How would you spend your last night on earth? A Last Supper now looks like queuing for last orders if Scotland was anything to go by on Thursday, with drinkers desperate for a final pint in a pub before resigning themselves to a 16-day, prohibition-style existence. And as all of us face the prospect of rising cases and further lockdowns, a hedonistic counterculture is taking hold across the UK.
In our modern dystopia, the 10pm kick-out from pubs and restaurants is moving vice behind closed doors, and all the usual suspects are present: sex, drugs and rock-and-roll – albeit played quietly in order to avoid the detection of the local authorities and fines of up to £10,000.
When the first lockdown was announced, we had no time to think or make plans to commiserate. But this time, hedonists everywhere are seeking a last hurrah. In the last days of disco, “lockdown eve” is the new Christmas Eve; the announcement of the 10pm curfew last month had a group of lawyers I know in London wringing every last drip out of the bars on the night before it came into force.
Nocturnal indulgence has moved underground, and many are revelling in the rebellious atmosphere of speakeasy Britain – whether it’s the hushed, huddled soirées going on in back gardens across Britain, or wilder events taking off in the cities.
“It’s a strange landscape,” George, a 31-year-old entrepreneur in London, says. “You’ll catch wind of a party in an apartment somewhere in Mayfair and make your way over and past Albanian bodyguards on the door. Upstairs, someone’s rigged the place with lights and set up a bar, and they’re selling tables in their own sitting room while West End DJs you recognise are playing there like it’s an event.”
A friend of a friend, who’s a high-powered professional in her late-40s, revealed recently that she and other like-minded midlifers have spent the last two Friday nights at houses where dinner becomes a poker night with a ketamine twist. Everyone had “a lovely evening”, she says. Zoom quiz, anyone?
Pubs and clubs are running invite-only lock-ins, organised orgies are continuing across London, and 2020’s return of the rave seems unstoppable. An event on Charmy Down airfield kept Bath and Bristol awake all night, police dubbing it too dangerous to remove the thousands of revellers there until sunrise.
And what of our graduates, confined to their student digs as Covid runs riot across campuses? Creative students in Manchester are running “Covid positive” parties, where you are only allowed entry if you already have the virus. A fresher in halls at the University of Leeds tells me that parties continue everywhere, but you have to keep the noise down because security guards patrol the corridors.
It’s hardly the stuff of wartime dances, but if those periods taught us anything it’s that the thought of death makes us grab life by the scruff of the neck – or the stockings at least, if pregnancy rates are anything to go by.
Two things never stop during a catastrophe: drinking and dating, and news that Ashley Madison, the affairs dating website, attracted 17,000 new members a day in March sums the zeitgeist up perfectly. One single friend in her late-30s, who moved to Hertfordshire for lockdown, has so far been contacted by 12 married acquaintances. I know single women in their early-40s in London who have had handfuls of offers, too.
“It’s ridiculous,” my friend in Hertfordshire told me. “I hadn’t seen some of them since we went to school together 20 years ago.” But she lives alone, with just her high libido for company, so it wasn’t long before something started up with one of them, a father-of-three who was spending a (surely) suspicious amount of time at her house during the day.
As the nights draw in, frustrated Britons, anticipating gloominess, are seeking partners – and experimenting.
Sophie, a 33-year-old solicitor who lives alone, joined a “kinky dating site” last week and has been “inundated with offers”.
When dating (at least in social-distanced fashion) was back on the cards in May, people were quick to ask where it was supposed to take place if not at a restaurant or bar. Now, with pubs closing again, there’s nowhere to go past 10pm, aside from back to a date’s house, putting sex on the table sooner, especially if you start plucking bottles out of a Virgin Wines box.
Vice gives escapism and an illusion of control – two things we’re craving right now, explains psychotherapist Ajay Khandelwal of welldoing.org. “Think of being stuck with partners or close family in lockdown as like being in a crucible,” he says. “All the things we hate about each other, or might have only thought, are now unavoidable. And we’re being confronted with a much deeper consciousness, even if we live alone, which prompts a desire to escape.” In periods of difficulty, we turn to addictive things, however ill-adapted, he adds. “We can’t freely associate any more because other people might kill us, so we’re disassociating through sex, drugs and alcohol. Socially, we feel vulnerable, mortal – and so, in the home, we’re bolstering omnipotence and invincibility through hedonism to escape our feelings of smallness.”
This week, during an online dream workshop Khandelwal ran, it became clear how many people are dreaming apocalyptically, he says: “The common theme was our own mortality.” Perhaps that’s unsurprising when we wake to rising figures of illness and death. People are in mourning – not only for the lives lost, but for the last six months and the emptiness ahead.
“What we’re experiencing is a ‘co-void’; a blank space,” Khandelwal says. “In drugs, ecstasy, abundance, infinity, we’re seeking the opposite. As we become more restricted and puritanical in the public realm, our instincts are pushed into the shadows and evenings at home where we’re seeking wild and chaotic release. There’s a play of opposites in effect: what we can’t express consciously by going to the pub, gets played out unconsciously, and the pub comes into our minds and homes.”
The one problem with that is that the mind has no curfew.