Is there anything more British than “The Queue”?

In his essay on the English people, George Orwell remarked that any foreign observer would be struck by their orderly behavior and in particular “the willingness to form queues”. It’s one of those British stereotypes that come to mind in recent days, as the mother of all queues lengthens and meanders along the south bank of the Thames.

As many as 750,000 people were expected to make their way to London ahead of the state funeral of the late Queen Elizabeth II on Monday. Queues began to form days earlier across the Thames from the historic Westminster Hall, where his coffin rests on a catafalque. By late Thursday afternoon, the line was nearly 4.3 miles (7 kilometers) long.

We know all this because there is an official live queue tracker, which shows the length and average time to destination at a speed of around 0.5 miles per hour.

Those in line are given wristbands to mark their place. There are “additional wellness facilities” (read: restrooms) and water fountains to ease the discomforts of dragging slowly through the day and night. There are also detailed tips on what to bring (food, water), what not to bring (water bottles, camping gear, large bags) and how to behave. There’s plenty of security, not that it seems necessary so far, as archival footage of the Queen is displayed on a large screen. Volunteer religious leaders are there to help grieving people process what they are going through. Not even Disneyland, with its famous queuing strategies, can match that.

That so many have come from so far away to wait so long for such a brief glimpse of the late monarch’s coffin will seem curious to many around the world and excessive to some. People were taking days off and pulling kids out of school. They’re not waiting for the latest iPhone, but for a chance to pay homage to someone most of them have never met.

Most Americans tend to disdain long lines. “It was amazing,” a friend texted as she returned home from a trip to London amid travel chaos this summer. “It took me two hours to get into Heathrow and the people were just tolerant and dedicated. This would never happen in the United States. Americans would be furious and it would be chaos.

To the hardy individualist, queues generally look like a poor use of time, suggest poor organization, and seem to reflect a herd mindset. They can be uncomfortable if you don’t wear the right shoes or don’t have access to the bathroom. In the early 90s, I lost feeling in my toes after queuing in minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 Fahrenheit) to buy some basic necessities from a generic grocery store in Moscow.

Yet we all stand in line as an inevitable means to an end – to pass through airport security or on a ski lift or in a museum exhibit. I happily waited in a long queue in February to buy a spectacular hot chocolate from a stand in Paris. But I’ve never done anything like what hundreds of thousands of Brits and visitors are doing right now. It takes a certain stoicism, humility and determination to drop everything and be part of it. In the never-ending debate over whether there is such a thing as society, there seems to be strong evidence here.

Orwell was not wrong; there’s something about Britain’s reputation for queuing tolerance, some of which dates back to the industrial revolution and some to wartime rationing. A good queue is so synonymous with common decency that when the UK introduced its first citizenship test in 2010, how to form a good queue was on it. When former Prime Minister Boris Johnson wanted to defend his policy of sending refugees to Rwanda, he accused the male refugees of “paying smugglers to avoid the queues”.

But the reputation of a queuing nation – the Briton who joins the back of a queue before asking what it’s for – is generally exaggerated. Yes, Brits line up overnight for Wimbledon tickets, but Americans camp out for tickets to a Duke University basketball game. Britons were as furious as anyone about the chaos of the trip, as they made clear on social media. Even recent reports that Tesco shoppers preferred to queue rather than use the self-checkout were found to be exaggerated.

Those queuing to see the Queen describe many reasons: to be part of a unique moment in Britain’s long life, to express gratitude and to pay their respects. The deaths of other historical figures have drawn large-scale public gatherings in the past, but nothing like this.

Around 200,000 people came to pay their respects to the Queen Mother in 2002. More than 300,000 passed through Westminster Hall to pay their respects to George VI in 1952. It was a similar tour to honor British wartime leader Winston Churchill – the wait was about three hours. and the line was about a mile long. Some 250,000 Americans waited until 10 a.m. to witness John F. Kennedy’s lie. About 100,000 mourners paid their respects to late South African President, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and world changer Nelson Mandela, and many were disappointed that they were prevented from doing so. I dismiss the communist figures of Mao and Lenin.

By all accounts, the mood among those waiting to pay their respects is solemn, friendly, expectant, joyful, sad and, above all, determined. People made new friends, stood in silence or chatted. No one seemed to doubt that the wait was worth it. Those who exit the historic room describe the experience as visceral.

FOMO aside, how eager would you be to join a queue stretching about five miles and lasting up to 30 hours? If you had asked me the question a few weeks ago, the answer would have been quick. Now I’m not so sure. But I’m glad there are so many who don’t hesitate.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was the editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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