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Bittersweet memories of the girl with the Fairytale voice

Fairytale of New York, the ultimate classic Christmas song, is 30 years old. Donal Lynch looks back on the life and tragic death of Kirsty MacColl, whose voice on the recording still echoes hauntingly down the decades

A few moments from the festive frenzy of Oxford Street, in the meditative gloom of Soho Square, is a bench with a curious inscription embossed into its brass sign:

"One day you'll be waiting there, no empty bench in Soho Square,

And we'll dance around like we don't care,

And I'll be much too old to cry,

And you'll kiss me quick in case I die before my birthday."

The lines come from a song by a woman whose voice is the soundtrack to this time of year: Kirsty MacColl. As the feisty, unsentimental foil to Shane MacGowan on Fairytale Of New York, she reliably re-enters the top 20 every December. Over the 30 winters since its release, Fairytale has hardly waned in popularity, and to date has sold 1.3 million copies.

As well as capturing the bittersweet ambiguity of the season, Fairytale's place in the cultural firmament is a timely reminder of a tragic artist whose brilliance might otherwise be forgotten to the masses. Kirsty MacColl was killed in a boating accident in Mexico in 2000 and her death was one of the great music tragedies because, even in the 17 years since then, nobody has come along who touches her. There is still no other female singer who combines the mordant brilliance of The Smiths and Billy Bragg with the sonic sweetness of the Beach Boys. Or one who mixes sadness and satire as brilliantly as MacColl did on songs like There's A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis. Morrissey called her "a true original", Bono said she was "the Noel Coward of her generation".

She was, of course, folk music royalty to begin with. Her father was the folk icon Ewan MacColl, and her mother was the dancer and choreographer Jean Newlove, although, by the time Kirsty was born, her father had married Peggy Seeger. A shy, introverted girl, Kirsty grew up in Croydon, south London, with her mother, her older brother, Hamish, and three younger half-siblings. Ewan used to visit them on Sundays, but the young Kirsty claimed not to have been influenced in any way by his music, which by then had made him a star - most famously he composed Dirty Old Town and The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, which became a huge hit for Roberta Flack. Instead, Kirsty's first adventures in the music business found her mooching round the fringes of punk rock. She had been playing guitar since she was 13 and by the late 1970s she dropped out of secondary school and began singing with a band called the Drug Addix; she dubbed herself Mandy Doubt.

Stiff Records invited her to record a debut solo single, They Don't Know; it was released in June 1979, after she had dropped out of art college. The record flopped, but the song became a hit for Tracey Ullman four years later.

A huge impediment to MacColl's burgeoning career was that she had a visceral fear of live performance. This stage fright had begun during a tour of Ireland, where, in front of half-empty Ballroom of Romance-era halls in Donegal and Galway, she rushed through her setlist so quickly that she got to the end too quickly and had to do all the songs again. "I just thought, why put yourself through so much humiliation?" she said at the time (it would be years later before MacGowan would help get her over the stagefright).

She returned to the UK, chastened, and began working for Stiff Records, where she met Steve Lillywhite, a producer. The couple had two sons together, James and Louis, and he helped her work around her crippling shyness by installing her as a backing singer on projects by a who's who of artists of the period, including Talking Heads, The Smiths, Simple Minds, The Happy Mondays and Robert Plant. It was also Lillywhite who introduced her to Shane MacGowan, and facilitated the collaboration that would become Fairytale Of New York, the title of which came from the JP Donleavy novel of the same name.

Years later, MacColl would take issue with the narrative that he had somehow brought her into music, however. "The implication is sometimes that I only went into music because certain men guided me that way," she said in an interview with The Guardian, "whereas I'd been making records for five years before I even met Steve."

Kirsty was also indignant about the perception of women in rock: "I'm constantly asked, 'How do you combine a career and a family?' They never ask my husband or Sting that question. It's plain old sexism, really."

MacColl had been fairly ubiquitous throughout the 1980s - There's A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop ... came out in 1981, for instance, and Fairytale in '87 and there were loads of guest spots in the interim years - but with her debut album, called Kite, in 1989, she announced herself as an artist in her own right. In one of the patterns of her career, it won widespread critical admiration but sold poorly. The album did throw up her first solo hit, a cover of Days by the Kinks, to which she gave a sound reminiscent of The Beach Boys.

Her songs were tender, funny and political, and their slightly frumpy author seemed like an anti-popstar. "The music industry packages women," she said. "You're either a dolly-bird bimbo or a soapbox sociologist."

In the early 1990s, she sang a stunning, stark version of Miss Otis Regrets - check YouTube for a glorious live version on Jools Holland - for Aids charity Red Hot's second album, and, with Evan Dando, recorded a memorable cover of Lou Reed's Perfect Day. For her fans, it always felt like they were surviving on slightly incongruous crumbs of Kirsty, however. For instance, improbably during this period, she was a regular on the French and Saunders comedy series on the BBC. "I look incredibly pissed off and unhappy on those programmes," she said later. "In fact, I was just terrified."

She was open about suffering too from writer's block, which was only alleviated by stints in Latin America, particularly Cuba, which she visited in 1992 and where she made music with local performers. "I think that's where I got it into my head that anybody who spoke Spanish was having a better time than me," she would later say, and ever after her albums would have a Latin flavour.

She went through a messy divorce with Lillywhite in the late 1990s. Her son, Louis, would later say that the death of Princess Diana in 1997 brought his parents back on speaking terms. "Diana's accident brought my parents a bit closer," he told the Daily Mail. "They weren't speaking and then that happened and they thought 'Poor kids, for that to happen, to have your parents not on good terms and then one of them goes out like a light'. So Diana's death got them speaking and thinking that they should be friends for our sake because, you know, what if …?"

That awful ellipsis became reality in 2000 when Kirsty introduced her boys to her love of diving. Kirsty was happier than she had been for years. She had overcome her writer's block, and her new album Tropical Brainstorm was winning ecstatic reviews. She was in a new relationship and relishing what she called "the second chapter of my life".

Twelve miles off the Yucatan peninsula, the island of Cozumel, part of the state of Quintana Roo, is known as Mexico's 'crown jewel'. Its coral reef chain, the second largest in the world, is ranked among the world's top five diving destinations, attracting thousands of visitors annually. It was here that Kirsty wanted to teach her sons about her passion.

The boat that hit her was travelling at high speed in an area restricted for divers. The truth about who was driving it became unclear after Kirsty's death. According to early reports, Gonzalez Nova, the boat's billionaire owner (he was one of Mexico's richest men) admitted to being at the helm immediately after the accident. However, hours later, his unlicensed boat hand, Jose Cen Yam, claimed to have been at the helm and, even though witnesses stated the boat was travelling at a minimum of 15 to 20 knots, he said he was doing just one knot.

"We were going to do two dives," Louis, then 14, later explained. "On the first, about 2pm, we all went down together. There were wonderful things there. I came up to the surface first, Mummy was next to me. I said, 'Wow!' She smiled and said, 'Great!' Then she suddenly screamed, 'Look out!' and tried to push us out of the way. The boat was already over us - I could see the propellers."

Swimming in the direction in which his mum had pushed him, he noticed the sea becoming tinged with red. "I was swimming in Mummy's blood. I heard Jamie shout, 'Where's Mummy?' I screamed she'd been hit and to swim the other way and not look back."

Cen Yam was found guilty of culpable homicide and sentenced to less than three years in prison in March 2003. Yet the judge allowed him to walk free after paying a fine of just £61. In addition, he was ordered to pay £1,450 compensation to Kirsty's sons, a sum calculated on the basis of his small salary. Kirsty's mother, Jean, incensed by what many saw as a cover-up, devoted the next six years to battling with Mexican bureaucracy in an attempt to bring the people she felt were truly responsible to trial. In a BBC documentary about the search for justice for Kirsty, there was an interview with the captain of the boat that killed her. Felipe Diaz Poot admitted there was nothing surprising about the way the case was mishandled. "We are poor people. He [Gonzalez Nova] is the Don - what more is there to say?" he said.

Nova died in 2009 while Kirsty's mother Jean died in May of this year, her wish to see justice for her daughter having never been fulfilled.

For Kirsty's two sons, this time of the year brings bittersweet memories, articulated a number of years ago in a moving interview Louis gave The Daily Telegraph.

"It's so nice, I feel lucky to be able to hear her voice on the radio every year. I love hearing it, it's comforting. You hear atrocities on TV every day about people who lose their families in an instant and that's the last time they hear their voice and they can't see them on a video. We will always have a part of her, what more could we ask for?"

Fairytale of New York, the ultimate classic Christmas song, is 30 years old. Donal Lynch looks back on the life and tragic death of Kirsty MacColl, whose voice on the recording still echoes hauntingly down the decades

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