Pubs have changed so much these past few years that it's almost impossible to remember back to a time when they were still clinging on to a past that was changing faster than they were. When every other pub is now a gastropub with families openly encouraged and smokers banned to a small wooden canopy on stilts near the car park, it is hard to remember a time when things were different. Yet different they were.
Dougie is coming over to watch a DVD with me and share a pile of homemade potato wedges with Gorgonzola sauce. He is happiest talking when there's something else going on, and that way there won't be any awkward silences on either side. Dougie is the friend I would most credit with introducing me to the seedier side of life of most of the local pubs in the small area in Oxfordshire in which we lived, when I was only....well, somewhere between the ages of 15 and 18....it's a grey area.
Still living with his old mum at the age of 40, Dougie was not the most obvious of friends, perhaps. He had dyslexia problems, amongst others, but still managed to hold down a gardening job at the local college and drive a car. He was a gentle soul who was happiest mixing and socialising with people a few years younger than himself. Technically, he was our Venture Scout leader, and in control. In reality, he was one of the gang - which is where he wanted to be.
Of course it helped enormously that he had a car and could drive. She was an immaculately-polished navy blue Morris minor (are they all that colour?) with a high forehead and surprised-looking eyes. And, loaded up with five or six of us, she flew down the back country lanes with 'The Who' blasting out of all the windows and her suspension rocking in time to the music as we bounced and sang along at full volume over the bumps and dips in the road.
Dougie had an uncanny resemblance to Eric Clapton in those days with a flop of hair through which he peered and a light brown jawline beard but with perhaps a few slightly more crooked teeth. He smiled a lot, shyly, often instead of saying something. He wanted to be liked, and included. His job involved a great deal of mowing of grass. His home life was quiet. Often in overalls and found lying on the ground under his car doing something with oil - we didn't like to ask. The cars our parents drove didn't seem to need this level of attention.
I think the pubs of our youth hold nostalgically cosy memories for all of us. Whether it is the excitement of being allowed to be there at all, or the camaraderie of being with your friends and trying new and unfamiliar drinks, but the stale tobacco and the stench of male urinals and sticky bar counters fade with time. And in their place, fond memories of pulling the horsehair out of the over-ripe sofa at 'The Crooked Billet', where beer was sold from out of the cellar as there was no bar. And, sitting beneath giant mantraps and razor-sharp scythes slung to the ceilings of 'The King William'. I somehow imagine Health and Safety will have been and tidied up there by now, and the romance and thrill that at any moment a ton of cast iron with huge jaws might suddenly descend on you, will have been wiped away with a whisk of anti-bacterial eradication.
The Landlord at 'The King William' at that time was a man called Brian Penny who drove a Brewers' Dray to local steam rallies with two magnificent-looking Shire Horses. He had a full reddish beard and red cheeks and a stomach to rival Father Christmas. He looked for all the world like he'd just stepped off the set of a Thomas Hardy film and was serving pints to the likes of Alan Bates with a raucous laugh which echoed throughout the pub.
The world of Scouting offered people like Dougie a kind of refuge where they could thrive and be happy and connect with other people without being bullied or feeling ostracised. He was just an over-grown teenager, with the same sense of silliness and fun and it was several more years before he would manage to find a relationship that would stick.
As I pile the potato wedges onto a plate a familiar face puts his head round the door and saunters in with his hands in his pockets. He is wearing the same navy blue overalls which mask the oil stains and the hands that reach out to hug me are black. I pretend not to notice: the smile is genuine, as is mine.