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Where have all the pool tables gone?

Pool tables are representative of the idle socialising for which university was historically famed.

Only a few years ago, there used to be an array of pool tables in Manning. This is probably surprising for most students who have started university in the last few years – as now there is almost no mention of them. Uncovering their existence posed quite a challenge. A search for “pool tables” in the University archives yields no results. They also have not been mentioned in any previous Honi article that I was able to find. And when Honi made an inquiry to the University Media Service, they weren’t quite sure who to blame. I concluded that they must have been the USU’s responsibility. Yet, when contacted, even the USU wasn’t sure about them either.

The pool tables on level 4 of the Wentworth Building, next to the International Students Lounge, are equally illusory. I first found them (closed) in Semester 1 2021- when the sceptre of COVID loomed large enough for me to disregard their nonattendance. Upon returning this year, they still sat unused. This is a great shame. Pool tables are representative of the idle socialising for which the University was historically famed, and their gradual removal from campus is both indicative and a product of the commercialisation of the university experience.

It appears that the legacy of Manning’s pool tables exists only in the memory of the students who used them. People I spoke to for this article said that they used to head to the Manning tables after class each day to play pool. “It was pretty much the only way I hung out with my friends in first year”, one told me. “The beauty of pool is that it gives you all something to collectively be preoccupied with – the lack of eye contact and shared activity removes almost all of that first year friend-making awkwardness”.

Today, pool tables can only be found in the Manning food court on the ground floor and on level 4 of Wentworth. But they don’t tell the same story.

The table in Manning sits idle in the food court and despite its apparent working order, it lies dormant.

The Wentworth tables however seem to be in a different  situation. Unlike Manning, level 4 of Wentworth can hardly be characterised as spacious. Up there, there are five tables. Four laying perpendicular to the corridor, and one, in the corner, oriented at right-angles to the others, arranged to maximise space. They have remained closed since the arrival of the pandemic in March 2020. When asked about their ongoing closure, USU President Prudence Wilkins-Wheat told Honi that “[the pool tables] have remained non-operational to manage COVID safety”. With pool tables being open at nearby pubs, many students choose to walk to the Flodge or the Rose for a place they can play pool, rather than spending their time at USU venues. . 

Fortunately, there are plans to revive the Wentworth tables, with Wilkins-Wheat adding “we are looking into getting them up and running with the supplier”. 

The disappearance of pool tables from the social landscape of the University poses questions similar to other discussions of student life. On one hand, the disappearance of pool tables could be arguably be  a product of a lack of use. The decrease in presence of the old Manning pool tables coincided with the gradual decline of the venerable bar, with its closure for daytime trading happening not long after the tables were removed. Similarly, the lone remaining Manning table is rarely used by students. Wilkins-Wheat further justified the ongoing closure of the Wentworth tables on the fact that “the ISL space has been very quiet over the last few years”. 

Declines in student life since the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) in 2005 have likely been behind the decline in pool table usage. Student unions have grappled with smaller budgets and have faced challenges in operating facilities. The closure of Manning and its transformation into its current state has diminished the usage of the tables there. It’s much more enjoyable playing a game of pool when surrounded by others doing the same,  than when playing alone in the middle of an often lifeless food court.

VSU has existed in tandem with a broader economic environment that discourages pool-playing as a fixture of university life. For decades, the commercialisation of the university experience has discouraged the sort of leisure pool tables offer. The workforce is too competitive. Rent is too high. And for international students, whose adjacence to the Wentworth tables should be so convenient, the demands of exorbitant fees, full-time study and work restrictions make indulgence in a game of pool less attractive than it should otherwise be.

The mystery of the old Manning pool tables and the case of the Wentworth tables are  likely due to both VSU and their lack of use. The “frequent” use of the Wentworth tables prior to March 2020, as Wilkins-Wheat told Honi, suggests there is still demand within the student body for pool tables on campus. However, changes to student spaces and ongoing closures have led to a sense of amnesia. As students’ ability to interact with recreational spaces has diminished, many have lost a connection with campus – the same connection that drove previous generations of students to inhabit these spaces. I feel it is telling that whenever I mention the Wentworth pool tables to other students, the most common response is an excited “Wow! Really?”.

Pool is a great game. It’s accessible and easy to play at a friendly level. It’s social, with the table and the clinking of balls a great frame for chatting with friends or those on neighbouring tables. It’s no surprise that pool tables have become a fixture of pubs everywhere. They should once again be a fixture of our campuses, too. Playing pool means rejecting a corporate university and a hostile government that tells students to devalue socialisation and political engagement. Playing pool means enjoying leisure for leisure’s sake and recapturing a student experience that is being lost. I would love for the USU to reopen the pool tables on level 4 of Wentworth. And I would love even more to be able to have a drink from Hermann’s while playing up there.