x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Twitter's perplexing response to Amy Winehouse's death

A question for the Twitterati: What do Amy Winehouse, the troubled British singer who was found dead in her London home last Saturday, and the the Unknown Warrior have in common?

Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National
Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National

Here's a question for the Twitterati, delivered in less than 140 characters: "What do Amy Winehouse and the Unknown Warrior have in common?"

Beyond their humanity, Winehouse, who was found dead in her London home last Saturday, and the man buried in Westminster Abbey really don't, of course, have very much in common.

Nevertheless, the very different way in which the British nation greeted these two deaths, separated by 90 years, offers depressing evidence not only of the extent to which many British people have lost their moral bearings, but also of how, ironically, in the age of individualism it is the individual we respect the least.

The responses to the death of Winehouse - famous, but a complete stranger to most - ranged from the fatuous and the tasteless to the moralising and the faux grief-stricken. There were the comedians - "I guess God needed a concert cancelled" - vying for attention with the Princess Diana brigade, eager to claim their proxy martyrdom, and the irrational moralists, for whom the loss of human life appeared to be a relatively quantifiable event.

"It amazes me," Tweeted one on Sunday, "that a singer's drug OD seems to affect my social circle more than 100 innocent people being slaughtered in Norway."

This is not, of course, a phenomenon that can be blamed on Twitter, a mere enabler, like the mailshot, cold-calling, fax machine, email and SMS before it. Though it is doubtless a medium ideally suited to people with nothing to say, people with something to sell and people with nothing to say AND something to sell, it merely reflects, rather than shapes, the mores of our age.

Amid all this moral confusion, rewind 90 years, to November 1920.

Almost two years after the end of the First World War, the British government decided to repatriate the body of an Unknown Soldier, exhumed from the battlefields of France, to provide a focus for the grief of the hundreds of thousands of bereaved fathers, mothers, wives and children whose loved ones would never be coming home.

He would be a stranger to none. In a nation of people that had been holding its collective emotional breath for four years, each could believe that the Unknown Warrior was their son, their husband, their father.

On November 10, silent, motionless crowds packed the platform of every station and every bridge over the track as the train carrying the coffin made its way from Dover to London. The next day, the streets of the capital were lined from before dawn by the hundreds of thousands who had come to witness the passing of the coffin. As the cortège passed, followed by the king as chief mourner, heads bowed and an eerie, dignified silence descended, broken only by the sound of the hooves of the six black horses pulling the gun carriage and the beat of the muffled drums.

Though tears ran down many faces, the massed mourners, reported The Times, "were silent, and they conveyed mystery because they had come out to do homage, not to satisfy curiosity. Their hearts were speaking; therefore their tongues were still."

Not so this week, when everyone had something to say about the death of a young singer, and very few of them were speaking from the heart.

The man who lies in Westminster Abbey was, as one of the inscriptions on his tomb has it, "Unknown and yet well known". To all but her friends and family, it could be said, Winehouse was "Well known and yet unknown".

Somehow, like those respective epitaphs, our moral and emotional polarity has become reversed.