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Laurie Penny: Amy Winehouse never, ever let us down

Winehouse was never interested in the normal rules of female celebrity.

We live in a hard, spiteful world that gorges on gossip and outrage and tramples on talent. As the tributes pour in for Amy Winehouse, who died on 23 July at the age of 27, we should remember that throughout her short career, the young singer was bullied by the press for the same vulnerability that made her music so powerful.

Winehouse was always more than an amazing voice. Her songs are as remarkable for their emotional authenticity as they are for the raw, precocious power of her singing. Her breakthrough album, Back to Black, is one of the great records of the early 21st century, and it is sublime precisely because it is about suffering: the ugly intimacies of addiction, the untidy angst of being young and lovesick and desperately unhappy, distilled into something rich, bitter and fine.

In a music industry that seems set on a trajectory of icy, impenetrable perfection, of inoffensive singer-songwriters with cookie-cutter good looks making coffee-table records for the curtain-twitchers of Middle England, Winehouse wore her flaws as brazenly as her 13 tattoos. And she was hounded for it to the point of breakdown.

The gossip press loves nothing better than to watch a young woman fall to pieces. The tabloids scented blood long before Winehouse appeared in public with flecks of it spattered on her ballet pumps, and began to hunt her through the streets of London and New York. Her song lyrics were quoted back at her in endless dissections of her obvious distress, mocking her refusal to "go to rehab" when she eventually did just that. In 2009, she had to take out a court order to stop press photographers from camping outside her house.

With the ethics of the tabloid press under scrutiny, it is worth asking why hacks felt the need, as the science writer Martin Robbins observed, "to pursue so aggressively and mercilessly a talented, but vulnerable, young woman". The day before the Sunday Mirror broke the news of her death, its sister paper sneered about Winehouse's appearance at a gig "like the embarrassing auntie you don't want at a family reunion". The same papers that gloated over Winehouse's deteriorating health and published grisly pictures of the car crash that was her personal life now carry solemn tributes to her achievements. The same papers that called Winehouse fat when she arrived as a fresh young talent in 2003, then gloated over her emaciated appearance as she succumbed to the pressures of fame, are saying how worried they always were about her weight.

A recurring motif of the many articles taunting Winehouse as her addictions lurched out of control was her failure to be “a good role model". Photographs of the "troubled singer" were regularly used to illustrate hand-wringing pieces about how young women everywhere were spiralling into a moral soup of loose-knickered, hard-drinking degeneracy.

Part of the joy of Winehouse as a pop phenomenon, however, was that she was never interested in the normal rules of female celebrity. When asked in 2007 why Amy Winehouse meant so much to me, I wrote that she was the only woman singer who you could never imagine releasing her own perfume - and if she did, you wouldn't want it near your pressure points any more than you'd dab yourself with Essence of Keith Richards.

It should not be the job of every female who achieves success through her own talents to be a model of ladylike good behaviour. Pete Doherty, whose substance misuse has likewise furnished the gossip papers with almost a decade of slobbering disapprobation, was never asked to be a role model. Young women need role models, but we also need artists and icons.

Winehouse was consistently iconic, from her trademark scruffy beehive and eyeliner to the raw soul of her voice. It is one of the many ways in which she never, ever let us down.

Much has been made of how her premature passing places her in the macabre coterie of musicians, from Morrison and Hendrix to Joplin and Cobain, who died suddenly at the age of 27. The superstition surrounding the so-called 27 Club is no more than a tasteless attempt to attach meaning and order to the senseless waste of young talent. Yet perhaps the association will allow Winehouse to be remembered not as a frail addict, but as the damn fine music star that she was.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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I’m in the kitchen with my children, finally learning how to sharpen a knife

For some reason, they have often given me sharp things as presents.

The children have been with me quite a bit lately: they are all going to be, by the time you read this, on their travels, and the Hovel is a useful staging-post for the start of their journeys. Staying here means an extra hour in bed when you have to take a coach from Victoria, or a plane from Stansted or, worse, Luton.

Their company never fails to delight, which is not how I imagined things would turn out. I was a surly clock-watcher at my own parents’ home, counting the days until I could cast off the oppressive yoke of having my meals cooked for me and my laundry done. That was how it was back then. Nowadays, parents try to close the gap between themselves and their children or, even if they don’t try, the gap seems to be closing anyway.

I suppose not being in situ for ten years, on the ground doing the daily heavy lifting, helps. I am not the monstrous, Freudian oppressor-figure: I am the messy layabout with a certain weird kind of authority but not one who assumes the moral high ground. But here they are, or were, and as they get older they get increasingly interesting, more pleasing to be with. And the interesting thing is that they now have skills that I can learn. The traffic of instruction is not one-way.

My daughter worked, for a while, in the kitchen of a restaurant in Berlin. She already knew how to cook, and how to get along with people, but there she also learned how to sharpen knives. I thought I could, but I can’t, not at all.

When you see a father – invariably a father – zinging a honing steel along the blade of a knife prior to carving the Sunday roast, he is not doing anything useful apart from establishing a sense of theatre, which is of debatable utility anyway. He might think he’s a cross between Zorro and Anthony Bourdain, the rather cool New York chef – there’s always a certain flourish in the wrist action – but the trained chef will raise an eyebrow.

For some reason my children have often given me sharp things as presents. For my first Christmas in the Hovel they gave me a Swiss Army Knife, which I still use, especially the corkscrew; one birthday they gave me a pizza-cutter in the shape of the original Starship Enterprise – which I still use. And last birthday, the boys clubbed together to get me a proper kitchen knife.

I had hitherto resisted the notion of getting one, despite the fact that I like cooking and also know how important a good knife is. Here is Bourdain himself, writing in his Les Halles Cookbook (the only one I ever use these days): “Your knife, more than any other piece of equipment in the kitchen, is an extension of the self, an expression of your skills, ability, experience, dreams and desires.”

I suppose this was why I put up with rubbish knives for so long: my dreams and desires were second-rate. I was cooking on an electric hob, mostly for myself; besides, I wasn’t going to be here forever. What the hell was I going to do with a decent knife? Also, I have a healthy respect for sharpness, and whenever I cut meat up with a good blade, I imagine that blade cutting into my own weak flesh, and see vividly, the wound it makes.

But a good knife needs to be looked after, and my daughter, who was given a Japanese chef’s knife as a parting gift from her fellow kitchen workers, learned how to use a water stone, and last weekend taught me.

It is fascinating, and soothing, sharpening a knife. You have to gauge the correct angle at which to place the blade against the stone. You have to feel, with the pads of your fingers, the sharpness of the knife itself, and the burr that results on one side of it after a few dozen passes over the stone. One is aware that sharpening is about shaving steel, almost by molecules at a time, a process that has no theoretical end, except when, one day, the knife itself is sharpened to invisibility.

I am reminded of the fabled measure of eternity: the bird who sharpens his beak against the rock of a mile-high mountain once every hundred years. When the mountain is worn down, a mere day of eternity will have passed.

Meanwhile, the daughter passes the knife across the stone, dips her fingers in a bowl of water, sprinkles it over the stone, and repeats the passing. The father sits there, absorbed in her skill, wondering at this inversion of the traditional learning process. “Here,” she says, handing over knife and stone. “You have a go.” 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder