Comment Editor Marino Unger-Verna speaks with Phil Bar regulars in the run-up to the bar’s closure
In a statement this past July, the KCLSU announced that KCL’s infamous Phil Bar would not be reopening for the 2020/21 academic year and would remain permanently closed. Citing both the Covid-19 pandemic as well as financial difficulties, Phil Bar’s future looks bleak – petitioning alone cannot save a business in the red, after all. Student reactions to the announcement, however, were far from understanding.
One Phil Bar regular, Alexander Oman, told Roar: “To some extent [this decision] was unbecoming of the SU, and I say that because the SU has often subsidised societies and club which don’t run a profit. The other bars run at King’s are pretty much party bars, almost nightclubs, like Guy’s and the Vault. Maybe they should have talked about adjusting prices – I think they took away a key point of community at King’s in the name of profit. To me, that’s a bit heartless”.
Phil Bar is not the first venue the KCLSU has shut down on Strand campus. In 2018, the Macadam building’s Waterfront Bar and Kitchen was shut down to make room for the SU’s shiny new Vault in Bush House. As The Tab‘s Emily Gulla wrote 3 years ago, “The Vault claims to be ‘just like Waterfront’ but we’re pretty sure it won’t be. With potentially one of the best views in London, Waterfront is one of a kind.”
With the Vault now a staple of King’s life for those who weren’t around when the Waterfront Bar was still kicking, and having personally never stepped foot in the latter venue, I nonetheless find myself in agreement. While much of what I hear about the Waterfront Bar can likely be attributed to beer-goggled nostaligia, it sounds infinitely more enjoyable than the concrete prison yard of the Vault, where cocktails are never served when advertised (“I’m sorry, it seems we don’t have the ingredients”) and which, an hour in, has you googling the nearest Spoons so you can actually have a good time.
As Oman went on to tell us, “One of the most commonly used terms in our group chat was ‘Phil?’, and my friend and I literally have that tattooed on our arms. That was where we went to unwind and be with friends after a long day at the library. To be totally honest, that’s where I met about 3/4 of my friends in first year. It was a community gathering place, and was central to my King’s experience.
“[The KCLSU’s] decision was not very student union-like, in that funding problems were not brought to the larger community, and it was a unilateral or bilateral decision. I think that is unbecoming of your charter. Student unions should not be profit-driven, and it seems short-sighted and profiteering to make this decision during a pandemic and a global economic crisis”.
Another Phil Bar regular, Rodrigo Prieto, told Roar: “[The shutdown] was king-of expected, but I just couldn’t really understand it. Maybe it wasn’t the most profitable bar, but it was the one bar at King’s that seemed to have a student bar community. Phil Bar wasn’t about the big events for me – I might have been having the worst day ever, studying for ten hours, not being able to write my dissertation or having a test I failed, but I knew that any day I went there, I would have friends there and it would make the day easier for me. It was a safe place for me to go when I needed to.
“The KCLSU are destroying a community. Not everything is about money, and the SU already makes a lot of money. Giving a good experience to students who come to King’s should come above that”.
These two students are not alone in seeing Phil Bar as a safe space. King’s student Tymon Rybak told Roar: “It’s so easy to be hyperbolic and say ‘Philosophy Bar felt like home’. But at the same time, that phrase encapsulates perfectly what Phil Bar meant to so many of us. No one cared that it wasn’t the cheapest bar around.
“The place had natural character, with the same familiar faces tucked into the same dimly lit corners most nights – it was such a refreshing contrast to the synthetic feel of The Vault. In many ways, Phil Bar’s worn-down look was comforting – it almost invited conversation, and it was the place where I’ve met people outside of my course that I know will be in my life long after university ends”.
Another student, Diogo Capelo, told Roar: “Phil Bar became a very important hub for my friends and I, and our preferred place to just meet and hang-out. And how could it be otherwise? After all, most of us met each other there. After three years at King’s, I have shared a house with three people that I met there, and had the first interactions with some of my now best friends at that bar. I have lived some of my most memorable university nights there. This bar will forever have a special, comforting place in my memory”.
With the Covid-19 pandemic ongoing, it is obvious that Phil Bar could not open for our upcoming first term. The decision to close it permanently, though, is one which should not have been taken as lightly. As a new wave of Freshers arrives at King’s, the last student bar on Strand which actually felt like it was run by students, for students, has shut its doors.
In my faculty orientation last year, we were told of bar with an unmarked door somewhere on Strand. The simple idea of it felt like something unique to our campus, a drinking hole tucked away from the rest of the world, and the enormity of our studies. As King’s student Emma Foster put it: “I don’t have a favourite memory, that would be like asking someone what their favourite memory is from time spent in their lounge. That’s effectively what the Philosophy Bar is, it’s your lounge, it’s a little bit of home in this otherwise indifferent city.
“The bar is so much more than a bar. It is one of the only remaining features of an old-school student experience, in so many ways superior to the current one in the sense that it is more intimate – bridging the gap between the academic and social side of the Philosophy Department and wider university, and in doing so solidifying the ‘arts student culture’ many young people understandably crave.
“There is a clear disconnect between what management want and what students want. These are the same people that stripped us of Waterfront. Management want King’s to be all glass and Bush House. Students want a bit of tradition and a lot of soul”.