The British Are Drinking

By Popham, Peter | Newsweek, August 6, 2012 | Go to article overview
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The British Are Drinking

Popham, Peter, Newsweek

Byline: Peter Popham

As the Olympics descend on London, the national gloom continues.

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.

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