Eight simple rules of Great British pub queue etiquette

Queueing in a pub
Queueing in a pub

There is plenty about modern life to cause celebration and aggravation in equal measure. Thankfully, old hand Christopher Howse and young gun Guy Kelly are here to dissect the way we live now...

I used to do something very annoying for long periods every day. I sat on a stool at the bar of the Coach and Horses drinking bitter beer and shouting at my friends. Anyone who wanted to be served would have a hard time getting through the Chinese Wall of regulars.

One old regular, Mick Tobin, who had fought Randolph Turpin for the middleweight title of the Royal Navy, stood, or sat, his ground, but was careful to avoid wearing his nattier togs in the pub, not because they were slopped with drink but because strangers, thwarted at the bar, would resentfully burn cigarette holes in the back.

Pubs are extremely rule-bound and there are lots of ways of getting things wrong. Americans come in and sit at a table expecting to be served. We know that is wrong, even though Wetherspoons spoilt things by promoting an app to order not only food but also drink from your table without troubling to waddle over to the bar.

But recently people started queuing up in a single file to be served in pubs. Someone on X called this is an abomination. That is exactly right. It resembles the abominations in the Book of Leviticus in the Bible. There it classes some fowl as an abomination to eat: the ossifrage, and the ospray, and the owl, and the cuckow, and the hawk after his kind, and the pelican, and the stork, the heron after her kind, and the lapwing, and the bat.

No explanation is offered about why eating these flying creatures is an abomination, any more than we need to be told today why it is an abomination to eat dogs or pussy cats. It’s obvious.

The habit of queuing has been caught from coffee shops. It is opposed by followers of an X account @QueuePubs, which carries pitiful pictures of single-files snaking back, the queuers isolated from their thirsty friends waiting like nestlings for their return. It also publicises the fightback. The Topsham Brewery taproom in Exeter displays a sign in Post Office livery: ‘This is not a Post Office. There is no need to queue.’ No, it is an abomination.

At the risk of sounding like Reform UK, pointing at things and saying, ‘Well, that’s not what it used to be, so it must now be worse...’, the arrival of the pub queue is a sorry indictment of society.

But it may be that these people are merely unaware. That a generation, which came of age in lockdown and for a while thought every pint had to be ordered with a Scotch egg or it was incomplete, simply doesn’t know how bar etiquette works. For their benefit, I’ll run through the basic ground rules.

Don’t stand there, you won’t get served. No not there either. Can’t you bleedin’ read?

Do feign dying of thirst at the bar. Then, when hurried to the front and offered a pint of tap water, push it away with a limp hand and instead whisper, hoarsely, ‘Two Guinness, a medium house white and some scampi fries, please, love,’ before pretending to collapse. Chances are, you’ll get the round for free.

Don’t lean over and arrogantly wave your £10 note in the face of the bartender to get their attention. That won’t buy you anything more than a lime soda in 2024. Instead do it with a £50 or your Hoares card.

Do stay stock still at the bar, a homicidal calm sweeping over you as you zone out of the melée and just keep your eyes on the bartender’s. At some point your glances will lock and they’ll be so unnerved they’ll just have to serve you there and then.

Don’t reach over the bar and help yourself, unless you’re also willing and able to lean over and change the odd barrel. If so, this is absolutely fine. Brexit has made finding workers very tricky.

Do consider forming a human pyramid with your fellow patrons, the first to arrive kneeling on top, so that staff can easily identify who is next.

Do wait at the lifting hatch, leaning and chatting to a friend, before reenacting that entire Only Fools and Horses scene, verbatim, including the fall. In some Suffolk pubs this is the only way to get any attention.

Don’t quietly drum your fingers on the bar to the tune of ‘Why are we waiting, we are suffocating’. It is much preferred if you just chant it.