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The Cool Makers of Manning

Studying for a PhD in Chemistry, and in his eighth year at Sydney Uni, Jehan Kanga reflects on the changes at Manning Bar.

Honi reported on August 29 that the University of Sydney Union was considering major refurbishments to Manning House.

As one of Verge Festival’s Directors in 2009, I was privileged enough to work with many USU staff, working intimately with everyone from the Rock Office, the Marketing and Design team, Bars, Catering, and the ACCESS office. Even though I had been active at USYD in several major societies and revues yet I couldn’t see (and therefore appreciate) the amount of work that went into operating the Union and talent employed in throwing massive parties, gigs, band comps, and festivals, not to mention supporting the C&S program. The team that USU had on the front line in 2009 was something of a dream team: talented, cohesive, efficient and youthful – something USU management I think are only just realising.

Many of those talented people lost their jobs in 2010. A friend of mine, Bel, was a long time senior but casual member of the bar staff. She would manage Hermann’s and Manning at the same time whilst there were major events operating at both (some serious talent). She worked with the experience licensee at the time Ian Redpath who could probably set up and manage a small bar on Mars if you gave him the chance. Ian was retrenched (probably because he’d been around “too long” and his wages were higher than a new recruit). This marked the beginning of the end, with some new recruits famously unable to attach beer kegs to taps and in incident ensuing in which an order for a new batch of gin, vodka, and tequila before Eurovision in 2010 was forgotten (a massive downer for the entire party when the spirits stopped flowing at 7:30pm). Bel didn’t hang around, since she was never offered a full time or more secure part time position managing the bars, despite being well loved by students and staff alike.

The same story goes for all the other teams too. The loss of Will Balfour, and then Richie Cuthbert sucked the life out of the venue. Richie was one of the most well-known people in the inner west, a kind of glitterati hipster who by mere association gave Manning serious street cred. Along with Dave Springer, they had the clout in the music industry to call upon major promoters like Chugg Entertainment who represent Gotye and Rufus Wainright and get them to play for a fraction of their normal gig price. They turned a dump with daggy 90s interior into “that dump with 90s interior that EVERYONE in Sydney wanted to hang out at”. The generation of students who are just older than me revere Manning in a way in which students now cannot imagine. They even keep their daggy Manning Bar T-shirts because, back then, it really was the coolest place to be in Sydney.

The culling of all-ages events, gigs branded as ‘metal’, and the banning of sexy burlesque gigs meant entire (lucrative) demographics of young metal heads and queer/fem communities were locked out. Those events have found homes at the refurbished Imperial Hotel in Erskineville which caters to an inclusive queer crowd of more than 3000 on a good night and to the Annandale which has benefited from an increased number of gigs they can schedule per week. Manning is now vanilla – a relic of older bureaucrats who never understood the value of talented front line staff hired from the student body.

What the Union failed to understand (and still do) is that USYD students are also members of the wider community, and that the wider population of the inner west often have strong ties to Sydney Uni. Censoring events by type killed the cool that Manning once had. The older kids set the agenda, the younger kids followed and learnt what a really good party was. This is ever more pertinent for current students as they don’t remember a time before 2010.

It exasperates me to hear that USU and the university want to spend (probably tens of millions) on renovating a functional space, when the space is not the problem. You could throw the biggest party since Cory Worthington in the School of Chemistry and thousands would come if the bands, DJs, and promotion were right, and bars were run efficiently with friendly and familiar staff. Besides, the 90s is now actually cool – so a design renovation surely would recreate what currently exists.

The failure of Snowball is the ultimate barometer for the USU’s current management. Parties like that were considered events that could never fail in 2009, forever making money, and creating that sense of cool for the Union. It seemed so easy – an event that could run itself. USU management need to swallow their pride, accept that bureaucratic penny pinching in 2010 has cost it millions and invest in high quality staff to make the organisation work for the things that matter most.