Bar Queueing in London: A Call for Reform

An artists rendering of an outdoor bar in London

The current system of buying drinks at a bar in London is, to put it frankly, on its arse. You can blame holier-than-thou staff. You can blame England’s burgeoning alcohol problem. You can blame immigration. I argue that the problem lies neither with a single or even combination of any of those factors; we are the victims of our own subscription to broken social and moral customs, which serve only to perpetuate the ingrained abuses inherent under the prevailing system.

Earlier today I was having a drink at a rooftop bar in East London. It was the hottest day the UK had seen for a while, and they had a make-shift, covered bar composed of perspex and wood (read: greenhouse). My poor friend was left waiting for 45 minutes to get a drink in sweltering, sauna-like conditions. The tales he regaled on his return from this expedition resonated with dormant criticisms I have held regarding the current system. One would not leave a dog in a hot car for 45 minutes, unless he had access to an electric window- why would we abuse a human so? Tom is also hairier than most dogs. Initially, his absence prompted some important questions amongst our company, such as “Where is Tom?” and “I hope he’s got my fucking drink”, before turning to a less serious discussion of what we tolerate in society. With that in mind, I would like to outline the system from inside-out. I hope to highlight the shortcomings of the current system the for the purpose of criticism and, hopefully, change.

The Back of the Queue

Arriving at the back of the queue at a busy bar is akin to arriving at immigration in the airport of a country whom the UK has abused at some point in history — its not going to be quick, easy or fun. Nevertheless, you have a shred of autonomy in deciding your fate by choosing which queue to join, or in this case, who to stand behind. You must quickly analyse all available clues such as: is this dinosaur going to pay with chip and pin, is this person buying a round or a single drink, and does this twat look like hes going to order an old fashioned (minimum time: 7 minutes). This is followed by a sense of powerlessness when you realise you are at the mercy of the aggression of those in front of you; get stuck behind a couple of shy apologetics, and you could find yourself going backwards as everyone takes advantage of their meekness. Invariably, this decision will turn out to be obsolete once you arrive at that jungle, bereft of law and order: the squeezed middle.

Expect — Line envy when that person who joined the queue 3 minutes after you is already a the front of the queue.

The Squeezed middle

There is a small victory in reaching the middle. With reinforcements behind you, you ensure that you will eventually be forced forward to the front, and avoid becoming part of the ‘permanent back’, like an ostracised penguin on a very cold day unable to break into the huddle. Now it’s like osmosis. Kind of. Do not get complacent however, without a clear sense of purpose and direction at this stage, you could be in there for a while. The name of the game is to keep moving forward into the next available hole, much the same as a stag-do on a pub crawl in the red light district. Beware of the incumbent paranoia when forced into close proximity and contact with strangers. Checking for your wallet every two minutes to make sure it hasn’t been pick-pocketed will serve to offend anyone nearby, and is tantamount to calling them a thief or a rascal. The middle is characterised by this frightful cocktail of physical discomfort and mental anguish, but it gets much worse.

Expect — Confidence shattering subordination to alpha-males as you strive to avoid starting a conflict at close quarters.

The Front Line

With great position comes great responsibility. And self-doubt, insecurity and anxiety. From being at the the mercy of the meek, to the mercy of chaos theory, you are now at the mercy of the all-powerful (but apparently not all-seeing) bar staff. Now, I am not going to criticise bar staff, they did not ask to become the unelected arbiters of justice and fairness, repeatedly faced with a judgement-of-Solomon sized quandary. Honestly, they are not serving other people ahead of you on purpose. They just cant be expected to keep an eye on exactly what time each person got the bar and serve accordingly. Its not the problem of the components in the system, but the system itself. You must simultaneously assert your authority with the fellow rabble whilst signalling your presence to the bartender with equal parts aggression and politeness. And how do you do that without offending them and risking falling out of favour? Should you keep eye contact or play hard to get? Should you wave your card around in the air just in front of your face? Should you just start obnoxiously barking your order whilst the last customer is paying? This is no way to live. If I wanted this level of psychological abuse I would of gone to my grandmothers for Sunday tea.

What can we do?

The current system is dated and oppressive, serving only to reward the rude, the arrogant and the careless. The problem is, every time we willingly partake in this circus without question, we only end up perpetuating its existence. I don’t propose to solve a problem of such complexity overnight, I also don’t propose that I can stem the UK’s thirst for alcohol by calling for a boycott. I want to look at other systems, I want to reach the people the own and manage these bars to keep an open mind in devising a new system which can alleviate congestion, promote efficiency and reduce mentally exhausting situations. Look at examples set in Argentina. A cashier at one end of the bar takes orders from a single file queue, the customers then go to the bar to pick up the drink. This leaves the mixologists to do what they came to do, and leaves no room for doubt over who came first.

Change will not come overnight, but the first step is to acknowledge that we have a problem. Examples from other systems that work better must be seriously considered and together we can work toward a better future, and get Londoners the drinks that they need.