They were clustered around the entrance to London’s Richmond Station at 10:45 on a Saturday night, sheltering from the drizzle: six kids in their late teens or early 20s, half boys and half girls. It was the girls one noticed: high heels, gauzy skirts, tresses stiff with hairspray, heavy mascara—dressed for a party. They were making a spectacle of themselves, the sort that in Britain reads instantly as “we are extremely drunk and we want everyone to know about it.” One of them was screeching incomprehensibly and laughing raucously, with no particular message besides the sheer racket she was making.
Another one of the girls seemed to be celebrating her birthday. Pretty, with red hair, strong eyebrows, and very large eyes, she lit a cigarette with considerable difficulty. After awhile, it became clear that she was crying. One of her friends clattered back and forth, squawking at her distress. And now the birthday girl was bawling, her friends were squawking and screeching. The boys, presumably just as far gone, stood around grinning witlessly.
When a bus pulled into the station, the caterwauling group staggered onto it. The other passengers did their best to pretend that nothing untoward was happening, in the classic British manner. But the birthday girl was still upset. Her sniffles turned to wails, and she got to her feet and stumbled toward the door. Her friends tried to stop her. The scrum of girls screamed and pulled at each other, until the bus arrived at a stop and the doors flapped open. The birthday girl wrenched herself from her friends’ grasp, crumpled to the floor, and rolled out of the door into a large puddle.
Today, just as their country is thrust into the Olympic spotlight, the British have a great deal to get drunk about. In theory, 2012 should have been a champagne year. Five cities were in contention for this year’s Games, and when London wrested the win from Paris, it looked like a huge vote of confidence in the nation’s future.
But that was back in 2005, at the height of the economic boom. Today, things look very different, and 2012 is proving to be less a champagne year than a bitter one (which is also the name of Britain’s favorite ale). The boom is no more than a fading memory. The banking crisis of 2008 was rapidly followed by the euro crisis, and though Britain avoided signing up for the currency, that has done little to insulate the nation, as the euro zone is Britain’s most important trade partner.
The British government was one of the first to declare that the only way to deal with the debt crisis was with drastic cuts, ushering in a new age of austerity. As a result, Britain has also been quick to suffer the policy’s limitations—its failure to produce a level of economic activity that could haul the country out of recession. Instead, austerity has fomented a bleak national mood, with more than 2.5 million Britons unemployed and 7 million more “one small push from penury,” according to research published recently by The Guardian.
It is against this dismal backdrop that the year of national celebration has unfolded, with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee quickly followed by the Olympics. Yet it seems hardly to have stopped raining all year—the Jubilee flotilla on the Thames took place under a torrential downpour, at the start of a June that turned out to be the wettest in more than a century. And in the run-up to the Games, which kicked off on Friday, London struggled with a series of security fiascos, including the revelation that one contractor would not be able to deliver all the guards it had promised. As a result, the government had to deploy thousands of extra troops to remedy the shortfall.
In these circumstances, with the economy tanking and the heavens weeping, many find the sharp if ephemeral joys of the bottle to be the best on offer. After all, a strong drink is something almost anyone can afford: the Institute of Alcohol Studies reports that, because of rising disposable incomes and falling prices, “alcohol is 44 percent more affordable than in 1988.”
It has never been cheaper to get blotto, bladdered, and bombed, and more and more Britons are turning to this easy escape. Home Secretary Theresa May described how young people have got into the habit of downing large quantities of cheap booze before hitting the town for a weekend: they call it “pre-loading.” Residents of Prague, Budapest, and other European destinations reachable by low-cost airlines watch in horror and bafflement as gangs of Brits stumble and puke around their elegant city centers. Town squares up and down the U.K. are disfigured every weekend by scenes of Bacchanalian excess. Hospital ERs are inundated. Cirrhosis of the liver, a disease that only used to affect people over 50, threatens to become an epidemic among the young.
To combat the scourge of binge drinking, the government is enacting a law to impose a minimum price on units of alcohol. The price of a two-liter bottle of strong cider will shoot up from $2.97 to $5.28; that of a 700 milliliter bottle of vodka from $13.71 to $16.54. The move has been carefully targeted: while it will inflate the retail price of drinks sold in supermarkets, it is likely to have no effect on prices in most pubs, which already add a large margin of profit. By effectively outlawing cheap drink, the government hopes to put an end to what has become a matter of national shame.
But it’s not the law yet—and visitors who venture beyond the heavily defended confines of the Olympics will find themselves in the heartland of British boozing.
London 2012 was sold to the International Olympic Committee as a way to regenerate one of the most impoverished corners of the country, the city’s East End, where recourse to the bottle is the easiest way out of a reality that for many is crushingly hopeless. Yet so far, despite an orgy of construction, it has not done a great job: a survey of the impact of the Games on Newham, site of the Olympics, by Anne Power of the London School of Economics reports that, during the years of preparation for the Games, household income rose more slowly and unemployment more steeply than elsewhere in the capital. Meanwhile, drug crime soared by 500 percent. The number of violent crimes declined, but as the latest statistics indicate, Newham is hardly a peaceful place: in May, the borough experienced 28 cases of “most serious violence,” 612 of “violence to the person,” 136 muggings, and nearly 1,500 cases of “anti-social behavior.”
Westfield, a glitzy new shopping mall through which visitors will pass on arrival at the Games, is not immune from the mayhem. In June, a youth was stabbed to death here after fighting erupted between gangs. “Somebody got stabbed to death in Westfield,” a local tweeted. “That’s what happens when you bring good things to East London. #hatelondon #iwanttomove.” “I have premises close to me that sell alcohol 24/7,” a reader wrote to a local paper earlier this year. “Our disgraceful drinking culture ... leads to most crimes committed, even murder ... [drinkers] stagger from one pub or club to another in the early hours, causing mayhem en route.”
The birthday girl and her friends were getting plastered in Richmond, one of the wealthiest corners of the capital. Newham is at London’s opposite extreme, the city’s most diverse borough, struggling with deprivation and alienation. But both places are beset by the problems of a country in the doldrums, with no clear way forward: all dressed up for the Olympics, but with nowhere to go. At least nowhere good.