THIS week, the “ghost” of Vera Duckworth, one-time landlady of the Rovers Return, made a final appearance in Coronation Street, escorting husband Jack across to “the other side”. As he breathed his last, she too disappeared.
Peggy Mitchell from the Queen Vic has also gone from our television screens and The Street’s Liz McDonald has handed in her notice, so has the blonde barmaid stereotype been laid to rest?
Last month, EastEnders saw the last of the character played by Barbara Windsor as she walked tearfully away from the burning pub, and Coronation Street’s Bev Callard – who has played Rovers Return stalwart Liz McDonald on and off for the past 22 years – announced she would step down from the role next year. The soap’s production team says it plans an “exiting” storyline.
So, have we got rid of the blowzy blonde barmaid forever? Can we now accept that “normal” people are the norm behind the bar?
The answer is a long way back in the past and it’s all Geoffrey Chaucer’s fault – he missed his chance to change the history of the pub in his 14th Century Canterbury Tales. He could have invented Peggy Mitchell or Liz McDonald or Bet Lynch (pictured), then every pub in the country would be now staffed by conventional, approachable, standard issue-personnel.
What Chaucer omitted to bequeath to the nation in the 1390s was The Barmaid’s Tale alongside The Knight’s Tale, The Prioress’ Tale, The Squire’s Tale and so on, and that way we would have heard the last of all blonde, buxom, brash and bawdy barmaids long before the occupation was stereotyped.
Do we have Squires and Prioresses nowadays, and what is a Summoner, a Pardoner or a Franklin – all of whom who had their Tales told? Bet the Blonde Bombshell from Coronation Street would now be Mannerly Mousey Mary selling Newton & Ridley’s ales with barely a glance from this side of the counter. And, we would have had 600 years of blinkered, feisty, brassy, pushy Peggy so there would have been no need to invent her for EastEnders.
Some of us can recall when in 1970 Hilda Ogden caught a glimpse of the Rovers Return’s new arrival from Elliston’s PVC factory, Bet Lynch. At home later with husband Stan, she said: “You ought to see the new barmaid, if you can call her that. The first time I saw her I thought it were a jukebox.”
A profession summed up in 25 words, but it needn’t have come to that. If a barmaid had been written into Canterbury Tales, literature could have moved on and we would have had no reason to think they are all bleached-haired, crimson-lipped, amply bosomed, predatory objects of barfly desire. They would have been consigned to antiquity like Canon Yeomen.
Perhaps we should learn our history from sources other than chronological accounts of kings and queens, battles and political machinations. It’s an idea floated by musician David Byrne in his book Bicycle Diaries where he reports from various parts of the world as he experiences them from the saddle of his bike. (Appropriately enough, we started reading it in the pub.)
The former Talking Heads frontman floats this alternative notion while in a Buenos Aires book and record shop as he leafs through the offerings that trace music, drink and sociability over the years.
He writes: “A history of nightlife – what an interesting concept. A history of a people told not through their daily travails and successive political upheavals but via the changes in their nightly celebrations and unwindings. History is, in this telling, accompanied by a bottle of Malbec, some fine Argentinian steak, tango music, dancing and gossip.
“It unfolds alongside illicit activities that take place in the multitude of discos, dance parlours and clubs. Its direction, the way people live, is determined on half-lit streets, in bars and in smoky late-night restaurants. The history is inscribed in songs, on menus, via half-remembered conversations, love affairs and drunken fights.
“Nightlife may be a truer and deeper view into specific historical and political moments than the usual manoeuvrings of politicians and oligarchs.”
We could do the same here; we could trace social interaction – history, if you like – through our pubs and our beer, influenced by tabloid tales of excess. It may end up being a skewed version, but isn’t history seen through the comings and goings of Oliver Cromwell, Winston Churchill, or Albert, the Duke of York and second son of George V marrying Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the ninth child of the 14th Earl of Strathmore – a king’s son marrying a “commoner” – just as imbalanced?
So, what would we be left with these days? Celebrities and footballers. Our future history books should clear huge tracts for them and their after-dark activities then put mad kings and coalition governments to one side.
According to Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini, womanising is far preferable to having a pint. He has said he cannot believe the level of drinking by English footballers and tells his own players to concentrate on women.
“I do not understand players drinking until they are drunk,” he was recently quoted in The Observer. “We do not have that culture in Italy; we would prefer to go off with a woman. “That’s what I liked to do after a match and I tell my players now it is better that they go with a woman than drink.”
Mancini arrived in England almost 10 years ago to play for Leicester City then later guided Inter Milan to three Serie A titles.
“When I first went to Leicester we went straight to the pub after training,” he says. “We drank I don’t know how many beers. When you are young you feel you can do what you like... you can recover easily, but when you are 28 or 29 you begin to pay the price.”
Compare that attitude with fellow countryman Fabio Capello. The England manager refused to allow players’ wives to “mingle” during last summer’s World Cup Finals, but relaxed a strict alcohol ban on the squad before the match against Slovenia when, taking a chance with a crucial tie just hours away, he encouraged his squad to enjoy a beer to calm their £150,000-a-week nerves. He revealed after the 2-1 victory that it was his trump card in coaxing some sort of performance after a stuttering start against the USA and Algeria.
“They were allowed to drink beer before the game, you can ask them,” said Capello. “It’s true, I changed something and used my imagination.”
So, leaving women to one side, can a couple of beers make such a difference? Chelsea’s Frank Lampard made it public that the offer of a pre-match beer was Capello’s idea.
He said at the time: “A lot has been made of the boredom in the hotel but you can’t come away for a month and live like a monk. The manager is aware of that. You might have one or two beers – you don’t have to have 10.”
It’s all there in black and white – England lost 4-1 to Germany in the next round. Germans are the world’s third-largest beer consumers, the UK is fifth. Leicester City are now managed by Sven Goran Eriksson and lie 17th in the npower Championship. Eriksson’s infidelities were tabloid staples while he managed England; Jack Duckworth’s final hours were played out in the pub. Talking Heads sang: “We’re on the road to nowhere”. Henry Ford said: “History is bunk”.
Take note of what’s happening in the pub – the rest, as they say, is history.