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So farewell then, Morals Bar

Posted by Jock Coats on 26th February 2012

At the beginning of this semester, about a month ago now, the Students’ Union invited us to “celebrate” twenty years’ service to the community of, first, Morrell Hall, and latterly Clive Booth Student Village, by Morals Bar by announcing it was to close permanently at the end of this semester. I decided at the time not to write an outraged post or try to form a campaign myself to persuade them otherwise because I was heartened that within a few days of that announcement a group of students resident in one of the old Morrell Hall blocks had been to the union’s management and had been told that if they got a campaign together there was a chance that it could be saved.

Well, now that SU elections are underway, a further email from the union management in recent days seems to make clear that this has never been a possibility. It simply repeats the news that the bar has about eight weeks left to live with no apparent chance of either reprieve nor discussion about what might happen in there in the future. So I am now ready to be outspokenly outraged about this news. All the more so as it appears that our students were either misinformed or misunderstood that their efforts might achieve some change.

I have been here, and regularly visiting Morals bar, for nearly sixteen years now. The SU probably would not have even realised the place was twenty years old this year had I not mentioned it would be nice to do something to mark it: I didn’t mean to terminate it.  There have been times when I have wondered whether it might save the university money, and me tax, just to transfer a portion of my wages direct to the students union block grant and give me a tab there! I have seen much more than a bunch of bean counters possibly can know about how it has worked, and why it hasn’t. And as I sit here of an evening enjoying a Coke with my evening meal, I hear more about what what other students appear to want from their conversations at tables next to me than any management or representative committee can guess from focus group meetings or surveys.

Morals Bar c. 1995

First, a timeline, because frankly I don’t suppose many in the union, or even the university, know much about the history of the place. When I arrived here Morals Bar had been the Student Union’s largest entertainment/club night venue since it had opened in 1992. On Gipsy Lane, they had had what is now the Galliano/Galaxy Lounge as a club area and other parts of the ground floor of the Sinclair building for its bars. The Gipsy Lane venue had its main late license night on a Saturday and so Morals had a very successful night on the Friday night (which was seen as the more lucrative club night anyway).

The year I arrived, Brookes had taken control of the Headington Hill Hall site and the Pergamon Press print works building, which enabled the Student Union to have a venue of over a thousand in capacity, and with it they applied for and got the lucrative Friday night late license. So Morals main night reverted to the Saturday, in the guise of a hugely successful branded night called “Glam”.

Glam was successful for many years. Every Saturday at half past seven the Entz team would have to kick out half the capacity of the bar in order to count them back in and by the official Glam start time of eight in the evening there wold regularly be a queue that left us immediately one-in-one-out and continued that way right through till last entry at one on the Sunday morning. Throughout this successful period it must be remembered that the hall on which Morals was sited had only 450 residents, compared with today’s nearly 1700.

Not only was Glam on a Saturday extremely successful but a student DJ organised Friday night called Feedback, playing Indie music for those not so keen on the contemporary dance night up at the new Helena Kennedy Center thousand plus capacity venue, was also a very successful evening, with Morals often well over half full (and indeed when the HKSC venue was full many came down to Feedback anyway as an alternative, whatever their taste in music).  At the same time the then new Vice Chancellor, who lived for a short while in the “Steel Framed House” just opposite Morals bar, lent his support to an application for further 2am licences (at the time much to my chagrin indeed as I felt the level of noise we experienced from a full club on a Friday and Saturday would be inappropriate on a student residence site in midweek). When I questioned Graham about this, he stated that we should do everything we could to ensure the commercial success of the union to bolster the block grant.

However, the capricious decision to axe two popular nights – Playground (for which most weeks people queued round the block on a Monday morning to ensure tickets for the following Friday) at the main venue and Glam at Morals and replace them with Peachy and Blitz was puzzling at the time, but for both venues it was, in effect, the beginning of the end.  Numbers attending the main venue declined precipitously and Blitz was never as successful as Glam from the beginning.  In reaction the union decided it was the fault of the fabric of the main venue and spent a lot of capital trying to glitz it up.  But it was the underlying decision to rebrand the main nights that was at fault and no amount of capital expenditure was going to undo that loss of goodwill.  Auditors rightly recognised this after the event and said the expenditure would have to be written off as trade was not sufficient to depreciate it normally, and the decision to end all bar trading was effectively made.  Morals has, if anything, simply had a couple of years of stay of execution, with no attempt to promote it, or return to Glam or even any discussion about how the space might be used differently.  Simply abandoned.

So yes, the licensed trade can be vicious: club nights are fickle and represent a risk, especially if you have people, elected for a short period, who think they know better than the status quo that is successful and exists, and who go on to throw good money after bad decisions.  That is what is unsustainable.  And so it has proven.  But that has fitted in quite nicely with the now prevailing view amongst university management.  Club nights were a reputational risk to the university.  Much local dissatisfaction with the university as a neighbour was focussed on the club nights and much university time and effort put in to try and address the local aftermath of these rather than perhaps more directly relevant university issues.  The bars had to go.

However we now have the strange situation in which the university feels it is worth providing a social space in the new Postgraduate centre (cynics might suggest it’s really only for the summer conference trade rather than truly a space for the “middle common room” to make its own and that is certainly reflected in the management of the place as a pristine and therefore not very welcoming environment), but is closing down the previously successful venue at the heart of what is now a hall of 1700 residents, and neither university nor Student Union management appear to want to talk about what, if anything, should go there in the future.  All the previous arguments about why a university should provide some social facilities onsite swept away: about having safe spaces in which young undergraduates can socialise (not the same thing as social learning spaces) without having to go too far, arrange an entire night out, book specially spaces that require people to kick us out of otherwise grim, empty, evening spaces in the university at a certain time.

And here’s the rub: it is all very well saying that Oxford’s night life offers everything a student could want, but it is qualitatively different.  They separate the social from the university.  It forces people to decide to make an effort to “go out”, rather than be able to pop in for a couple of drinks in the middle of coursework (some even like to do their work sometimes in the bar so they have a change of scene, and a chance to see people passing through rather than be isolated in the study-bedroom.  They force societies to book spaces where no other footfall might attract passing interest: the union may tout the use of the “Lounge” and “Venue” for society events, but they are, frankly, a little like organising a night in an otherwise empty community centre.

To have a “scholastic community” is more than to have a day time, pristine, sterile set of multi-purpose teaching and learning buildings.  Where is the “common room”?  The university has all but done away with the staff common room too of course in which people from different disciplines mix, quite casually, but network, overhear what’s going on in other parts of the university and so on.  I wonder how many academic collaborations have been sparked by casual networking and conversation in the common room or bar?  I doubt it’s a coincidence that college high table, hall and common room chats afterwards are still an important part of life “down the hill”.  Well, some careful thought into what could replace Morals in what was, after all, a purpose built communal facility building (even though designed so that it could be converted into lecture rooms), could show the way.

I take it as a given, though reluctantly as I don’t really believe the stated “competition” reasons, that there is no longer a possibility of filling the 550 capacity venue as a bar alone, trading at a profit.  Part of its problem indeed has been that because it was first and foremost a bar, it has only opened at “drinking times”.  It has never been available, properly, for day time social use.  If the building itself were seen genuinely as the heart of the hall, a place where people could take some work during the day, maybe get a coffee or some food (even out of one of those modern vending machines if necessary, though 1700 residents out to be sufficient to justify a proper, staffed, catering offer along the lines of Eights at Wheatley) and perhaps have a bar opened during the evening for a while in addition, I’ll bet it would get better use, not be taken for granted as simply a single function bar and place to watch the rugby on February weekends.

The space indeed could be divided up, with a smaller area as a bar room, that could be fully secured to allow for more casual day time, in fact 24/7, use of the rest of the spaces, and still have a place to go in the evenings and at weekends without having to arrange a whole night out.  Where societies can have events without worrying about being thrown out at a particular time, and where casual passers’ by might see something going on and look in, maybe changing their lives completely in the process by introducing them to something they’re never even going to look for on a societies notice board or Facebook page.  The ease with which a new group can spring up amongst undergraduates at Oxford must surely partly be down to the ease with which they can simply grab a space in a college and meet up and have a couple of drinks after a guest speaker to continue the conversation.  Organising to hold student arts events in local pubs and clubs is not the same as having a safe space to mess around with in the relative privacy of a university venue.  Not everyone is ready for the big stage, or even the “Backroom at the Bully”, or can compete with more professional offerings in such competitive venues.  It increases the difficulty of arranging such an event, possibly to the point where it simply won’t happen.

One person.  Only one, talks about discussing the future of Morals in their Student Union election manifesto.  A few more seem to want a venue or even return to some form of a union as nightclub.  But for the union to have known about the impending doom of Morals bar for over two years now and not to have taken steps to involve its members in a discussion of what future it might have after its life as a large but increasingly empty club venue is disappointing to say the least.  A university is about more than nice classrooms and nights out in town.  If it is to be a 24/7 scholastic community some consideration needs to go into spaces other than on the main campus where that can happen.  Every hall should have a social/social learning space for when study bedrooms become oppressive or people just want to get out of the flat for a while without organising a night out.  The added value of making casual connections and networking outside of classroom hours is a core part of what a “scholastic community” ought to be encouraging.

The demise of Morals seems to suggest it is not even on the agenda.  And if one takes the view that our future students may well be paying for their experience for half the rest of their lives, for as long as they are paying for their home, it ought to be on the agenda.  We can’t just subcontract everything outside teaching and learning to the Cowley Rd.

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