Why, when we say "I'll just stay for one", does that never turn out to be the case? Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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

Show Hide image

Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue