First it was handshakes. Then pubs and choirs. Now, after a long but patient wait, queueing itself is under threat. What key part of British life will Covid-19 try and strike down next, the Prime Minister himself? Oh...
This week, in news that shouldn’t necessarily be dispiriting but somehow is, Sainsbury’s and John Lewis are reportedly ready to launch apps that will allow shoppers to wait in cars or cafés until it is their turn to enter, instead of standing, at least 1m apart, outside.
It will, they say, be safer and more convenient. But it will also bring an end to what is perhaps the closest thing to Britain’s national sport. “An Englishman, even if he is alone,” the humourist George Mikes famously wrote, “forms an orderly queue of one.” Not on his phone in the nearby Starbucks, he doesn’t.
We are experiencing an identity crisis in the new normal. What kind of country will we be after this? Where do we go from here? What is important to us now? I can’t help you with those, sorry, but I can pay tribute to the things that Covid has taken from us. For better or for worse, we may never see their like again.
Compared with other countries, greetings in Britain used to be so easy. In France, you’d kiss anywhere between one and 48 times. In Italy it would be similar, but less aloofness and more gusto. In the US, anything from a shoulder slap to a fistbump could have been coming your way.
But here? Here, we’d simply see the person – friend, colleague, plumber, MP, Paul Hollywood – extend a hand, then walk at them until they met it for some brief paw-on-paw action. What now, though? Forearm dabs? Japanese bow? A little wave? It is a social minefield, and if there was one thing British people didn’t need, it was another reason to be awkward in public.
JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and Edgar Allan Poe were supposedly in agreement that the compound word “cellar door” was the most beautiful in the English language. But have a look at “queue”. It is, as the phrase goes, what it is: a queue. Those unnecessarily repeating vowels, waiting in an orderly fashion behind their consonant, just happy to be there.
Early in lockdown it looked as if queueing was, if anything, about to enter a new golden age. Shops with limited capacity? Marks on the floor showing where to stand? Doormen marshalling numbers, one in one out, turning Tesco Express into Oceana Cardiff? We loved it. We chatted, watched dogs, collectively judged those not following the one-way system... Queueing was back and better than ever. Except now it’s gone again. Thanks, Covid.
The swift pint
A scene from yore: you’re wandering down the road with a friend, half an hour early for dinner reservation; at the end of a country walk; leaving work; or just alone and thirsty, when you happen upon a pub. “Time for a swift one?” you’d ask. The answer was always yes, and so in you went for probably three pints. Easy.
A scene from the new normal: you’re wandering down the road with a friend who is 1.5m away, on a walk because there’s nothing else to do, when you happen upon a pub. “Time for a swift one?” you ask. “Well, did you make a booking?” they reply. You did not. And so you go home to get drunk there instead.
Everyone’s going on about how masks have brought an end to smiling and ushered in the difficult art of “smizing” (smiling with your eyes), but what about the Great British currency of the vacant frown and callow tut? Not easy, with half the face shrouded. Time to get into brow furrowing, and fast.
Having certain meals on certain days
Google something along the lines of ‘What are the British known for?’, as I may have had cause to do lately, and you’ll find foreigners pointing out that we seem obsessed with eating a roast on a Sunday, fish on a Friday, and other rigid day/dish pairings. Well, if you can tell me what day it is today without looking at the front of this newspaper, you can have a year’s subscription on me. Didn't think so.
Thanks to the coronavirus, time has turned to sludge. At the height of the pandemic we only knew a week had passed because we’d go outside and clap at each other. Now even that’s gone, so who cares if you have a roast on a Wednesday morning? Nobody, that’s who.
I haven’t checked the official social distancing guidelines lately, but I’m fairly sure that if you see a choir meeting and singing together it is your duty to perform a citizen’s arrest before they make it to the key change. Jam and Jerusalem? It just jam now, ladies, and don’t be sharing jars either. At a socially distanced gig? Keep schtum, no matter how many times Robbie Williams points the microphone at you during ‘Angels’. Watching the football? Instead of chanting, why don’t you all learn the Morse code version of ‘Three Lions’ and perform that in unison, instead? It won’t be the same, but it will be safe. Perhaps that’s our new national character after all.