The sign of a healthy society? Its queues | Howard Jacobson | Books

The gauge of a healthy society is how long you have to queue in a post office to buy a stamp. There will be societies in which people forced to wait more than five minutes machete their way through the queue and demand a second-class stamp at gunpoint. Such, we can agree, are unhealthy societies. At the other extreme are Australian post offices, which make a point of having more than one person serving, sell an attractive range of mail boxes, don’t double as social security advice centres and aren’t located in the back room of a convenience store. Somewhere in between, but closer to the bottom than the top, is this country – assuming you can find a post office to buy a stamp from.

An irritable queue would once have been the clue to a post office’s whereabouts, but queues are universal now. Queues for T-shirts, skateboards, trainers, sweatshirts, hoodies, bubblewrap waffles, yoga mats, even Lego. Word gets out on social media – new hoodies just in at such and such a place – and within minutes there’s a craze, a shortage and a queue. But the difference between a trainer queue and a stamp queue is the level of anticipation before and the degree of customer satisfaction after. No matter how badly you need a stamp, when you’ve finally got one, you don’t hang around outside the post office swaggering like Billy Connolly in his incontinence pants, or post a selfie on Instagram of you licking the back of it.

Fundamental to the smooth workings of a free society are such amenities as being able to buy a train ticket before the train leaves, receiving welfare before you starve, seeing a doctor before you die, having someone fix the problems with your broadband before you forget your password. Despotic governments make people wait – in line or at the end of their tether – in order to create an atmosphere of shortage and dejection. This is Phase One in the demoralisation of the populace. When you’ve broken your citizens’ spirits, you can do pretty much whatever you like with them.

Things aren’t quite so bad in our liberal capitalist democracy unless we are at the very bottom of the pecking order. Then you queue for a doorway to sleep in. But even higher up the scale of desolation, we are subjected to the daily contumely of service providers not providing a service. Maybe it’s revenge: you keep me waiting for a waffle, I’ll keep you waiting for a stamp. And so the baton of grumbling discontent is passed from hand to hand.

There is an…

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