Manning Bar

SYDNEY UNIVERSITY'S MANNING BAR is to close to day trade. Sic transit gloria mundi, I spent a great deal of time there in my own early adulthood, drinking, and arguing about politics and history, and drinking some more, and watching the votes of student elections come in. When I began a PhD I used it as an office, because nobody would give me a desk, and it was usually quieter and calmer than the library. The kind of fruitless, restive underemployment being there represented turned out to be something of a motif in my adulthood. It was a formative place for me, though nobody can claim anything I or anyone did there has made the world a better place. Quite the opposite, when I'm honest with myself.

Is the experience of university study changing, becoming a harsher, higher-pressure set of years? I'm certain it is. Tertiary study is a speeded-up and Fordised version of its past, particularly for students, even at universities where the administration hasn't turned two semesters into three. In this sense it's worth experiencing nostalgia for a passing institution, and particularly for the time-freedom that it used to represent. Just as lunchtime day-drinking is no longer part of Australian working or corporate life, and as universities are deliberately becoming workforce preparation colleges, so fewer students will ever remember sinking beer before afternoon tutorials. If it's a tragedy, then it's a piss-ant, typically Australian, high-whinge but low-stakes one.

Nostalgia is a fundamentally human impulse and a means of making sense of the passage of time, but it's no way to run a society, and it fools us. We mistake the stories we tell about the past for the past's actual presence in our lives, and the other potential futures that are now closed to us. David Lowenthal was onto this in the 1980s:

If recognizing the past's difference promoted its preservation, the act of preserving made that difference still more apparent. Venerated as a fount of communal identity, cherished as a precious and endangered resource, yesterday became less and less like today. Yet its relics and residues are increasingly stamped with today's lineaments. We may fancy an exotic past that contrasts with a humdrum or unhappy present, but we forge it with modern tools. The past is a foreign country whose features are shaped by today's predilections, its strangeness domesticated by our own preservation of its vestiges.1

There is an exotic past, and it is the weird memory of pleasantly unmanageable time, and underemployment that didn't mean anything. Manning Bar serves today for men and women of my class and generation as a common experience of that youthful spare time. But who cares, apart from those of us who enjoyed it? Public remembrance of schooners sunk on weekday afternoons on the balcony is a shibboleth of a mutual elitism, and it should point to the ever-concentrating domination of People Who Went To Sydney Uni In The Nineties in our cultural and political life. Nostalgia should sometimes be disgusting, and, to quote a hit from the era, we should sometimes look back in anger.

Contemporary memory of Manning Bar is a symptom of the kind of society where all our journalists and politicians and writers had the chance to meet in the same tutorials; where it's unheard of to join even the most junior grades of the public service without a degree or two; where two Miéville-city-and-the-city universities exist in parallel, one a stripped-back job-ticket stamper, the other a middle class marriage club; where a savage and ruthless ruling class hypocritically consoles itself for domination with a youthful-lefty self-image of having once seen The Whitlams at Manning.


  1. Lowenthal, David. The Past Is A Foreign Country. CUP, Cambridge, 1985. p(xviii). 

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