Post Features Editor Sid Langley has been hanging around in public places again - but not really by choice...

How long is eternity? Yes, it's one of the BIG questions, one that has exercised aesthetes, philosophers and those of a religious bent since the dawn of time.

Well, like Arthur Dent and Albert Einstein before him, I am here to provide an answer to this rather brain-boggling question.

(As an aside, has anyone been listening to the last series of the Guide to the Galaxy thing on Radio 4? Dire.)

You'll all have forgotten the point by now, so let's frame the query afresh to get the Culture page discussion under way again.

(I hate people who insist on "weigh" in that phrase, by the way. As in anchors aweigh. A bit like whetting the appetite - for sharpening, obviously. I go for 'wet'. As in whistle.)

Anyway, imagine a clearing of the intellectual throat (is that possible? Ed) and here we go.

Question: How long is eternity?

Answer: Seventeen people.

Alternative answer: A tad over 16 minutes.

Because "long" actually implies a measurement of distance rather than a period of time, I felt I had to provide the 17 answer. And I used the grossly unspecific "tad" because in eternity, seconds can in themselves fill whole infinities of linear time. Ask anyone who's watched a Beckett play. Or been to Edgbaston to watch cricket (a favourite sport of Sam's, you won't be surprised to learn).

That 17, you see, is how many people were in the queue ahead of me at an Abbey branch in the heart of Brum.

I had to pay in a couple of cheques. Normally I would have fled seeing the size of the line trailing away from the counter, but this was a lunch hour (hence the crush, I suppose). I needed a break from my desk for a while, as you do, and I was morbidly fascinated to see how the experience would pan out. I'm just a thrill seeker at heart. Try anything twice.

There's a Star Trek Second Generation episode where Jean Luc Picard is whisked away from the Enterprise by a robotic thingymajig. He returns within a few minutes, apparently, but in his subjective mind he's spent a lifetime on an alien planet, marrying one of the natives, having a family and learning to play the flute.

No, don't laugh. This is art.

It was this lost civilisation's way of passing on to future generations what it really felt like to be part of their culture, now sadly passed into oblivion.

Picard never loses the ability to play the flute, and when he goes off and gives it a few trills in a hidden corner of his spaceship, he's recalling this other lifetime.

I now know how he felt. Sixteen and a bit minutes is, in truth, not long. I was back at my desk within about 40 minutes, and that includes a Minories jacket potato on the way.

But how is it that people can turn up to transact business with the wrong cards or books, and what could the guy at till three possibly have to do that took the entire time I spent there? It may have taken all afternoon for all I know.

I had to hand it to one old biddy. She was getting some bright young Abbey shaver to deal with her query at a freestanding computer in the body of the bank while we stood in line around her.

No sooner had she finished calculating the national debt of Outer Mongolia to 125 decimal places, or whatever it was she was doing, than she whipped out a mobile and punched up a speed dial number.

A phone about three from the head of the queue rang. "We can leave now," she said and a nerd-like chap (son, presumably) followed her out.

What sort of game were they playing?

My turn eventually came, and I was done in less than a minute, thanks to cashier four's nimble computer finger.

It felt like a lifetime, those Abbey minutes. I wouldn't have minded, but I still can't play the flute.

Anyone want to pass on waiting wisdom or anecdotes?

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