Chasing Amy, North London Superstar
Amy Winehouse may have been famous around the world, but she could often be seen living and drinking in North London where she was born.
"Leave me alone!" I heard Amy Winehouse shout in her London accent before I first saw her. About ten grim-faced, silent men had been waiting on the road by Pentonville prison in the early morning as I walked past on my way to work at the education department inside. When the singer showed up, she went into the small shop opposite to buy cigarettes, and some snacks for her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil—who in late 2007 was on remand, charged with causing Grievous Bodily Harm. The waiting paparazzi moved across the road in a pack, took up positions next to the shop doorway and began snapping. It was eerie that all I could hear, apart from her yelling, were the clicks and whirrs of the cameras; the men said nothing. I saw her emerge, surrounded and distressed, a stick-thin figure under a mass of black hair. One of my colleagues was standing next to me in the prison car park. "Maybe we shouldn't be joining in with this," he said. We turned and went inside.
There was something appalling about the spectacle, but we were all complicit in the general voyeurism, Winehouse included. Her visits to her husband during an incarceration that lasted over a year—he was eventually convicted—were problematic. In the visits hall with all the other prisoners and families, she was clearly an object of fascination. Her beehive hair was searched for drugs. Incidents were reported that included fellow visitors singing her hit song Rehab at her. There were tabloid tales, too, about her condition and bizarre behavior inside.
It was some months before I saw her again, although Blake was well-known to many of us who worked with him. One day I rounded a corner in the roadway that ran round the outside of Pentonville's main buildings, but inside the perimeter walls, and she was right in front of me, flanked by two female prison officers who had accompanied her to a more private visit in some corner of the prison. Her appearance was so essentially Amy that it was like bumping into a cartoon. Despite impossible hair that seemed to add an extra foot to her height and a pair of heels, she was tiny in her skinny jeans and dark glasses. Her arms were tightly folded and she said nothing as the officers exclaimed and chuckled at my sudden appearance. I tried not to let my face react; I was certainly a fan. At the same time it struck me how much her get-up, the hair, the make-up, the attitude, would be helpful ways of hiding.
But she was a very visible star. I spotted her a couple more times in her native North London, as did half my friends. She didn't let her celebrity stop her from drinking where she always had, and was strongly associated with the Camden area, making a chaotic contribution to an effort to raise funds for the resurrection of her favorite watering-hole, The Hawley Arms, when it was damaged by fire in 2008. Some friends of mine once encountered a drunken Winehouse serving them drinks from behind the bar in another pub. I think the reason her death shocked me—even though it shouldn't have surprised me—is that she wasn't just a remarkable talent (and one who happened to supply the soundtrack to the early days of my relationship with my wife). She was a local kind of superstar, whose vulnerabilities were matched by her evident desire to keep it real.