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Amy Winehouse and celebrity: The hunger to know, the price to be paid

This week in North London, a convoy of flashy cars with tinted windows slithered from Edgwarebury Cemetery to Golders Green Crematorium. As snappers hung off ladders to capture an otherwise private funeral, a string of record producers, DJs, party girls and reality-TV stars emerged to pay their respects to the late Amy Winehouse. The young men slouched in slim black suits, bed-heads finely mussed beneath yarmulkes worn for the Jewish funeral, eyes obscured by standard-issue Ray-Bans. A zaftig Kelly Osbourne shellacked her hair into a bulbous blond beehive for dramatic effect.

The scene was spooky and stomach-churning, echoing as it did the funereal video for the singer's 2007 title-track hit, Back to Black, in which she appears as a ghostly sylph in black and white walking behind a hearse and tossing a handful of dirt on her lover's grave. It was, like everything else in Winehouse's short life, a kind of grim pageant, played out at her own expense. The photos were uploaded around the globe in seconds. Even in death - perhaps especially so - Winehouse succeeded at maximum public exposure.

What a strange season it's been for London. A season that kicked off venomously with Kevin Spacey's turn as Richard III at the Old Vic and descended in a howling downward spiral from there. While audiences clamour to watch the West End's favourite American stagger about, clinging to power in a Victorian leg brace, the summer of London's discontent rages on outside.

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Less shocking than Winehouse, but no less a loss to culture, was the death of Lucien Freud, the realist painter and grandson of Sigmund, known for his unsettling and visually textured nudes. While Winehouse laid her pain bare in life and music, Freud's disconcerting depictions of female flesh were every bit as ingenious - and disturbing.

Britain's greatest living painter and the most fascinating singer of her generation dead within a few days, and just weeks after the country's bestselling Sunday scandal sheet was murdered in cold blood. The strange triumvirate of deaths has cast an eerie pall over London, a city not known for its ability to shut up or sit still.

It's a good moment for Britain to pause over its culture of maximum exposure, if not the first time in recent history it's had occasion to do so. When Diana, Princess of Wales, died, there was a national outpouring in Britain, followed by much bad-mouthing of the paparazzi who had hunted her down (often, it must be said, at her own request). But for all the talk of a newer, cleaner media culture in the wake of Diana's demise - all the contrition from gossip columnists and lip service paid to privacy rights - as we now know, the so-called red-top scandal sheets simply waited for the furor to pass, then carried on their merry, mercenary way.

Centuries before Facebook, Twitter and live-feed news blogs, the impulse to expose - twinned with its obvious counterpart, the hunger to know - was there. But what has it taken from us? Accusations emerged online this week that Winehouse's phone and medical records had been routinely hacked, but anyone can see that what exposure took from her was more than access to her voice mail. "The more insecure I feel, the bigger my beehive gets," she once confessed - an admitting of the pain she so nakedly displayed and on which the gutter press feasted.

Freud, on the other hand, lived a retiring life. Like Winehouse, he died in his North London home; unlike her he was a ripe old 88. His work, so intensely expositional in texture that it dares you to look away, could be the visual counterpart to Winehouse's soulful heartbreak. Each in their own way, were confessors, feeding a culture of voyeurs.

The desire to pry and the hunger to know may never end, but let's hope the impulse takes no more victims in this, the summer of London's discontent.

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