Why, when we say "I'll just stay for one", does that never turn out to be the case? Photo: Getty
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Peering through beer goggles: the pub that wants to improve your health

Psychologists at London South Bank University have cunningly disguised a lab as a pub in order to research our drinking habits.

I’ll just stay for one.” How many times has that phrase been uttered on the threshold of a pub? Nobody intends to drink five pints before 8pm on a weeknight with nothing but a few crisps to soak them up but it happens more often than any of us would like to admit.

Imagine, then, if you could drink in a pub that could tell when you’d had enough, isolating the decision that turns one drink into many. Something would gently propel you towards the door at precisely the right moment. You would never again find yourself on a bus, three sheets to the wind, desperately envious of a stranger’s kebab.

With this in mind, psychologists at London South Bank University (LSBU) have opened their own pub. Or rather, they have cunningly disguised a lab as a pub. Off a fourth-floor corridor on the university’s south London campus is room J-407, a nondescript, windowless space that has undergone a £20,000 transformation. There’s a high wooden bar, complete with beer pumps and shelves of glasses and spirits behind. A fruit machine stands in the corner and there are plans for a jukebox, too. The deep-pile red carpet is too clean to be entirely convincing but this is still a fair imitation of an old-fashioned drinking establishment.

Tony Moss, head of psychology at LSBU, says people often tell him it looks like the pub from Only Fools and Horses. He laughs. “All we’re trying to do from a psychological point of view is trigger associations people have with drinking.”

In some cases, study participants will wear Google Glass-style eye-tracking devices so that every blink and glance is recorded. In others, they will complete simple tasks and surveys while being monitored to determine the influence of the “pub” environment. Do people take more risks when they gamble in a bar, even if they aren’t drinking? Do we read the health warnings on bottle labels and posters? Can you really tell if that beer you’re swigging contains alcohol?

“A lot of what governments do is make population-level interventions, like a minimum unit price for alcohol. The evidence thus also tends to be population-level. That information is useful to an extent but the decisions to drink don’t happen at population level,” says Moss. Here, the researchers are seeking something far more subtle and individual – the trigger that transforms an intermittent drinker into a committed boozer.

Is it not all a bit Orwellian, though? The idea of installing hidden cameras in the pub was considered and rejected, says Moss, but he denies that the current set-up is “creepy”. “We’re getting ordinary CCTV instead, on the basis that it’s an entirely normal thing to have in a pub.” (A slightly worrying thought.) And: “It’s a research study. No one is going to wander in.” His colleague Ian Albery adds: “People behave in context. They behave in the moment. We’re just providing the moment.”

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser