The English obsession with queuing and order is always fun to observe. My train services to and from Derby include an automatic and random seat reservation system. It does seem that somebody has programmed the preferences of this system incorrectly as its ambition seems to be to pack us in one space. The system slots everyone into one car in a Tetris type arrangement to limit empty space. It actually seems to fill a car at a time before using the next. But we all clutch our reservations and hunt down the seat that we have been assigned, because we’re English that’s what we do.
I watched a woman yesterday as she played the ‘reservation shuffle’. Firstly she went past her seat and looked around as if lost. This is the English way of letting somebody know they are in your seat. When it became apparent that they were not aware of their error she offered an “excuse me I think that’s my seat” this despite the fact that there area plethora of vacant seats. The man duly moved to the correct seat and our passenger took her allotted seat but it doesn’t end there. After leaving the station our passenger decided that the other seats looked better and moved to one with a table. The move accompanied by an explanation and justification to the strangers around her. Was she settled here, of course not and some time later she reversed to face the direction of travel, with the same proclamations loudly made.
For me this is a quintessentially English way of doing things. There is almost a moral obligation to sit in the allotted seat to commence and this is supported by indignation that somebody has not played by the rules. The subsequent moves each require you to explain why they take place to fellow passengers. Elsewhere in the world people would simply take a different seat if theirs was taken. If you asked somebody to relinquish your seat in the US they would point out that there were plenty of free seats and remain where they were.
A further example of Englishness was revealed on the metro. I used the circle line which is now run mostly with new rolling stock, this includes a grab pole in the centre of every vestibule. These grab poles are painted yellow so they are extremely visible but they are new, they weren’t there on the last stock. I watched a passenger charge into the saloon to grab his favoured standing place, its probably been his favourite for many years. You guessed it, he went face first into the grab pole which is akin to getting smacked in the face with a scaffold pole.
Now there are two English issues here, firstly we must remain calm and secondly we cannot berate others for our mistakes. To this end the gent simply removed his face from the pole and took up his standing position. No shouting or ranting and no attempt to check his injuries. A stoic face told us that this was all part of his routine. I only travelled two more stops with him but I surreptitiously watched and he didn’t even move to stem the small line of blood running down his face.
I take my hat off to those that follow these old rules so diligently but, as a weary world traveller, I must tell you that it wears off. I don’t play the reservation shuffle, queue politely or give up my seat and I most definitively would have cursed the grab pole.