The dawn of a new millenium. The release of the Playstation 2. Tony Blair is 3 years into his Prime Ministerial reign. More importantly, Jamie Oliver’s career is in full swing following his endorsement deal with supermarket J. Sainsbury’s. Together they’d make life taste better (Jamie’s life anyway, the deal netted him two million queen pounds a year). It wouldn’t be until 2005, however, that The Naked Chef began meddling with school menus through his “Feed Me Better” campaign, a campaign that sought to eradicate junk food from UK schools.
Our secondary school canteen sells cheeseburgers, sausage rolls, pizza, cookies, sweets and Panda Pops. In summer it puts on a BBQ. Jamie Oliver weeps the tears our vital organs cannot. In the Tuck Shop the scene is grimmer still. It sells feed-an-army sized bags of Maoam, titan-size Twix and Mars Bars, bumper packs of lollies, Smarties when they still had the smiley faces on, Tootie Frooties, Dolly Mixture, Haribo – the ones coated in sugar, no less – Toffee Crisp, Lion Bars, Fruit Tella, Chewits, Galaxy, Freddos for 10p, Caramel Freddos for 10p, Fudge Bars for 15p, Dip Dab for 20p. It also sells mountain spring water. Cheer up Jamie.
You have to fight for your right to gorge, though. The Tuck Shop is a room no larger than a decent sized bathroom. Access is prohibited to all but a few middled-aged women who, behind locked doors, provide hormonal teenagers with fatal doses of E-numbers, artificial colours and flavourings through two small windows. There is no queueing system at the Tuck Shop. There is no policing of the Tuck Shop area. It is Darwinism in full motion. The weedier kids are lifted by their backpack handles and placed at the back of the ruckus by the larger boys. The weedier ones then slither through the gaps left between the very same boys who moments earlier hauled them out. It’s a wonder nobody dies.
We hit puberty early. We earn our Maoam through testosterone. We are Darwin’s prized fighters.
The Tuck Shop continues to feed the school. Jamie Oliver continues to carve his baby-face into the public conscience. Avril Lavigne releases Let Go. Sk8er Boi and Complicated rule the airwaves. The United States invades Afghanistan. We no longer frequent the Tuck Shop.
Every Friday night I uproot my Xbox, the horrendously obese breeze-block of aesthetic doom, from its nest and with it and two ergonomically unfriendly controllers bundled into my buckling rucksack, I mount my bicycle and make the pilgrimage to my buddy’s house. His is a nice house. His is a really nice house. We used to play rugby in his back garden that dwarfed mine by a ratio of at least 5:1, sparring at midnight with his younger brother. During the day we’d trampoline or watch TV on his colossal 32″ standard def television. Now we play Halo: Combat Evolved co-operatively on Legendary difficulty in the spare room.
We’re pretty good, but then so are the Covenant Elites so during the toughest altercations we take it in turns. One of us loiters as far removed from the pandemonium of battle as possible while the other charges in without much consideration for himself. Inflict as much damage as possible and then die is the meticulously pondered over and formulated tactic. The dead Spartan respawns and the spectator then embarks on his rampage. The Elites can’t win. They are valiant in their effort but their smarts are no match for ours and our friendship blooms across these innumerable nights spent bringing pain to the Covenant and inflicting friendly-fire onto our eyes until 3am.
The Tuck Shop is under threat of closure. Too many injuries. Too many items hurled through those windows in disdain. Too many sugar-riddled 14 year olds in fifth period, setting fire to gas taps or belting through the Crush Hall. Too many letters of complaint. Elsewhere the war in Iraq kicks off. Avril Lavigne’s Try to Shut Me Up Tour is a huge success. The final chapter of the Lord of the Rings saga nets New Line Cinema $1.2 billion. Arnold Schwarzenegger turns his back on the movie industry and is elected Governor of California. Jamie Oliver earns himself an MBE.
Halo 2 is primed for release in one year’s time. The hype train has been in transit for months already and is half way to its destination. Our MSN conversations bubble with talk about Master Chief’s second outing. Would the Flood return? Would the multiplayer be any good? How quickly could we smash through Legendary? Sorry my dial up disconnected.
My buddy and I polished off Halo’s Legendary campaign months back. And then again. And again. And again. But still we play. We no longer hide from the Elites. We have mastered everything, seen it all. The death dance of the Hunter had been etched into our muscle memory, one pistol shot to the back after dodging its lumbering assault. We had dedicated hours to inching close enough to hijack a Covenant Wraith on Assault on the Control Room only to be slapped by the cold palm of disappointment. No such option was programmed into the game. We unerringly performed 360 degree spins through The Maw’s gigantic jump sequence. We strove to fend off Captain Keye’s invincible army unleashed should you shoot the exalted servicemen with his own pistol. And all the while we play on my weathered Xbox which, at this point, has been on more journeys than my Gameboy Advance SP.
With Halo 2 peeking over the horizon, for my friend this will no longer do. He gets a paper round, delivering one of the local rags each night after school. But results don’t come quick enough so he helps me with mine. He does half the work and I pay him a third of the wage. He wants his Xbox. I’m a tosser. But still he needs £129.99 (or there abouts) and he’s impatient like thirteen year olds are. So we return to the Tuck Shop. Not, this time, for sweets, but instead to scour the periphery, to brave the rumpus and carnage, to gamble our very lives sweeping up any money relinquished from the grasp of our sugar-craving peers. You’d be surprised how effective a tactic this was and at 13 our sense of self-worth wasn’t in peril. We were doing what we had to.
Jamie Oliver’s “Feed me Better” campaign is the final nail in the Tuck Shop’s bloated coffin. It had, in fact, been closed months prior but its spirit lived on in the canteen where Smarties and cookies and other assorted nutritionally bankrupt foods were sold. No longer.
But it matters not. My buddy has his Xbox. We have our Xbox Live accounts. We bring sweets to school from home and play Halo 2 online every night after school. “Are you doing your homework?” “Yes, 22 divided by 5 is 4.4.” And, incidentally, my K/D ratio.
Others join in as well. In fact, every other weekend we bundle into a tiny room with those two Xbox’s, 6 or 7 or 8 or even 9 of us sometimes crammed into a single bedroom. We hook two of those gigantic machines up to a couple of gaudy 21″ standard-def TVs and we play 4 on 4 Halo 2. We call it Slu, short for system-link-up. Between bouts of violence we feast on Tesco’s own sausage rolls and Value pizza and gigantic bags of Maoam and the sugariest brand of Haribo known to man. The spirit of the Tuck Shop pulses away in each of us as we play “Bad Boys” (SWAT, pistols only) on Lockout, or drive a Warthog into the ocean on Headlong or annihilate one another playing Rockets Only on Foundation. We moan, we joke, we laugh, we bond. For an afternoon nothing else matters, not GCSEs or homework or other teen strife. Eventually someone would utter the fateful words: “I’m going home”, which would set off a domino-effect of people bailing: “Well if X is leaving I’m leaving too”. It was all part of the fun.
The Xbox brought us together in a way only alcohol and the promise of a free house on a Friday night could in the subsequent years and it did so through its System Link technology. Halo may have changed the first person shooter scene, but the Xbox changed how I played games. Some of my closest friends, 7 years on, are the people I relied on to cover my back on Burial Mounds or Ascension or Midship. Perhaps we would have still been friends anyway, we certainly didn’t meet through the Xbox, but our friendships’ unfolded partly through it.
And so, to the console that played a vital roll in the second decade of my life, for better and for worse, a very happy tenth birthday indeed.
And to Jamie Oliver, cheers chap for waiting until 2005. We needed that Tuck Shop, even if our kidneys didn’t.