Friday, January 29, 2016

'How Bizarre' turns out to have been aptly named after all

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, January 27).
I replayed the video of How Bizarre a few days ago, just to remind myself what all the fuss was about.
Remember the song? “Brother Pele’s in the back, sweet Sina’s in the front”.

Perhaps it would jog your memory if I mentioned the promotional video showing a red Chev Impala convertible with the singer Pauly Fuemana, wearing a tropical shirt, behind the wheel.
No one alive and sentient in New Zealand during the late 1990s could not have been aware of How Bizarre, both the song and its accompanying video (no one, that is, except the two otherwise knowledgeable gentlemen with whom I have lunch most Fridays, both of whom looked at me blankly a couple of weeks ago when I mentioned it).

How Bizarre was a phenomenon; there’s no other word for it. Recorded in Auckland in 1995 and attributed to OMC (for Otara Millionaires Club), it was arguably the most successful New Zealand pop record ever, topping charts in the United States, Australia and Canada and reaching the Top 10 in Britain, Germany and Sweden. The video was shown on US television an estimated 15,000 times.
The word “phenomenon” seems particularly apt because there was no obvious explanation for the song’s success.

It didn’t seem to matter that the lyrics didn’t make much sense. The history of pop music, after all, is littered with songs that became massive hits despite lyrics that were unintelligible. If you want verbal profundity, listen to Bob Dylan (although his lyrics don’t always make much sense either.)
How Bizarre chimed with record buyers and radio listeners for reasons that defy intellectual analysis. The most you can say is that the song was catchy, and that it seemed to capture the so-called zeitgeist – in other words, the spirit of its times.  

It had a sunny, laidback vibe that fused Pacifica-influenced South Auckland soul - Fuemana's vocal inflections were pure Otara - with South Central LA hip-hop. An incongruous dose of Mexican mariachi-style trumpet was thrown in for good measure. It’s fair to say no one had heard anything quite like it before.
At the time, credit for the song’s success was naturally given to Fuemana. To all intents and purposes, he was OMC. He was generally presented in the media as something of a backyard genius.

It took nearly 20 years for the real story to emerge. I read it over the holidays in an absorbing and well-written book by Simon Grigg, the owner of the Auckland record label that released Fuemana’s records.
Grigg’s book is called, naturally, How Bizarre, and those two words turn out to be far more apposite in the context of the book than they were in the song (which was about nothing bizarre at all; apparently Fuemana just liked the phrase).

The first thing that becomes evident in the book is that How Bizarre, the record, wouldn’t – couldn’t – have happened without Fuemana’s producer, Alan Jansson. A master of digital recording techniques, Jansson co-wrote the song (such as it is) and created the sound.
In fact it soon emerges that Fuemana had limited musical ability. According to Grigg, he had trouble even holding a tune. The reader gets the very clear impression that he wouldn’t have amounted to anything without Jansson’s inventiveness and technical wizardry.

In a sense, there’s nothing new here. Recording stars have always benefited from the ability of producers, engineers and musical arrangers to make them sound better than they really were. But recording technology is now so sophisticated, and so adept at embellishing and polishing sounds with digital massaging, that it almost doesn’t matter if the supposed “star” can’t hold a note.
The real stars are often the anonymous people manipulating the sound in the background. This seems to have been the case with Fuemana, whose contribution to the songs attributed to him often seems to have been minimal. He was a mere bit player in Land of Plenty, the follow-up hit to How Bizarre.

Grigg reveals this without malice. He was Fuemana’s friend, adviser and travelling companion throughout the roller-coaster How Bizarre years, but it was a friendship that was repeatedly tested to the limit.
Fuemana, who died in 2010, had charisma, charm and style, but he was also unstable, petulant, paranoid, naïve, feckless, egotistical and a fantasist. He often teetered on the edge of violence.

The reader is left wondering whether Grigg stuck with him because of his money-making potential or because he genuinely cared for him and wanted to protect him, often against himself. I decided it was probably the latter.
His book is an eye-opener. It’s no secret that the music business, internationally, is greedy, exploitative, manipulative, heartless and often extraordinarily stupid, being totally geared to the moving of “product”.

What was a revelation for me, reading How Bizarre, is that all the above is almost as true of the industry in New Zealand and Australia as it is in the US and Britain. A high proportion of the characters in the book come across as egotistical, nakedly ambitious, quick to take credit for other people's achievements and often just plain incompetent.
By the end, I found myself wondering how many good songs must have sunk without trace because some vain, stupid record company boss or radio programmer decided they didn’t fit whatever rigid, narrow, unimaginative template was being enforced at the time.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Farewell to a lovely man and a born entertainer

Sad to hear today that the immensely likeable Alec Wishart, the co-founder of Hogsnort Rupert, has died.
Alec was the charismatic front man who uttered the famous line “Come on, my lover, give us a kiss” from the band’s nonsensical 1970 hit Pretty Girl, which spent three weeks at No 1 on the New Zealand pop chart.

He remained with the band through multiple incarnations and was reportedly looking forward to a gig later this year when he died yesterday, aged 76.
I first encountered Hogsnort Rupert, then known as Hogsnort Rupert’s Original Flagon Band, in 1968, when the band I was with played at a dance organised by the Wellington Diamond United Football Club.

Hogsnort Rupert, who hadn’t long been formed, played a guest spot that night. They were all working-class English lads, drawn together initially by a love of football.
Their skiffle-inspired music was rough and ready but infectiously energetic and exuberant, much like the guys themselves. Guitarist, singer and songwriter Dave Luther was the serious musician of the band, and its driving force, but it was Alec’s engaging personality that people noticed.

An appearance on TV’s Studio One talent quest led to them being signed by HMV Records. Knowing I was a fan, their producer, the late Peter Dawkins – later to become one of the most influential figures in the Australian music industry – got me to write the sleeve notes for their first album: All Our Own Work! (still available, I noticed recently, on Trade Me).
The original lineup didn’t last long. A couple of the members got religion, after which the band was rebranded as Hogsnort Rupert, with Alec and Dave still forming the core, as they would do for the next 40-plus years. (When I passed up an invitation to join them as bass player, my flatmate and journalism colleague John Newton dusted off his old Hofner bass and became a member of Hogsnort Rupert just in time to play on Pretty Girl, one of the biggest and most enduring New Zealand hits of the era.)

The Hogsnorts had two more Top 10 hits, Aubrey and Aunty Alice, before their recording career subsided. Being essentially a novelty band, their chart history was probably bound to be brief. But they remained popular as a live act, and few New Zealand bands have been regarded with more affection.
That was largely due to Alec, who was one of those performers whose personality took on an extra dimension when he was on stage. But he was an engaging man in private too – witty, amiable and ego-free. All those who knew him will be grieving.

Why on earth would anyone want to replicate the conditions they've just fled from?

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 22.)

Let me see if I can get this straight. Millions of oppressed, dispossessed Muslims have risked their lives fleeing the Middle East and North Africa.

They are mostly victims of Islamic regimes from a part of the world where democracy is virtually unknown (Israel aside). They are escaping sectarianism, persecution, civil war, anarchy, corruption and starvation.
None of them want to go to other Islamic countries. Why would they, when Islam represents all that they’re trying to get away from?

Besides, hardly any Islamic regimes offer them refuge. With the honourable exceptions of Lebanon and Jordan, most Islamic countries – including some that are fabulously wealthy – appear impervious to the suffering of their co-religionists.  
No, the place these Islamic refugees want to be is Europe – Western Europe, to be precise. And what attracts them there? Presumably freedom, for a start.

Western Europe is democratic. People actually elect their governments. The rule of law is enforced not by religious zealots but by courts that apply principles of fairness and impartiality.
In Europe, people’s prospects don’t depend on having been born into the right sex, religious sect or clan. They enjoy civil rights – the right to dress the way they want, to vote, to speak their minds, to have educational opportunities, to drive cars and enter into romantic relationships without fear of being murdered in “honour” killings.

And presumably these refugees are also attracted to capitalism, because more than any other “ism” it gives them the greatest chance to fulfil their human potential.
So, having been drawn to this benevolent part of the world where people enjoy freedom, opportunity and prosperity, what do they do?

A large number of them, it seems, immediately want to replicate the conditions that they’ve just fled from. This is the bit that I just don’t get.
As events in Germany on New Year’s Eve showed, the first impulse of many young Islamic men is to abuse the hospitality extended to them.

Some, of course, go much further than orchestrated sex attacks on young women. They want to murder the infidels who have given them shelter and succour. 
Things just don’t add up here. Why would anyone flee a cruel and repressive society, then seek to undermine the democratic institutions of their host country so that it might become another Muslim theocracy? How perverse is that?

They say Islam isn’t to blame for the barbaric acts carried out in its name, but that’s only partly true.
Yes, many Muslims respect Western institutions and want only to live in peace in the countries that have accepted them. They understand that freedom to practise their religion is one thing; the right to impose it on their host society is quite another. These Muslims are welcome.

But Islam cannot be exonerated of responsibility for the mayhem and slaughter in the Middle East, nor for the creeping contamination of Europe. The tenets of Islam provide a theological framework that enables groups like the Taleban, Al Qaeda and Isis to flourish.
Apologists say that what these groups do is a perversion of Islam, but they are all part of the Islamic tradition. They didn’t spring out of a vacuum.

There are lessons here for New Zealand. Our natural impulse as a humane, liberal society is to take pity on Islamic asylum-seekers and give them refuge. But we can’t ignore what’s happened in Germany, where young Islamic men have repaid their host country’s generosity by abusing its young women.
There is ample evidence that male Islamists can’t handle the sexual freedom of liberal western societies. Their view of females as inferior, an attitude sanctioned by Islamic law, becomes fused with desire for the women they see walking in the streets wearing makeup and revealing clothing.

It’s a poisonous mix: one part old-fashioned lust, one part repressive religious zealotry that teaches them to regard such women as whores who deserve to be punished.
Closer to home, we’ve seen the trouble caused in Australia by young Middle Eastern men with a strong sense of entitlement and an obvious resentment of their adopted country. Large groups of young Muslim men on the loose in Western society almost always spell trouble.

It must surely be only a matter of time before even tolerant, liberal Europeans get provoked to the point where they rise up in retaliation and defence of their own values. So far the resistance is coming mainly from the ugly Far Right, but it may not stay that way.
We in New Zealand, as is so often the case, have the good fortune to be able observe all this from a safe distance and absorb the lessons. But will we?

Monday, January 18, 2016

I know who I believe ....

Further to my post last Friday about Dr Anne Fox's report, here's a (relatively) recent story from the Timaru Herald  which backs up Fox's view that alcohol is used as an excuse for violence and other bad behaviour.

The views expressed in the Herald's article are identical to ones I've heard from people working with family violence offenders in the Wairarapa. I regard these real-world opinions as carrying a lot more weight than those of hysterical, agenda-driven academics.

Friday, January 15, 2016

How the media treat alcohol heretics

It’s funny, isn’t it, that a report questioning the demonisation of alcohol should get wide publicity only when it’s attacked by puritanical academics – this, nearly a year after its release.
That was the fate of British anthropologist Anne Fox’s March 2015 paper in which she argued that it’s simplistic and wrong to blame alcohol for violence and other bad behaviour.

Fox’s research, commissioned by liquor conglomerate Lion, was largely ignored by the media on its release. An odd exception was an interview with Fox on Wallace Chapman’s Sunday Mornings programme on Radio New Zealand – a rare case of someone from outside the politically approved (i.e. left-leaning) list getting airtime from the state broadcaster.
Apart from that and an article I wrote for The Listener, Fox’s paper was clearly deemed by media gatekeepers to be of no public interest, despite intense debate going back years over alcohol-related issues.

I can only surmise that this was because her key finding – that alcohol is too easily made a scapegoat for antisocial behaviour – was considered heretical, since it conflicted with the barrage of almost hysterical anti-liquor rhetoric New Zealanders are bombarded with.
It was only when two academics (one only a PhD student) issued a shallow and poorly written – in fact almost incomprehensible – critique this week that Fox’s paper got legs in the mainstream media, and then only because it provided a platform from which to attack her.

One News, Radio New Zealand and the New Zealand Herald all eagerly seized the opportunity to cast doubts on Fox’s credibility.
It’s not hard to follow the groupthink of the media decision-makers. Fox’s research was seen as ineradicably tainted because it was funded by Lion. Academics, on the other hand, are regarded as having only the purest of motives.

Of all the coverage yesterday, Radio New Zealand’s was the most appallingly one-sided. Interviewing a Hawke’s Bay emergency department doctor, whom we were obviously supposed to regard as the ultimate authority on the pernicious effects of alcohol, Summer Report presenter Teresa Cowie made her bias clear by referring to Fox’s research as “dodgy” – a plainly defamatory statement when made in respect of an anthropologist who has specialised in studying drinking cultures and substance abuse.
The interview demonstrated that many journalists are incapable of reporting fairly and impartially on alcohol-related issues. Sympathetic interviews with emergency department doctors – hardly the most objective commentators, given that they are confronted every day by the most extreme effects of alcohol – win out over measured, detached reporting.

To recap on Fox’s report, she argued that New Zealanders and Australians use drunkenness as an excuse for actions that wouldn’t be acceptable if the perpetrators were sober. But she pointed out that liquor consumption need not be synonymous with violence or bad behaviour – indeed, isn’t synonymous with antisocial behaviour for the vast majority of New Zealand drinkers, or indeed in many countries that have higher rates of alcohol consumption than ours.
Blaming alcohol as the sole cause of violence, she believes, diverts attention from “maladaptive cultural norms” that allow New Zealand and Australian men to be violent and aggressive.

As I wrote in The Listener: “Fox’s conclusion is that while alcohol gets the blame, the real problems are rooted in our cultural attitudes. We treat liquor as if it exerts some mystical power over us, thus allowing us to exempt ourselves from personal responsibility when we behave badly.”
This argument must have gone down like a cup of cold sick among the army of tut-tutting public health academics and bureaucrats who have spent years pushing for regulatory restraints on alcohol availability and consumption.

In their eyes, New Zealanders are powerless to control their behaviour once in the grip of alcohol and its manipulative purveyors. Talk of individual responsibility is anathema to the wowser lobby because it places the blame for antisocial behaviour squarely where it belongs – on the perpetrator rather than the demon drink.
The critique of Fox’s paper, written for the journal Addiction by University of Auckland PhD student Nicki Jackson and University of Newcastle (Australia) professor Kypros Kypri, argues that her research is unsound and has the potential to undermine “evidence-based” countermeasures to alcohol-related harm.

Inevitably, they highlight the fact that Fox’s research was funded by a brewery company. They also fault her paper on the basis that it was not peer-reviewed and had no “ethical” approval. Their own critique, of course, is packed with references to the mountains of academic literature on the dangers of alcohol.
But Fox’s critics spectacularly miss the point of her report. Nowhere in her paper did she deny a link between alcohol and violence. What she disputes is that alcohol is the cause.

Fox herself has methodically taken the critique apart in a response in which, among other things, she accuses Jackson and Kypri of misrepresenting statistics. One notable example relates to the percentage of Australian bar patrons questioned in a survey who had supposedly experienced violence over a three-month period.
Jackson and Kypri said the figure was one in 10, but Fox reveals the survey question didn’t actually mention the word “violence”. It asked patrons how many times they had experienced or witnessed [Fox’s italics] “any form of verbal, physical or sexual aggression in or around licensed venues in the three months prior to interview”.

As Fox says, this provides a very subjective measure. Some people might regard raised voices as evidence of aggression. You have to ask: whose credibility is in doubt here?
Fox also questions Kypri’s objectivity, alleging he’s a director of an obscure but long-established organisation called the Independent Order of Rechabites, which promotes abstinence from alcohol. In the New Zealand Herald, Kypri denied this, saying he’s involved in the Australian Rechabite Foundation, which he portrayed as a research and advocacy organisation. But he’s being cute: the Australian Rechabite Foundation’s website makes it clear that the foundation is an offshoot of, and affiliated with, the order.

“In my view,” Fox writes, “religious temperance beliefs about alcohol can cloud one’s objective scientific judgement, and such affiliations should be declared in conflict of interest statements as they belie an underlying non-scientific agenda.”
There’s an interesting contrast here. Fox was open about Lion’s sponsorship of her research, as she had to be (although she insists her contract gave her complete independence). Shouldn’t Kypri have similarly declared his affiliation with the Rechabites, which arguably had the same potential to sway his judgment?

I have my own doubts about the reliability of the Jackson-Kypri critique, given the authors’ claims that Fox’s findings were being used “extensively” by the liquor industry (they cite just one article in an Australian industry magazine), in the “mainstream media” (they mention only one instance – my Listener story) and in submissions by government agencies on public policy (again, they give only one instance – a relatively brief reference in a submission by the Director of the NSW Office of Public Prosecutions on alcohol- and drug-fuelled violence).
I know hyperbole when I see it; I’m a journalist, after all. When your story’s weak, the temptation is to pump it up by exaggerating.

As for the criticism that Fox didn’t seek ethical approval from an institution, she points out that her paper was written for a lay audience, not an academic journal.  That shows in her language, which is direct and clear, in marked contrast to the tortuous jargon used by her critics.
The irony here is that Fox’s report didn’t let the alcohol industry off the hook. She criticised some alcohol advertising for promoting macho behaviour and made no attempt to play down the negative effects of excessive alcohol consumption, especially among the young.

In her response to the critique, she writes: “My mission is not to absolve alcohol from all blame for societal problems – alcohol dependence is clearly a problem and a burden on health resources. However, it is obvious that blaming alcohol alone for violence in the NTE [night-time economy, the academic phrase for places where people drink] is an obfuscation of the real causes and does a disservice to the victims of violence.”
I don’t deny that there may have been flaws in Fox’s report. What research paper isn’t open to criticism? I accept too that she was an easy target because of the source of her financial backing. But as someone who has been writing about alcohol issues for nearly 40 years, I found her main conclusions compelling.

They are borne out by everyday observation, which confirms that most New Zealanders are perfectly capable of drinking without getting violent or otherwise behaving badly. Ask yourself: when did you last witness a brawl, or even an angry confrontation, in a café where people were drinking?
In other words, it’s wrong and simplistic to blame liquor. End of story.

But here’s the main point. Fox’s paper provided an opportunity for a debate that might have shed some new light on the ugly side of New Zealand’s drinking culture. It offered an alternative explanation to that pushed relentlessly by agenda-driven academics and bureaucrats. But her critics would rather shut the debate down, and sadly the media have allowed themselves to be co-opted toward that end.

Not quite the silliest film ever - but close

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, January 13.)

I awoke one morning last week to the news that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was on track to become the highest-grossing film of all time, beating Avatar’s box-office record.
If you needed confirmation of the American journalist H L Mencken’s famous dictum that no one ever went broke under-estimating public taste, there it is, right there.

As it happened, only the night before, misled by positive reviews from critics whose opinions I normally respect, I’d gone to see the latest Star Wars movie. It turned out to be an absolute stinker. The Force may have awakened, but I was nearly put to sleep.
What made matters worse was that I’d persuaded a friend – possibly the only man on the planet who hadn’t seen any of the previous Star Wars movies – to come with me.

After sitting through two hours and 16 minutes of unrelieved silliness and tedium, I felt obliged to apologise to him for wasting his time.
I also felt compelled to explain that Star Wars films weren’t always like this; that the first ones were extraordinarily exhilarating and imaginative, taking movie goers to a place they had never been before.

He looked at me sceptically, and I could hardly blame him.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens demonstrates one of the immutable truths about Hollywood: namely, that when someone stumbles on a successful formula, it will be thrashed until it’s limp and lifeless.

Hollywood just doesn’t get the notion that you should quit while you’re ahead. The three original Star Wars movies deserved an honoured place in film industry history. Now their memory has been defiled by a series of lame, imbecilic follow-ups.
Inexplicably, the latest attempt to breathe life into the corpse has been generally well received by critics. Either they were all on drugs or they were seduced by the nostalgic appeal of seeing Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher back together in the roles that made them famous in 1977.

Tragically, the latest movie’s success at the box office will only encourage Hollywood to keep cranking out more of the same. The Force Awakens is the first in a trilogy proposed by the Walt Disney Company, which bought Star Wars creator George Lucas’s company for $4 billion in 2012.
I won’t waste more of my time seeing any of them. As with Sir Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, once is enough.

The Force Awakens is hackneyed and shopworn. In many respects it’s a lazy rehash of the first Star Wars film, from the famous bar scene – literally fantastic in its original form, now a cliché – to the predictable climactic sequence in which the good guys pinpoint the one vulnerable spot in the Death Star and have only seconds in which to destroy it before they themselves are obliterated.
The script is indescribably silly and banal. Admittedly the original film wasn’t exactly Shakespearean (Sir Alec Guinness, who played Obi-wan Kenobi, complained about the unbearable “rubbish” dialogue that was presented to him each day), but the scriptwriters for The Force Awakens seem to have operated on the assumption that it didn’t matter one jot if the words they gave their characters were totally meaningless and uttered merely to fill gaps in the action.

As for the acting … oh, dear. The producers chose a complete unknown, British actress Daisy Ridley, for the main female part. A big risk? No, because the role requires nothing of her. They could have cast a cardboard cut-out in the part and saved money.
Even worse is the unfortunate black actor John Boyega, another unknown whose prominent role in the film is entirely pointless. If there were any justice in the world, his cringingly hammy performance would ensure he never worked again.

Alas, the reverse will probably turn out to be true. H L Mencken will be proved right again: Boyega will become a superstar.
That the producers chose two newbies for key roles tells you something. They weren’t being daring or audacious; it’s simply that they knew the parts were fundamentally absurd and required no acting skill.

Speaking of which, how sad it is to see an actor of Harrison Ford’s calibre humiliating himself by lending his name to this infantile hokum.  Like Alec Guinness, he must have been seduced by the money. Chewbacca out-acts the ageing Ford by a convincing margin.
Carrie Fisher, on the other hand, heroically attempts to preserve her self-esteem by at least bringing an air of dignity to her role as Leia.

The other notable resurrection from the original cast is Mark Hamill in the role of Luke Skywalker, who appears briefly at the end. Hamill was never more than a C-grade actor and he’s given no dialogue whatsoever in the latest film. It was the only smart decision the producers made.
Is this the most ludicrous film ever? Not by a long chalk. That honour still resides with Avatar, which grossed more than $2 billion. Mencken again …

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The sociology of litter

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 8.)
Like my fellow Dominion Post columnist Dave Armstrong five days ago, I’ve been muttering lately about the amount of rubbish littering streets and other public places.
But while not wanting to boast, I’ve gone one step further than Dave. I’ve kept a record of the litter I’ve picked up on my regular walks into town.

Here are some examples, gathered over a period of several weeks:
One Woodstock Bourbon and Coke can; one Lion Red beer can; one Holiday cigarette packet; one McDonald’s Chicken McBites container; one NZ Pure lager bottle; one McDonald’s paper bag; one Becks beer bottle; one Subway wrapper; one chicken and chips container from the local Pak ’n’ Save; one KFC paper bag; one McDonald’s fries carton; one meat pie bag; one DB Double Brown carton; one Z Express cardboard coffee cup; one DB 33 Export beer can; and one plastic bag, brand name illegible, which appeared to have contained chocolate confectionery.

Some of this rubbish, no doubt, is discarded almost unconsciously, like the plastic sandwich packaging I recently picked up in  the middle of town. The effort required to put it in the nearest rubbish bin, just three paces away, was clearly too great for whoever devoured the contents.
But if that act could be attributed to mere laziness or thoughtlessness, the behaviour of some litterers suggests a perverse element of wilfulness.

Driving across the Remutaka Pass (we might as well start getting used to the new and historically correct name now) a few weeks ago, I saw an almost full bag of chips jettisoned from a vehicle in front of me.
This could be hardly be blamed on mere indolence or absent-mindedness, since it requires a conscious act to wind down the window and throw a parcel of chips onto the road.

Only days later, my wife and I watched as a McDonald’s paper bag – still apparently containing food, judging by its obvious weight – was thrown out the passenger-side window of a boy racer-type car travelling through town. Unfortunately I didn’t have my Uzi submachine-gun with me at the time.
All these observations have led me to build up a profile of the typical litterer.

Their most blindingly obvious characteristic is that they have no taste. No surprises there: people who drink Lion Red or eat Chicken McBites are unlikely to be sensitive to aesthetic concerns about the urban environment.
They are also likely to be obese. That goes without saying, judging by the evidence of their eating habits.

Their liquor of choice is likely to be some ghastly RTD or equally undrinkable industrial-grade beer. I have yet to find an Ata Rangi pinot noir bottle lying in a gutter.
Oh, and they probably smoke. That’s evident from the piles of cigarette butts you occasionally see in gutters and supermarket carparks, from car ashtrays that the owners were too lazy to empty into a bag at home.

Now to some questions. First, does it matter that some people spread their offensive detritus across the landscape?
Yes, because it affects our quality of life in subtle and insidious ways. Like the loathsome habit of tagging, it has a negative effect on community morale and municipal pride.

Neighbourhoods that are strewn with litter give the impression of being uncared for. This can have a multiplier effect: the more neglected things look, the less incentive there is for people to take pride in their surroundings.
The writer Bill Bryson puts it this way: “I see litter as part of a long continuum of anti-social behaviour. One end of it is this minor thing like litter and small bits of graffiti, and the other end is kicking somebody’s head in.”

There’s an environmental cost, too. Those cigarette butts, for example, end up being washed into the stormwater system and polluting waterways.
The next, and more important, question is: what can we do?

On a personal level, zero tolerance is not a bad place to start.
I recently heard a radio host recall that as a boy, he threw something out of the car window while travelling with his grandfather. Granddad immediately pulled up and ordered him to walk back and pick it up. It was a lesson he never forgot.

At national policy level, Singapore has the right idea. In 2014, its National Environment Agency issued 19,000 tickets for littering.  
The maximum fine is now $S2000 for a first conviction and $S10,000 for a third. Offenders can also be sentenced to clean up public areas for up to 12 hours.

Way to go, Singapore. How sad that we're far too timid to take a similarly tough line here.