It was a weekend of death and while my heart goes out to the lost of Norway, I’m afraid it was Amy Winehouse’s passing that stopped me in my tracks. Why does the death of one 27 year old whom I’ve never met, but read a great deal about, hit harder than the needless killing of 92 innocent people several hundred miles away? The British papers may speculate about the hierarchy of death but it comes down to personal things, doesn’t it; and the fact that we feel we somehow know Amy, means that this singular death has more impact. Well in the UK, I guess.
Death is an intriguing matter. Across the world on a too regular basis massacres such as that in Oslo occur. We read of Americans going mad and shooting up their schools; the Horn of Africa is gripped by drought and famine – how many are dead there? In other parts of Africa the murdering and raping of the people thunders on like a relentless juggernaut. How much do we care about those deaths? How much can we care about those deaths? The personal stories of these events are what makes us react, makes us feel something. It was Bob Geldof’s personal experiences in Africa over twenty-five years ago that caused him to act.
But this week, it is the death of one famous person that makes me pause. Amy Winehouse, now immortalised as one of the ‘famous 27’ according to the papers, now keeping company with the likes of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. I was too young for the deaths of the first 3 to hit and I was only so-so into Nirvana anyway, but Amy, who lived her life on the front of every English newspaper, who had such potential, such palpable talent, who you could see was not going to make old bones – well you do feel it. The news breaks, you stop to listen. You feel it. A sadness, an overwhelming sadness for the waste, for the state of mind and loneliness that left her dead at 27.
Yes, there is that sense of loss for the young people of Norway, who also had potential and so much ahead of them too. But your emotional reaction is different; you feel angry and mystified; more perplexed by the madness of individuals who take guns and callously kill random strangers, who ruin so many more lives through their insanity. People ask how can this happen in our society, in our civilised country? But madmen exist the world over. I remember when Martin Bryant strolled out one morning in April, 1996 and casually and callously shot 35 people and injured many more, for no real reason. Lives ruined, a place with a dark history of brutality (Port Arthur, home to some of the worst convicts transported from England) now reeking of death and madness once more. People were horrified, mystified; how can this happen here? But it did and it does and these people walk amongst us every day.
It was Heath Ledger’s death three years ago that stopped me too; that really quite upset me actually. There on the front of the Metro as I went to work: dead. Suddenly, for no good reason. He was 28, also full of potential, and immense talent, yet to fully unfold. If he could do Brokeback Mountain in his 20s, what could he do as he grew and evolved as an actor? Amy Winehouse the same – what could she have done? It is the waste, not just of life, as with the Oslo and Port Arthur massacres, but of talent, of true ability. That’s what we mourn most. The waste of such gifts.
No-one should die violently, young or before their time. No-one should die alone. We care about the deaths of people like Amy Winehouse and Heath Ledger because they live in our living rooms. They are on our screens, our radios, are in the papers; they are central to celebrity culture, to the way we make sense of our place in the world. We ‘know’ them, we care about them; follow their triumphs and disasters, worry about them; connect with them on a personal level – the tattoos, the terrible husband, the struggles with drink and drugs, trying to get clean. If famous people struggle with all their talent (and money) then it’s okay if I do too – I’m not so alone or useless. Remember Jade Goody – she lived and died in front of us too? No talent, no skills, no real waste in her death, except she was too young, had children and didn’t deserve to die either.
Death stalks us all. Innocent, famous – deserving or not. The tragedy of the weekend is that no-one in Norway needed to die and neither did Amy. But who was looking? Someone knew the gun-man in Oslo wasn’t ‘right’. Amy Winehouse has been on a date with death for the past three years. No, the lesson from the weekend is that we all need to take better care of each other. Watch for the signs, take care of your vulnerable friends, family. Report the nutters: don’t take chances. Look after those you love.