Empty your bag and I will tell you who you are…
In the 1980s a French sociologist set his students a homework project. It was for each of them to examine the contents of 10 people’s bin bags. A French photographer, Pascal Rostain, heard about this and thought it was rather a good idea. On a trip to photograph Serge Gainsbourg, he helped himself to Gainsbourg’s bin bags on the way out. It was, as one might expect, a snapshot of Gainsbourg himself – full of empty Ricard bottles and packets of Gitanes cigarettes. Rosin and his partner, Bruno Mouron, took the project one step further, filching the bin bags of the famous, spreading the contents out on the studio floor and photographing them.
Paris Match suggested they go to Hollywood, and they did. Studying garbage collection schedules, they lurked outside the homes of famous film stars and pinched their trash – Jack Nicholson, Bruce Willis, Elizabeth Taylor, whoever – and took the bin bags back to Paris to photograph. Obviously, this practice is a gross intrusion on privacy – but, on the other hand, this is stuff that people didn’t want, that they were throwing away! Where was the harm? It does however raise certain ethical questions. What do you do if you find empty Viagra packets, or – as happened with Larry King’s garbage – used incontinence pads?
Their photographs enjoyed a brief vogue, then something called “Garbology” emerged. This is the academic discipline of studying modern refuse as a form of archeology. It is the case, after all, that archeologists sometimes come across the garbage of ancient civilisations and can learn a lot from studying it. And of course we are huge producers of rubbish. You may have read recently about plastic in the oceans and in particular a floating mass of plastic in the Pacific that is twice the size of Texas. Also, plastic has been found in the guts of marine creatures who live at the greatest depths of the oceans. For some reason, I am appalled by the fact that tea bags of all things contain plastic, and will shortly be making the transition back to leaf tea.
Being of the generation that remembers a time before the wholesale invasion of plastic, I find it extraordinary how suddenly omnipresent plastic has become in the world. After all, we used to do things correctly – our milk bottles, and fizzy drink bottles, were recycled, our meat and fish came wrapped in paper… and now! I live not far from a municipal landfill dump, on the outskirts of one of the prettiest villages in Touraine, and see the daily incursions of garbage trucks. If the wind is in a particular direction, I can smell it too. And as I write this I suddenly recall a little rural village near Tangiers in Morocco where there was no garbage collection and everywhere you looked were black plastic bags, littering the ground, flying through the air, the approach to garbage disposal in that village being to throw it out of the window. It was apocalyptic.
Garbology is also now a euphemistic term for waste management, and refuse workers in some countries are “garbologists”. It is also as a term for corporate espionage or law enforcement, when real rubbish bins – or the virtual computer’s trash can – can provide useful information.
Just recently, the bin-bag examination trip has taken a new twist, a twist in which the owner of the bag not only agrees – but volunteers – to reveal their bag’s contents. We are talking here not about the things people throw away but the things they would never throw away. This is the “What’s in my bag?” or “EDC” vogue. EDC is an acronym that means “Every Day Carry”. Basically, this involves opening up your “man bag” – or, for women, the handbag – and showing people what you carry around with you wherever you go. The forum for these revelations is YouTube.
I have to admit that it is quite fascinating. There are men who commute to work in New York and carry emergency blankets, tourniquets, face masks, sophisticated multi-tools, water purification tablets – you name it. In other words, accident or emergency kit or wilderness survival kit. Others have handguns, knives, tasers and pepper sprays. There is very often huge pride in having “the best” – for example, the best Leatherman Juice S2 multi-tool, or the best miniature flashlight money can buy. The word “tactical” crops up rather a lot, as if these individuals were in the war-torn Middle East or the Sahara desert rather than sitting in Starbucks in Manhattan.
The whole “man bag” phenomenon requires a comment on its own. If you look back at old photographs from the early 20th century, men do a lot of things that we no longer do. They wear hats, for one thing, and ties, and carry full-length umbrellas. But they do not often have man bags. Many of the American “What’s in my bag?” videos reveal that carrying a man bag can still be a sensitive matter. In other words, it looks “gay”. French men used to carry little leather purses with a shoulder strap which definitely looked like ladies’ handbags, but this vogue has also disappeared. In America, the answer to not looking gay is to buy a manly man bag, and the dominant brand is Nutsac. These are waxed canvas bags with leather trimmings, a bit like the British Barbour huntsman bags, and they cost a fortune. In the UK, it would be a bag from the excellent Troop London manufacturer.
My father would go nowhere without his bag, an unostentatious black nylon affair. In it there would be tissues, an umbrella, his notebook, and I can’t remember what else. I recall taking him to the barber’s in France and when the barber wanted to take his bag and hang it up in a cloakroom, Dad refused and insisted on it staying by his side.
I also use a bag, and in part I think this goes back to my days in the scouts and on the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, and the wish to “be prepared”, to use the scouts’ motto. If someone cuts themselves, you’re there – a sticking plaster! If someone’s trouser or skirt button pops off, you have a safety pin. If the cops stop you in the car, you have all your papers. And so on.
I have two bags (see photo above), one urban – a Fred Perry black bag with cream piping, a style that was extremely popular some 10 years ago – and a canvas army-surplus bag which I found for 5 euros in a vide grenier and which is ideal for rural parts. When I walk the dog, I have my camera in it and a Contigo flask of tea. I also have a Troop London rucksack and a couple of traditional cycling musette bags which are essential for bike rides, being incredibly lightweight.
The Fred Perry bag is the “full kit” version, and I’m sorry to disappoint, but I have no intention of disclosing what I carry in it, except to say “a lot”. A total in fact of over 40 items. And yet it weighs next to nothing. A corollary of being a bag man is that you’re interested in miniaturisation. The smallest and lightest of everything. The Muji stores, in this respect, are Aladdin’s Caves of small portable items. But why, after getting this far, am I being so cagey? One reason that I cannot reveal the contents, apart from quite simply not wanting to, because it’s none of your business, is that they include magic tricks, and the Magic Circle would not thank me for giving the game away.
Be that as it may, go to YouTube and search for “What’s in my bag?” or “My EDC” and you’ll find the curious individuals who delight in letting the cat – and everything else – out of the bag.