Chapter 3 – Sumbag; Don’t You Know?

by waxnwings

To say we threw two frozen middle-fingers up to the town we all grew up in would be a harsh exaggeration. Although – now in our early twenties – we had each felt a small piece of our souls slip with each passing year spent in this County whose proud historicism and heritage could be captured in five novelty postcards for £1; it was in this fray that we were forged. Cornwall is a stick of rock, a pot of Rodda’s clotted cream, a pint of cool scrumpy; a mass produced pasty. Gift-shop trinkets and endless images are at best copied originals, sometimes original copies, but more often than not just vacant replicas. However it’s not just the tourists who construct Cornwall through these images – the pastiche which become a mosaic of the real – and neither is there anything at stake for them. The people who live here every day and whose identity is Cornish, it is those who find their culture in barcodes. So it was that we lived between the seams, the fringe where ultimately all we knew of Cornwall was what we could taste, smell, feel, and see.

Some things we are very unlikely to miss of our home town: the tramps, the bums, the hobos, the homeless, and the scumbags. Though often malleable and interrelated, do not make the mistake in assuming these micro socio-categories as one and the same. As the end of the line of a train system which stretches from the far ends of Scotland, Penzance finds itself home to a variety of individuals who – drunk, high, or lucky enough for both – simply woke up at the last stop and decided to make it their home.

A tramp is a homeless wanderer; though they look as if travelling with an air of purpose, after a few months of noticing their familiar faces you realise that they simply migrate in circles. They are like local furniture and are generally harmless, even the mentally deranged ones. Their withdrawn demeanour and incessant mumblings are further mystified by various, local folklore presumptuous of their befallen circumstances; the millionaire story, the fall from grace story, the accidentally killed his family story, the wife committed suicide story: the life story.

A bum, however, can be anyone. I have been a bum. At any one point, any person with a healthy social circle should have at least two friends who are bums. You become a bum by simply sitting on one for too long; the saying in business circles follows; ‘if you are moving forward, you are moving backwards.’ Cornwall has been quite readily described as a backward place. See Lonely Planet: Cornwall Edition, p. 118, ‘Cornwall, Land’s End: You Can Only Go Backwards’. To become a bum, one simply needs to do nothing; one becomes a bum by default, and it can often creep up without immediate realisation: ‘Jesus Christ, I’m a bum!” More than once have I had to bring to a friend’s attention that they have become a bum, and more often than not they admit resignedly, ‘yes, I feel like a bum’. Although by no means impossible, there is a long road of decline from bum, to hobo.

A hobo occupies the incredulous space between the socially allocated category of tramp and bum. A hobo requires an income as a matter of necessity, for you can only really be recognised as a hobo by having funds to permeate certain distinct, social circles, albeit the outskirts; namely the pubs, high streets and cheap cafes. A hobo’s favourite pastime is window shopping whilst commuting between any combinations of the aforementioned locations, possibly a park too providing the presence of an appropriate beverage. A hobo will sleep where he lies, despite having a government funded house to return to. He may be a drunk, a gambler, borderline mentally retarded or just not really have a shit to give. But above all, unlike the bum, the hobo is blissfully oblivious of his own abhorrence.

The homeless, though often hard to discern, are a melting pot of faceless social dropouts. In a land such as Penzance, anybody sporting a backpack past dusk could be part of the homeless under-rung. They shall receive no pity for they are the ‘dirt’, and every town needs the ‘dirt’ in order to feel ‘clean’ – meaning rests on an impartial fulcrum. The sad, flute songs of the homeless are the whining of a dog alluding to social injustice, although the vocabulary of their melancholy notes stretches no further than ‘poor me…poor, poor me’. Some even thank you for your time after refusing them the spare coppers you keep to fill the decorative, frosted-glass vase on your front room mantelpiece. This is guilt, and this is why they are homeless. Only someone without dignity and morality uses guilt as a selling technique. They have no penny to place in a vase, nor vase to place in a house; penniless, homeless… vase-less, they fill designated floor spaces and scorn at the talented buskers whose legitimate instruments momentarily bring to their attention the sad reality of the generic item they hold as their trade: a herpes simplex-riddled whistle on a dull, copper pipe.

Scumbags are a very different story by both nature, and definition. Contrary to popular belief, by no means do I hate the homeless and nor (I would like to add) am I a Nazi sympathiser. Both assumptions (or ‘accusations’, depending in which context and gravity you choose to approach them) are merely extrapolations of the blunt, cynical manner in which I interpret this world in language. I say what I see, and all I ever see is people putting ‘something’s’ into ‘nothing’s’. To use someone else’s appropriate analogy: imagine a cat’s cradle made of string; a bunch of X’s between a person’s hand. See the cat? See the cradle?

But to return to scumbags; much like being a bum, anybody can be a scumbag. But whereas the requirements to acknowledge another person, or indeed oneself, as a bum are circumstantial, being a scumbag is simply something you have to be born with. I once sat with an old acquaintance at 6 am and watched as he continued to feed a young, sallow-eyed slut he had picked up from a cheap nightclub the bag ends of a cocaine and ketamine concoction. Slumped back from the rolled-up £5 note, a single, pink bra strap limp at her arm, she continued to work at the bunged, cake of snot until everything short of a corroding septum cleared through her nasal passage.

‘Ughh. I feel like shit,’ the young, decadent female gargled.

‘Don’t worry; we’re all scumbag’s ‘ere,’ my acquaintance reassured.

Just to reiterate the nature of his reassurance: here, we are all bags of scum.

I wondered at this comment intermittently over the ensuing weeks. We are all scumbags. Much of man’s behaviour, of which I was an unassailable part of, was indeed metaphorically akin to that of a bag filled with scum. Perhaps this was a drug-binge born epiphany worth deconstructing in the calibre of Coleridge or De Quincey; Confessions of an English Scumbag…

Hold the Penzance Press.

A short time after the ketamine-coke-pink-strapped-bra-slag incident, a friend (let’s call him Aaron) informs me of an ‘hilarious anecdote’ just as I am mentally preparing the first draft of my thesis on ‘Man and Scum’ (‘Man and Scum’ in Round, Jason, Humanity and Moronity, (Cornwall, Penzance Press: 2011). It turns out my ‘scumbag’ acquaintance was a mutual one.  After a similar night of drink, drugs and debauchery, Aaron obliged him a shower to remove the distaste. As if to justify the necessity of his shower he left Aaron, on top of a heap of clothes whimsically discarded at the foot of his bed, a pair of boxer shorts so unashamedly soiled that it was as if the bearer had quite inadvertently worn their asshole inside-out. A four-inch long, one-inch thick skid-mark the colour of dried peat was the centrepiece of a faecal collage that reeked of sadistic self-negligence.

‘And so he gets out of the shower, looks at the shorts, no word of a lie he sniffs them – he fucking sniffs them – then begins stepping into the leg holes.’ (ibid p. 141.)

We’re all scumbags here? I quickly dispel the notion, and gently reminded myself to stop looking for the cat’s cradle.