Is queuing at the bar an affront to the idea of the pub, or “excellent Britishness”? Are there any practical arguments against it or is the reaction purely emotional?
On Saturday, for logistical reasons, we ended up in a gin-and-dining waterside pub a bit off our usual beat where we saw a remarkable queue for the bar, 20+ deep at times, cutting right across the main service area and towards the front door.
We Tweeted about it…
…not meaning to convey any particular judgement, only that it was unusual. As is often the case, that kind of minimalist openness elicited an interesting range of responses.
“It’s a sad reflection of the lack of experience in “real” pubs by millennials. It’s not McDonalds
“Have people forgotten how bars work?!”
“I think anywhere with this automatically loses their pub status.”
“I ignore it and do what I’ve always done – go to the bar.”
“I’m a big fan, saves having to concentrate. Just chill and wait for your turn.”
“Excellent Britishness on display. Makes you proud.”
“I’d prefer queuing to having to fight your way through a swarm of barflies.”
If you believe that the point is the most efficient and fairest service of food and drink, the queue does indeed make a great deal of sense. In almost every other aspect of British life it is considered practically sacred.
But the pub… The pub is supposed to be a jumble. And when we say “supposed to be” we mean “is usually portrayed as”. Look at this famous painting, ‘Behind the Bar’ by John Henry Henshall, from 1882:
These days, as pubs have been cleaned up or closed, the scrum at the bar is about all that remains of the old tradition of gleeful disorder.
In response to our Tweet Terry Hayward shared a link to a 2012 blog post on this subject which contains the following stirring story:
I decided to make a stand and I began to bypass the queue. Two men at the back of the queue saw what I was doing and felt the urge to make a comment, and I heard the use of the word “queue jumper”. I turned to them, and I could see that they, like me, were men of the world. They weren’t here to order Burgers, or Bangers & Mash , or Turkey Dinosaurs and a Fruit Shoot, they just wanted a good pint of fine foaming ale.
I asked them when they’d ever seen people queue like this in a pub before. They conceded it was unusual but used the Homer Simpson defence, “It was like it when I got here”.
“Ah”, said I, “but by standing there you’re only making the situation worse, more will come and queue behind you. It’s time to break ranks. Are you in?”
They looked at each other nervously, but after a brief moment they agreed. It was time to make a stand. So, we started to move to the vacant areas of the bar but, being British and being naturally polite, we made sure we took others with us. We weren’t here to push in; we were here to ensure that centuries of tradition were not being thrown out of the window.
But, again, check that nostalgic instinct: what if, as one person hinted on Twitter, queuing might make the pub more of a level playing field for women? (It’s interesting that Mr Hayward’s story uses the phrase “men of the world”.)
Or, indeed, for anyone other than large, confident people with sharp elbows?
It’s perhaps no surprise that the current spate of pub queuing seems to have started at branches of Wetherspoon which, for all its down-to-earth reputation, is also often a step ahead when it comes to making previously excluded groups (and their spending money) feel more welcome.
On balance, we don’t think queues are the end of the world in pubs like the one we visited on Saturday. Places that aren’t in historic pub buildings, with little history about them, and where the number of punters greatly exceeds the bar staff because head office insists on adherence to an ideal wage-percentage. In fact, it was pretty convenient, keeping things clipping along so we could get our drinks and Pub Grub before moving on to a Proper (queueless) Pub.
But something would certainly be lost if queues started appearing at, say, The Royal Oak, London’s best pub. Or, at least, overt, obvious queues, because of course there is a queue, even though the bar has two sides open to service. It’s just invisible, managed by staff and customers between them, through a system of eye contact, deference and polite murmuring.