It’s a grey Autumn afternoon, and you’ve got a day of studying behind you. You arrange to meet some friends at the pub. You cross over the bridge from Hancock, admire the willow trees along the way and consider the age-old question: beer or cider? You arrive in the large and familiar wooden room. The TV is showing daytime television, and Triple J plays in the background. Phil greets you with an affectionate, ‘here’s trouble’ and stops for a chat. He’s always happy to shoot the breeze before sending you off with a few jokes and a jug. You sit outside. It’s cold, but you don’t mind. Trees hang over the bench, and occasionally yellow leaves flutter down. You stare off into the smoker’s area, investigating the microcosm of studious pub-goers who spend their days at ease and to whom, I’m sure, the loss of the pub hits harder than any other group on campus.
It’s true that the ANU Bar is a spot for drinking, but as a space, it provides so much more. It’s a place for making and solidifying friendships, for learning to like beer, and for discovering new music. It’s the space where you learn to love the ANU, from the beautiful trees to the laid back culture. As I sit here today, I feel as though I can measure my personal growth against the yardstick that the ANU Bar provides. Countless jugs, college games of Buffalo and God Save the Queen. Afternoons slipping luxuriously into evenings, serenaded by UniVibes who create anticipation for the night ahead. Mooseheads? Knightsbridge? Kebabs and wine on the couch? A great night always began at the ANU Bar.
I sat at the pub on the last Thursday of Semester One, giving my prolonged farewell. It was unlike any other Thursday. There was a distinct feeling of melancholy in the air. Students were celebrating the (sudden) end of the term, but the mood did not feel celebratory. UniVibes was playing slower music; pub-goers looked around with a glint of sadness in their eyes. The last ever Thursday that the pub would be open during term time ended with ‘I Know It’s Over’ by Jeff Buckley. Students swayed together in the cold night, and one broke away to waltz Phil around the crowd. People were taking photos of the light filtering through the trees – trying to capture, for one last time, the ethereal beauty and atmosphere that envelops the Bar at closing time.
The allure of the pub lies in its atmosphere and division from the rest of Uni. The ANU Bar is accepting and unpretentious. In a way, it even feels divorced from campus. It cuts itself off from lecture theatres and classrooms, only permitting a glimpse at the gym and the peaceful natural surrounds. The Bar brings people together in a way that lets us forget that we are at the top university in Australia, and the pressures associated with that. People are here to socialise and unwind. It’s simple and communal, and most of all, it’s not pretentious. If anything, it’s understated and does not try to be something it is not. That is, of course, unlike a certain Union Court redevelopment with its favourite ‘windswept empty space,’ to quote the Reunion website, transformed into an unrecognisable metallic jungle.
The ANU Bar is the heart and soul of our university. In Summer, it is the busiest spot on campus. In Winter, despite the low temperatures and the pull of the wood-panelled interior, the outside area is still bustling.
So, what will we do next semester? Where will we go? And most importantly, who will profit?
The group that ‘won’ the competitive tendering process, which was arguably working against the not-for-profit ANU Union, runs Walt and Burley on the Kingston Foreshore. This worries me for a variety of reasons. I am mainly worried because the cheapest glass of wine on their Kingston menu is $9, and half a jug will set you back $11-$14.50. These prices are double what you would pay at the ANU Bar – both inside and outside of happy hour.
Brian is excited about the proximity of Uni Ave to the city and what that might mean for making the Pop-up Village more appealing to non-students. But, what about our space? University is a place for students, right? And the ANU relies heavily on Undergraduate fees to fund its Postgraduate programs which, in turn, give the ANU its rankings. Why have you taken away our space, run by our Union, whose proceeds go back into programs that work for us, in favour of privatising and creating profits for pretentious bar owners? Why have you chosen to destroy one of the most beautiful areas on campus to replace it with a residential building that could have gone literally anywhere else?
Somebody told me recently that the University of Technology Sydney was designed without common areas to stop students from unionising, protesting and generally gathering as a student body. I can’t help but feel that the ANU is going the same way. A crowded Union Court offering a variety of services to the general public, and a set of food stalls blocking the traditional protest route into Civic. The thought of it already makes me feel excluded. I wonder what the ANU is to become. It will gradually lose its 60s wood and brick feel. These unpretentious surrounds will soon be overcome by a shiny courtyard that, based on the current plans, creates a feeling that even grass would be intruding on the concrete.
What has become clear to me, from talking to a variety of students about their love for the ANU Bar, is that this love runs deep. One friend, Joe, described it as a ‘stable place where you went to celebrate birthdays and good marks, and commiserate break-ups and setbacks. It was an institution.’ Another lover of the ANU Bar, Ethan, remarked that it was the sort of place that you could talk to anyone – students, lecturers, tutors, tradies – ‘without any of the institutionalised classism that seemed to transcend any other venue in Canberra.’ Jon, who is on exchange and missed the farewell, mourns. He says that the uniqueness of the pub lies in the fact that ‘there was no set formula for it – no signs telling you what to do or how to do it, it was built on years of student experience which formed its very own culture.’
The ANU Bar’s lack of pretentiousness and relaxed atmosphere struck home for most people. Ella and Georgie, saddened at the loss of the institution, also commented on the loss of the beautiful trees and natural surroundings that envelope the ANU Bar, arguably the best spot on campus for lunch, studying, hanging out and everything in between.
George commented that the recent changes including Bruce Hall, the Music School and ‘the increased intake of students and resulting decrease in teaching capacity strike [him] as symptoms of a larger issue.’ The ANU is trading off ‘quality for cost-cutting with the help of marketing fluff [at the expense of] welfare and natural development’. Social and extracurricular life, he remarked, is significant for the ‘general well-being and academic performance’ of students. Perhaps, if we could demonstrate the link between the pub’s existence and academic performance, management may, at last, listen to us. Only then, it seems, we will be speaking in terms that they can understand.
Because the thing is, Brian, we are not Oxford, or Cambridge, or Harvard. We are not an Ivy League or a Brown Stone University. We are a great University based in a city that most of Australia refers to as a ‘hole’. We are a hidden gem for young adults who are brave enough to move away from home to discover new friends and new horizons. Canberra calls for a collegiate atmosphere and a great pub, not a privatised university and a wine bar which prices students out of the market. We deserve more than this, and the destruction of the ANU Bar is a betrayal to us and the life that we have built here.
So, how will we cope? Talking about the closure of the pub the other day with my friend and long-term pub partner, Georgie, she made a great point. We cannot be sad about this loss because it may consume us. Instead, we should continue with our lives as if it still exists, and avoid that part of Uni at all costs. The memories will remain, and we can then at least pretend that the pub is still in operation, selling jugs to the masses and providing a relaxed student space to all.
Once this gets old, I, for one, plan on spending afternoons with a six-pack from Spar on the banks of the beautiful Sullivan’s Creek. I’ll ruminate on the decisions that this new Vice-Chancellor made before truly understanding the central culture and importance of the ANU Bar. I’ll wonder what privatisation means for the future of all things that we love and hold dear.
Thank you for the memories, the ANU Bar. You will be dearly, dearly missed by all.
I dedicate this piece to Phil for the passion, commitment and warmth that he has brought to the pub over the years. I also dedicate this piece to the students, past and present, who have spent some of their best University afternoons in this beautiful place, which we have now all loved and lost.
Thank you to Georgie Melrose, Joe Dodds, Ethan Wallace, Jon Tay, Ella McNiece and George Cheriyan for your wonderful and personal insights into your love for the ANU Bar, and what it has meant to you over the years.