‘MISGUIDED monument to a talent so publicly squandered,’ reads the headline of this morning’s Daily Mail piece from oooh you can’t say that columnist Jan Moir. This week her target is Amy Winehouse as the old news that a statue of her will go up in Camden Town was refreshed on the news wires. It will be unveiled in the market next month. Here, though, readers, her family and fans are told, just in case they were unaware, that she had brought her self-destruction on herself with Moir stirring: “Everyone is carrying on as if she was some kind of benevolent angel, a selfless Florence Nightingale who did everything in her power to help the wretched and the sick.”
For a good portion of us, to be outraged is, of course, one of the aims of the piece. Outrage leads to clicks and publicity, as Moir must have seen when in a previous piece she suggested former boyband singer Stephen Gately died in ‘sleazy’ circumstances.
There is nothing ordering us to read it, but even if you close your eyes to newspaper comment pages, the view that the simple thing of putting up a statue of Amy Winehouse has conjured up a strange anger beyond Jan’s furious head. You can see it in the tweets surfacing yesterday by people not paid handsomely to write controversial things:
It’s fair enough to have the debate as to whether London has too many statues, that interesting discussion has been going on for some time, particularly in the garden squares of Bloomsbury. But the objection here seems to be more personal, which is odd. Firstly, in a world of a thousand worries, getting outraged about how the dead are commemorated is all a little strange, unless the person who who has died is guilty of terrible atrocities or the monument is being erected in a curious place, like right outside your front door. This statue is in Camden Market not in the middle of Trafalgar Square on a column, the passing people will largely be tourists unless you need to rush out for a bandana, furry handcuffs, a Banksy print or some bang bang chicken. A small portion of this traffic, anyhow, is partly drawn to the area by a sort of Amy mania that has lasted beyond her death.
It can be felt in the numerous artworks of the singer on the walls around here, which you often see people proudly posing in front of, happy to be part of the homage. Camden Road, Bayham Street, Parkway, Albert Street, the Starbucks on the Lock and so on – they all have images of her. Someone once joked to me that her image was so soundly spread across NW1, the area had become like a dictator state where every family is required to own a picture of the president. But nobody has been forced, she had simply, like it or not, become an icon for this area.
And that last bit is often misunderstood: why would Camden Town want somebody who struggled with alcohol and drug use to be forever remembered with such local pride?
Well, her music was pretty unique, for starters. You could argue her voice, especially on her Back To Black album, is one of the most memorable British female solos since Dusty.
But more importantly, and without needing to play music critic, to understand why most people in Camden Town are not livid at the idea of a statue, you would’ve had to have seen how she lived and breathed these streets in a way that most of the huge park of famous residents in these postcodes do not. She knew the street cleaners. She knew the guy at the station. She knew the woman on the till at Sainsbury’s who the rest of us know. And she spoke to them like she was any other neighbour, odd but brilliant, given she was a genuine worldwide star whose face and music could be identified across the globe. She still went for chips and ketchup at the local cafe and when people spoke to her, they didn’t see the snarly woman caught by the paps. There’s an enduring you, me and us value in that.
The drugs and the booze, of course, are part of her story but if we’re honest it’s also been part of most of Camden Town’s musical back story, the place has always been an awkward crossroads of creativity and hedonism. There certainly wouldn’t be many plaques, statues and so on to the musical greats if anybody who rolled too hard at some point in their lives was discounted for tributes. That isn’t condoning it all, it’s just the way it has always been.
Beyond all of this local affection, and sadness for the ways things turned out, there is something else. Thinking of Amy Winehouse as simply ‘a smack head druggie singer’ shows again how a wider audience has not really understood what happened, or at least how she had tried to beat her substance abuse.
There is a prevalent but incorrect view that she just kept on taking drugs and alcohol until she dropped down dead. If the details of the coroner’s inquest had been digested properly, there would be more understanding of how she had quite bravely fought addiction. Perfect people with laptops and Twitter accounts may never know how that horrible compulsion to do something, even though you know it’s wrong, feels. It is the steepest of challenges, and one they are never likely to encounter themselves. The inquest actually heard she had worked hard to stop, and succeeded to some extent. Her abstinence made her weaker when she relapsed into her final vodka binge.
In the din of people being outraged – or at least saying they are outraged – by a statue they are never likely to stray upon, and erected for a singer they know only from wild newspaper pictures, the words her father Mitch once said in an interview to me spring to mind: “The reason why there is going to be a statue of Amy, hopefully, is because everybody loved Amy. She was a human being. She was a strong girl who had a weakness. Superman, the strongest man in the world. I know he’s a fictional character but he had a weakness which was a little green piece of rock called Kryptonite. So even the strongest people have their weakness. But Amy was a wonderful person, she did a lot for Camden, did a lot for kids, she was one of the greatest singers the world has ever known: why the hell shouldn’t we put a statue up? Just because it’s going to upset two people in Camden and Kentish Town? If you excuse my French, fuck ’em.”