I joined the Young Liberals shortly after my eighteenth birthday. A wide-eyed fresher on O Day, I didn’t even pause before I put down the $10. That afternoon I also joined the Arts Union, Science Union, Blackstone Society, and pretty much any other club that had a paddling pool out the front of its marquee. I then headed directly to the bar on Oak Lawn to share beers with a gaggle of high school acquaintances I had no interest in maintaining relationships with. Over the coming weeks I would ditch most of them, eagerly embracing every new social opportunity. I didn’t buy any textbooks, and spent the next semester pursuing the two not unrelated goals of making influential friends and losing my virginity. In retrospect I might very well have been having some kind of breakdown, but the photos testify that I was enjoying myself at least 25% of the time.
It’s easy to become a new person when you begin university, but it’s even easier to regress back to your weirdo former self. Despite receiving a persistent series of phone calls and emails, I didn’t end up attending any Young Liberal events. Before second semester began, I’d already started lying to anyone who cared that I’d joined up ironically. I wasn’t just ashamed of the party’s conservativism – I was painfully embarrassed over any personal association with student politics, full stop. Blinded by hormones and alcohol as I was, it was still obvious to me that, as in federal parliament, there are negligible differences between campus Liberal and Labor. What unites both parties ideologically is a sense of superiority and righteousness, toxic culture of careerism, and fierce hatred of the Socialist Alternative. Oh, and a preoccupation with brunch. Someone could put a deposit down on a house in Dalkeith with the amount of money UWA Young Labor’s VIPs spend on brunch over the course of a single semester. Catch you at Typika, comrades.
Group of Eight universities are and have always been training grounds for state and federal politicians. I guess. That sounds like a thing that might be true. Either way, I have no right to begrudge anybody their Frank Underwood fantasies, even if I find it hard to share them myself. Sadly, there is a place for these people, and UWA just might be it. What I actually sat down to write this article about, before I got distracted by my own gross nostalgia and bitterness, and also coffee and cake from the nice bourgie café down the road from my sharehouse, is a subject that, for whatever reason, seems to fall further and further away from the interests of UWA’s student politicians and student union: the left. The political and social fringe. Its presence is dwindling on this campus, and my last self-indulgent act as outgoing Pelican co-editor of 2015 will be complaining about it.
In student media, we talk a lot about the good old days. These good old days took place, unspecifically, during the 1970s. A decade of mass student protest matched with general civil unrest. Campus newspapers used to hide tabs of acid within their pages. Dudes used to get their dicks out a lot. Beautiful blonde women used to lounge on Oak Lawn naked, probably. The 1970s were the last glorious analogue technology decade, where print media was king and people drove Datsuns and it was sunny all the time. No rain ever in the 70s. It was dope. People were angry about the Vietnam War, but they were sexy about it. Also they wore suede vests, which is cool. It is visions such as these that our generation masochistically compares itself too, before cutting into a poached egg on sourdough and ordering another flat white. No wonder we’re so messed up, to be honest. Competing with some false image of our free spirited parents that we cannot reconcile with their tasteful Cottesloe manors and shares in Woodside. It’s really hard.
Whether or not the 70s were what we’re told they were, campus culture at UWA used to be significantly different to what it is now. In 2015, the defining club on campus is the Electronic Music Appreciation Society. As someone born in 1992, it would be disingenuous of me to grumpily claim that I don’t enjoy electronic music. I’m about it. And I’m both fascinated and impressed by the magnitude and slickness of the EMAS operation, most especially the volume of MDMA they manage to smuggle onto campus every semester. But EMAS only caters to a certain demographic, one that I feel is best described with an example. At the society’s recent charity quiz night, the opening first round question was, notoriously, “Which country has the ugliest women in the world?”
For better or worse, EMAS has displaced a formerly semi-thriving campus culture of live music, the kind with guitars and dumb haircuts and probably just as much misogyny. Back in ‘the day’, you used to be able to catch local, national and international touring acts at both the Tavern and the Refectory. The UWA Student Guild no longer has the facilities to host live bands, let alone the initiative to book them. The Tav closes at 6pm, the Ref at 3pm. When Pelican tentatively suggested to the Guild that we hire a band to play at our annual Prom Night this year, we were told that the Tavern doesn’t have the requisite sound equipment to host a live group with more than two instruments, and hasn’t for some time. Even its PA is about twenty years out of date.
It’s difficult to have high expectations of underground campus culture at a university where FABSOC (I won’t delve into the acronym, but if you’re unaware: they’re basically the fashion club from Daria) rules the school. We don’t even get a bona fide student dive bar to hang out in, especially since the Tav got refurbished and started serving gourmet burgers. Half hearted anecdotal research informs me that, historically, students would head to Steve’s in Nedlands after class. Steve’s was, according to various parents who used to spend time there twenty years ago, a cheap and cheerful hangout with live music, karaoke, Export on tap. It was dorky and lame and always crowded. A far cry from Broadway’s Varsity bar, Steve’s was a place where you could make eyes at the cuties from your tutorials on a Centrelink budget. The saddest part of this story is that Steve’s still exists. It’s at the same location, a short walk from campus. The former student hub is now a wine bar and bistro, pouring generous glasses of Chandon and Moet for those same parents who used to grind up against each other there in 1985. Hey, baby boomers – fuck you.
I hate talking about the past as though it was any better than the present. I don’t think that this is a constructive thing to do, and I’m sure that in some ways the UWA student experience has improved over the past couple decades. I don’t have any pertinent examples, but I would like to believe. Still – we once had things that we no longer have. There are facts that cannot be disputed. Fifteen years ago, the UWA Film Club had its own mini cinema in Cameron Hall, screening cult hits every week in a dirty crowded room. Ten years ago, RTR (that community radio station you like!) was based on campus. Its headquarters were in the Sanders Building. Ten years ago, every major faculty society distributed its own student zine, often in opposition to the Guild’s mainstream publication (Pelican, I think it was called). In 1993, the radically leftist Arts Union rag Peacock was edited by campus queer activist Louise Pratt, who would go on to become an ALP senator.
Peacock still exists, to be fair. Last year one of its longest articles was a listicle about how all students should make the effort to travel overseas and get cultured. Being poor is no excuse, it advised. Just get a better job, or ask your parents for money. I was so offended by this article that I looked up its author on social media and stared angrily at her profile picture for twenty minutes.
I was reminded of Louise Pratt’s history as a zine editor (if you have time to visit the Guild archives and look at old issues of Peacock, do) earlier this year, when a certain campus Labor hack and vocal critic of this publication, David Cann, insisted that I publish his Pelican article submission anonymously. When I asked why, he made it clear that putting his name to any kind of opinion in any kind of student media might jeopardise his career prospects. He then informed me hoitily that he “was employed by a Senator”. When I awoke from my awe-induced coma, I shook his hand and thanked him heartily for all the good work he was doing. God, it’s been a long year.
This was my last semester at uni. If I had my time again, I’m not sure I’d do O Day or anything else differently. If you want to have a good time at UWA in 2016, it’ll probably be easier to stick to the status quo. Get your cold brew from Felix & Co, your work experience in the Guild Council Room, your kicks at Mexicana. Don’t think too hard about what you’re doing. Amass likes and followers. Siphon your guilty energy into becoming a BNOC. Keep calm and carry on studying for your law degree – post work drinks at Steve’s are only a few years away.
Words by Kat Gillespie