I recently heard a BBC Radio 4 documentary with Ed Byrne about the demise of student union bars. Apparently, despite the growth in student numbers, sales of alcohol in student unions have halved in the last decade. His downbeat (at least to me) conclusion is that hardly anyone seems in the slightest bit bothered.
In my day, students didn’t have mobile phones, and the interweb barely existed. So to meet up with friends from other parts of the campus, we’d wander up to “The Ram” (our union watering hole) to see who was around. The Student Bar was slightly grotty, but it was cheap, friendly, and it was ours. It reflected our personality, we planned and ran the events, the food, the music. That personality and ‘closeness’ helped it stay in our minds. We all still remember The Ram fondly, even if we acknowledge its griminess through the clear lenses of 20 years’ hindsight
Earlier this month I organised my brother’s Stag Do in Cardiff, although this part of our experience could have been obvious in any city in the UK: in fact, that’s my point. Cardiff has undergone a terrific transformation in recent years. The City Centre has mostly been revamped with bright and shiny shops, new pedestrian zones and swanky bars and hotels. Noone in our group was very familiar with Cardiff, but the general perception was that there would be lots of ‘chain bars’ that could be good for a drink or two. How right we were.
Around every corner there was a ha-ha, Revolution, Steam Bar, or tiger tiger nightclub. These places often boast huge glass frontages to better show the potential drinkers outside all the beautiful / trendy / smart people within; all of them glorified fishbowls. And it was obvious that in many towns and cities around the UK, the same sort of people were circulating around the same furniture, listening to the same piped playlists, in the same brands of clothes, drinking the same bottled beers or ‘speciality’ cocktails served by staff in the same uniforms.
In their search to deliver ‘a consistent brand experience’, it feels to me like these bars and clubs have removed their soul. The constrictions of this branded ‘experience’ has sucked the life out of them. You can almost see the designers’ sketches of the decor and layouts, and hear the brainstorming meetings that developed Private Karaoke Rooms or theme nights.
I’m not saying I prefer the seediness of a student bar, but we did have a very good time at The Queens Vaults, a ‘proper pub’ with massive screen, pool tables and beer at barely £2/pint (compared to £3.50+ elsewhere). It’s definitely not to everyone’s tastes, and probably not even to mine. But it had a strong sense of who it wanted to be and just went out and did it, and that made it different, something I remember in a good way.