Give the Man Ayr

We Queue in This Country, Part II

There’s not much to see in Ayr, except the sea. (And the air, obviously.) The leftmost bottom-most bit of Scotland is pretty light-on for attractions, other than Culzean with the silent Z, a castle perched on its coastline looking out to the Isle of Arran. Jane and I visited it last month for her birthday, accidentally choosing the wettest day of the month to drive there. When we stopped halfway at the Georgian model town of New Lanark it looked like the rain was clearing up, but by Ayr we were driving through aerial bathwater.

The sea at Ayr in glorious Technicolor®.

Culzean itself had some pleasant interiors and surrounds, but the exterior was a bit disappointing. Turns out that all the publicity photos are taken from a helicopter hovering over the sea, looking towards its perch on the edge of a cliff. From the sea, it’s an impregnable fortress looming o’er the waters; from land, it’s a big house with a cannon in front of it.

But at least it beats Ayr’s other, much more visited attraction: Prestwick Airport. Prestwick, or “Glasgow Prestwick” as it’s laughably called (you’d be more justified calling Edinburgh airport “Glasgow Edinburgh”), is a regional base for Ryanair, so it’s a major hub for tight-arse travel. Jane had already been there twice by the time I got my first look last December, and warned me that it was a hassle to get out to. But even Lothian bus queues hadn’t prepared me for the hassles once we got there.

Our flight was at a reasonable hour, but because it was way over in Ayr we still had to get up at sparrow-fart, walk with our bags all the way to Haymarket, wait for the first hour-long train to Glasgow, walk briskly from Queen Street Station to Central, and then catch another train south to Prestwick for another hour. At Haymarket we got talking to a Brazilian guy whose flight to Spain was scheduled ninety minutes before ours, yet who still thought he’d left himself enough time to catch it. We nodded politely as he showed us his travel-pack of Abba CDs, trying not to scream For God’s sake man, your flight’s leaving ten minutes after we get there (Waterloo, woah woah woah woah Waterloo). As the train-ride from Glasgow went on, and on, and on, he got quieter and quieter.

Walking along the elevated walkway from the side of the tracks to Prestwick itself, it was pretty clear what kind of airport we were dealing with here: the giant-corrugated-iron-shed kind. (At the other end of our flight, part of Gothenburg City airport was actually made out of chicken wire.) The terminal contained half a dozen flight desks, a newsagent, a till next to a bank of refrigerated shelves full of overpriced rolls, a couple of dozen plastic tables for eating rolls and reading newspapers, and a rope-lined area to hold the queue for the metal detectors (two).

“Hey, they’ve expanded it since I was here,” said Jane.

Three hours since a single rushed slice of toast I was hungry again, so bought myself a stale bap filled with shredded five pound notes and moved to a table with an abandoned newspaper on it. Jane didn’t fancy anything from the food place, instead eating an apple we’d brought with us.

People came and went from the surrounding tables—including the Brazilian guy, who told us he’d managed to get another flight. Leaving in three hours. For a different city. We were still early for ours, so sat around a while longer, staring at the giant wall-sized photograph promoting the canteen as the height of family dining by showing Dad forking a chip into his son’s gob.

Fine dining at Prestwick Airport

Eventually, noticing that the roped-off queue for the metal detectors had grown, we figured it was time to line up and head through to the lounge that Jane said lay on the other side. Might as well be that one step closer. Moving through an airport is like waiting for the locks to drain and fill on a canal.

So we joined the queue. Jane, feeling hungry now, told me to keep our place in it while she ducked into the newsagents’ to get some chocolate.

A couple of dozen people joined the queue behind me. Time passed, as is its wont. I shuffled forward, sliding our bags ahead with my foot.

Finally I saw Jane emerge from the newsagent, precious Twix in hand. As I waved to her and pointed to the nearest shortcut to where I was, the balding man behind me shepherded his wife and children into the space that had just opened ahead of me. Oh well, what did I care.

Jane looped the extendable rope off its latch, ducked in next to me and latched the rope back. “They were taking ages to serve pe...”

“Excuse me, you,” came a curt voice from nearby, “go to the end of the queue, please.”

It was the balding guy—the one who had just jumped me in the queue. His forehead was starting to pulsate under the pressure of built-up steam. Oh no, I realised: it’s the Self-Appointed Queue Police.

“But she’s with me,” I said as indignantly as I could, invoking the well-known Holding a Place in Line clause (subsection V: Spouses) laid down in International Air Transport Association regulations. This wasn’t queue-jumping; we were queueing as a unit, one half of which had gone off for a moment to buy a Twix. We were as together as those two Twixes in their wrapper; you could no more consider us separate travellers than save one of those Twixes and sell it separately on eBay.

“I don’t care who she’s with,” said purple-face, “she can wait in the queue like everybody else.”

I’ve had enough of pricks at airports in the past few years (especially one particularly unpleasant appendage in Johannesburg), and was ready to stand my ground against this throbbing specimen. But Jane, figuring that life is too short, had started making her way back to the end of the queue. Short of creating a scene worthy of an amateur dramatics rehearsal, all I could do was join her. So I did.

But I didn’t like it.

“Where does he get off lecturing us like the bloody Queue Police when he jumped me in the queue?” I fumed. It’s as if the real, actual, properly-appointed-authority police booked you for doing 51 in a 50 zone after tearing past you at a hundred.

The queue moved forward, and its lord and master reached the front. How I wished I had planted a Stanley knife in his pocket and 100g of Semtex in his sock.

The most frustrating part was that this queue was exactly the kind where, as far as I’m concerned, all anal-retentive queueing “etiquette” should be declared null and void, and all trumped-up interfering would-be vice-directors should be safely muzzled for the duration. Some queues have a logic to them, as I’ve already conceded, but others are just a way of getting through a bottleneck from one giant roomy space full of people milling about to another giant roomy space full of people milling about. The only reason this queue was here in the first place was to stop people getting crushed to death in an unholy struggle to claw their way through security—which in at least one case would have been a perfectly acceptable outcome.

The lounge on the other side of the metal detectors was as capacious as expected. There were dozens of empty seats; Chief Inspector Other People’s Business was sitting on one of them over near the window. I thought of possible ways to confront him, belittle him, or otherwise cause him extreme mental anguish; but of course did nothing.

When the boarding call came for our flight I leapt out of my seat and bolted to the just-forming queue at the gate. If I got there first, I figured, I could lean out of the line sideways and wave two sniggering fingers at him, like Rik Mayall.

Silly me. He didn’t even join the queue. His flight was after ours, removing even that justification from the short list of plausible reasons for his earlier insistence (leaving only “This man is a complete tool”). My moment of one-upmanship was not to be.

Tempting though it is, I can’t blame him alone for the frustrations of that morning. After all, why blame isolated individuals when with one blithe generalisation you can blame an entire culture?

The worst aspect of queueing in Britain is not the questionable etiquette, the occasional slow queue, or even the self-appointed queue police. It’s the prediliction for the long snaking queue—which, unfortunately, is being taken up by managers the world over.

In Australia, everyone has experienced lining up at a bank teller’s window only to find that we’re stuck behind some old duffer counting out five cent pieces from a sack. Meanwhile, the queues at all the other windows will be moving swiftly, tormenting us with the thought that if only we switched to another queue we might reach a teller sooner. But by now we’ve invested so much time in our current queue that we can’t bear the thought of starting over in another one, so as often as not we stick with it.

This exquisite quandary is only available to the British queuer in supermarkets, and only then because Sainsbury’s and Tesco haven’t figured out a way to install a single roped-off queueing area that stretches the entire length of the supermarket without eating into their precious aisle space. Instead, the queue at each till will stretch halfway up the nearest aisle, making it impossible to reach the Scott’s Porage Oats without some haughty shopper glaring at you for suspected queue-jumping.

In almost every other queueing context, the British favour the long snaking queue, where forty people stand in one long line, peeling off the end as new tellers (ticket sellers, airport check-in counters, etc.) become available. The logic is impeccably egalitarian: everyone waits approximately the same amount of time, with the queue adapting automatically when tellers are added or taken off. What it overlooks is that the snaking queue makes everyone equally snakey.

In the snaking queue, if a teller has been commandeered by an old duffer with a sack, everyone in the queue will resent it, even if there are three other tellers open. “If that old git wasn’t there,” they’re all thinking, “we could be out of here fifteen seconds sooner.” And so the experience becomes one of psychological pain at the thought of all those fifteen seconds wasted. Add them up over a lifetime and you could have spent an extra half-hour in bed that Sunday three years ago.

Whereas in the Australian system, we all get to laugh at the poor bastard stuck behind the old guy. Sure, every now and then we’ll be that poor bastard, but even then we get the gambler’s thrill of staying in the slow queue or jumping to another—and Australians are, if nothing else, a great nation of gamblers. We treat the pokies as a big pay-as-you-go video game, and bet on horses we’ve never even heard of just because it’s the first Tuesday in November.

At least, that’s how it was before the rot set in. Back in the mid-’90s I remember being pissed off when the main Canberra post office switched from the usual system of sales windows with separate queues to a snakey-queue model akin to the UK’s. Now I know why it went from being a quietly efficient place to one where you were always in a bloody queue. It’s the age-old tension between the convicts and the guards; the ones being forced into line and the ones doing the forcing.

No-one has to do any forcing in Britain. Even at a bank of three ATMs, a single snaking queue spontaneously forms out of nowhere as soon as two or three gather. Everyone will be glaring at the machine that’s Out of Order—the ATM equivalent of the geezer with the sack of change. And heaven help you if your wife walks up to you with a Twix.

25-30 October 2004