody had to queue, and some of them can’t seem to stop. Just as there are natural hypnotisees who cannot watch a mesmerist at work without being hypnotised themselves, so there are natural queue-joiners who cannot see two people standing on the kerb without falling in behind them. Often they are too shy to ask what they are queueing for until somebody behind asks them, and they are often surprised when they find out. Sometimes they make the best of it, and a woman who has queued up for nylons will end up by seeing the new Joan Crawford film, satisfied with her triumph because she was the last to get in before the big picture came on.
The cinema depends largely on the queueing habit. An expert can watch the queues outside the local houses at varying times and decide at once which has the best draw of the week. So significant is the queue that many people will not go to the pictures if they can walk straight in. They feel lonely, embarrassed, and distrustful. If it were good there would surely be a queue. So they go round the corner to the opposition house and there settle down happily to stand in the open behind a couple of hundred people who are standing there too. The cinema queues are the hardiest, the most en- during, for they stand longest and they have no compulsion to stand at all. On the greyest Sunday in winter, with wind biting and rain lashing, they stand numbly and dumbly, awaiting the moment when a resplendent figure in the uniform of a Tsarist General will step forward and wave them in. There is no animation, no loud chatter, no impatience. Even the buskers get little out of them ; it is seldom that the cheerful characters who entertain outside the theatres tackle the dumb resignation of the cinema queue. And when they have gone in they leave no monument but a litter of peanut shells ankle-deep on the pavement, like the bottom of the monkey-cage after a fine Bank Holiday at the Zoo.
All the queues have their own quality. The cinema queue is the most passive ; the queues for football and the dogs are bustling, progressive, with shoving and jostling and frantic impatience if anybody fumbles with his money when the magic turnstile comes finally into view. There are odd little specialised queues, like the talkative string of habitués outside the horse-meat shop in Soho, and the hungry line that forms outside the vegetarian restaurant in Panton Street behind Leicester Square. There they stand in all weathers, disdaining the gaping doors of countless restaurants, milk-bars, and pubs, waiting until the previous batch of meat-scorners have finished and hoping that the nut cutlets won’t be “off” by the time they get in.
The friendliest are the fish queues where the same people gather time after time, where women bring their push-carts and their family gossip, and where information is exchanged about all the local news from the prospect of two eggs on the ration next week to the new landlord at the George. Despite all the abuse they have received, the shop-queues made a bright interlude in many a house-wife’s existence during the war. Instead of having to scurry from shop to shop trying to hunt out something that nobody else had spotted she could wheel the pram to her registered butcher or fishmonger, greet her friends, and settle down to a quiet chat without any disturbing consciousness that there was anything more important that she ought to be getting done.
The most persistent and without doubt the most exasperating of queues is the bus-queue. In this there is, for most people, no element of choice. There you arc and the only way you can get anywhere else is to wait until you can get on a bus. You arc usually in a hurry, either to get to work or to get home, and the bus queue rarely fails to point the moral that however long London has had its queues, it has not yet learnt how to make them work.
There is every refinement of inconvenience about the bus queue. Often it is in the open, and if there is a roof over part of it the people in front contrive to group themselves so loosely that almost everybody is left outside. Most queueing-places are served by more than one bus, so when three arrive in a row the queue breaks up and everybody runs dodging ahead, trying to see the route numbers of the last-comers and scramble aboard before they get away again. That is the time for the blind-side dodgers, who, taking a leaf from the Rugby game, come up from the other direction and get ahead of the queue. Then the queuers find all the seats taken and come back to find the queue has filled up behind them and they have to go to the tail.
Sometimes the bus shoots past half the length of the queue before it stops so that the people at the front are the last to get on. Sometimes it stops on the lights within sight of the stopping-place and leaves the queue the choice of running for it with the risk that it may start again before they get there, or waiting where they are whilst it fills up with blind-siders. And sometimes of course it just roars past the waiting queue without even hesitating, either because it is full up or because it has some pressing reasons of its own.
Londoners are the most patient people under the sun, or even under the grey skies that are more commonly their lot. They seldom say anything about their grievances and never do anything. But I wonder whether some of these sufferers find a partial compensation for the bus-queue when they make their weekly visit to the cinema queue, where all is fair and above-board, and the one-and-nines can’t get away.
email: chris is at anti-mega.com