Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Birkenhead Drill

I recently came across a good quote from W. Somerset Maugham, which got me thinking that few things capture the best of Britishness better than the refrain “Women and children first.”

In that simple cliché lies everything you need to know about the attitude that built an Empire: calm in a crisis, stoical self-sacrifice, and above all, a deep-seated love of, and unshakeable faith in, the benefits of forming an orderly queue.

Most often associated with the Titanic, the phrase apparently originates with the HMS Birkenhead disaster in 1852, and is mentioned in the Kipling poem Soldier an' Sailor Too:

…To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,
Is nothing so bad when you've cover to 'and, an' leave an' likin' to shout;
But to stand an' be still to the Birken'ead drill
is a damn tough bullet to chew,
An' they done it, the Jollies -- 'Er Majesty's Jollies --
soldier an' sailor too!
Their work was done when it 'adn't begun; they was younger nor me an' you;
Their choice it was plain between drownin' in 'eaps
an' bein' mopped by the screw,
So they stood an' was still to the Birken'ead drill,
soldier an' sailor too!

We're most of us liars, we're 'arf of us thieves,
an' the rest are as rank as can be,
But once in a while we can finish in style
(which I 'ope it won't 'appen to me)...

Anyway, the Somerset Maugham quote was "I much prefer travelling in non-British ships. There's none of that nonsense about women and children first."


Anonymous said...

Perhaps the Great British Queue was born in Birkenhead! If you cross the Mersey via the Birkenhead Tunnel, you will find a unique queuing system whereby all the lanes of cars merge without anyone's direction. It is simple, courteous and most effective in the rush hour. Women and children take their turn with the rest, though, so perhaps WSM wouldn't have objected.

Brit said...

From my experience of going abroad, it's clear that Britain has the rudest waiters and the most polite drivers in the world.

(With the exception of Central London, which also has rude drivers).

I think Britain is also the only place where people spontaneously form those ultra-efficient single-lane-into-multiple-lane queues at cash points and petrol stations (ie. where there are two or more cash points, the queue will be formed in the middle, with people branching off at the front as they become available).

Peter Burnet said...

You will be pleased to know the Imperial legacy on queuing still lives in some of your former colonies. Even here in Quebec, when a stop light is out at a busy intersection, everyone takes their proper turn passing through.

I'd be interested in knowing why you think your waiters have become rude (secularism?), but there are worse things. The other night at a local family restaurant with quite good food, a clumsy, overweight young thing with a chiselled smile greeted us (Hi!), took a crayon and wrote her name (Judy!) on the paper table cloth. She kept too-ing and fro-ing asking everyone whether "everything was all right", which I suppose it would have been if she had actually brought us anything to eat. Finally she bounced up to our table and, with that awful smile and bubbly squeal, announced she wanted to "communicate to you that the kitchen is behind." You could feel the collective spirit of our table contemplating murder.

Parisian waiters are underrated.

Brit said...

If it was secularism then you would expect to see rudeness across the board, eg. in driving.

Of course not all British waiters are rude - most are perfectly fine - but none are like American waiters - the "have a nice day" culture just has never worked here.

But where they are rude, I would put it down to these things: the minimum wage; tips being pooled amongst all the staff rather than going straight into the pocket of the waiter; and the Thatcherite aspiration culture which has resulted in young waiters giving the impression that they are above this sort of thing really and it's just tiding them over until their internet business takes off, so just hurry up and tell me which wine you want and don't patronise me. Which is fine and may even be true but when you're eating out you don't need to know about it.

M Ali said...

It's quite gratifying to come back from a stay in Pakistan and witness every queue situation turn into a rugby scrum - even in the rich areas - and then walk into a local post office here and see Pakistanis of far lesser means and education organise themselves properly.

Brit said...

My brother-in-law tells a great anecdote of being stranded in some godforskaen South American habitation (I forget which) and waiting for the only ferry out of there in weeks.

The would-be passengers queue for days outside the ticket office, sleeping rough, only to charge in as an every-man-for-himself rugby scrum as soon as the doors open - leaving this Englishman standing in dismay, inwardly crying "Stop! Can't you see this is the worst of all worlds? If you're going to be a mob, at least arrive as a mob, don't queue three days for the privelege!"

Duck said...

American business has learned that if queues become a problem at your shop then you are losing business to your competitors. The stores that I frequent have become very queue conscious. Whenever checkout queues grow more than four deep, there will be a call for checkout help from the shelf stockers. "Pay at the pump" and self-service checkout has helped a lot too. The last time I've had to wait more than 10 minutes in a queue has to be the 2000 election.