|Born||Sally Myfanwy Amis
17 January 1954
|Died||8 November 2000
|Religion||Roman Catholic (adult conversion)|
|Spouse(s)||Nigel Service (m. 1976, divorced)|
|Parents||Kingsley Amis and Hilary Bardwell|
|Relatives||Philip Amis, Martin Amis (brothers); Jaime Boyd (half-brother)|
Sally Myfanwy Amis (17 January 1954 – 8 November 2000) was the youngest child and only daughter of the writer Kingsley Amis (1922–1995), and his first wife, Hilary Bardwell. She lived for the most part out of the public eye, but came to public attention posthumously, when her brother, Martin Amis, wrote about her in Koba the Dread (2002). She later appeared as the promiscuous and damaged Violet in his novel The Pregnant Widow (2010).
The Pregnant Widow is about the sexual revolution of the 1960s; the Russian writer Alexander Herzen (1812–1870) used the metaphor of the pregnant widow for that point in a revolution when the old order has died, but the new one is not yet born, leading to "a long night of chaos and desolation." Martin Amis described Sally as one of the revolution's most spectacular victims.
Plagued by alcoholism, depression and promiscuity, and with a daughter born out of a brief encounter and given up for adoption at three months, Sally suffered a stroke at the age of 40 and died six years later of an unspecified infection. Journalist Julia Molony blamed Sally's dysfunctional family life, with Kingsley as an elusive father figure able to relate to women only through sex.
Martin had talked to Sally about writing her story. "I once rescued her from some terrible situation and paid up what was necessary to release her from it, and took her home and patched her up. And she looked at me and I know she wanted to thank me, and she was wondering how to do that. Normally she thanked people by having sex with them. But she just said: 'You know you can write about me, and you know you can tell the truth, and you can say everything, and I won't mind.'"
Sally was born at 24 The Grove, Uplands, Swansea, Wales, the third child and only daughter of Kingsley Amis (1922–1995) and Hilary "Hilly" Ann Bardwell. Kingsley and Hilary met in Oxford in May 1946; he was reading English at St John's, while she was studying at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, after attending Bedales. Their sons, Philip and Martin, were born in 1948 and 1949. The birth of the children did not diminish Kingsley's interest in other women. He once took Hilary to dinner at his married mistress's home, where another man and his wife were dining too, and it was this third woman that Kingsley asked out on a date. Parties at the Amis household would involve every woman present being asked to accompany Kingsley to his greenhouse at the bottom of the garden.
Hilary bought the house in Swansea with money her mother had left her. Kingsley was working as a lecturer in English at the University College of Swansea and was writing his first novel, Lucky Jim (1954). One student said Kingsley's arrival in Swansea was "as if a brilliantly-hued tropical bird had come winging into our still blitz-battered town," though the reality was that Kingsley and Hilary were so poor that she had to take a job as a waitress and take scraps home pretending they were for the dog.
It was around this time in 1953 that Hilary became pregnant with Sally. She said she didn't know for sure that Kingsley was the father – she had taken lovers herself given that her husband was doing likewise – but he accepted Sally as his own. Lucky Jim was published days after Sally's birth, bringing Kingsley overnight success. Larkin wrote a poem for her, "Born Yesterday," which was published in The Spectator.
When she was two, Sally fell head first from a table in the garden onto a stone floor, fracturing her skull; there were fears for her life for the first day and night, but she recovered. Not long afterwards, in March 1957, her paternal grandmother, Rosa, died after having a stroke in her home in Shrublands Avenue, Berkhamsted. Sally, by then aged three, was being looked after by Rosa at the time, and was left alone in the house with the body for around 10 hours, until Rosa's husband got home from work. He reportedly found Sally oddly dressed and wearing her grandmother's make-up.
Sally switched schools several times as her father moved to Princeton University in the United States for a year in 1958, where he taught creative writing, then back to Cambridge, England, where in 1961 he became Director of Studies in English at Peterhouse.
In August 1963, when Sally was nine, Kingsley left the family to live with the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, whom he married in 1965. Hilary took Sally and her brothers to live in Spain in a house with no heating, and with no access to a car and the children speaking no Spanish. She said they were miserable and rarely heard from their father. They returned to London, but she fell into a depression, and the children were reportedly left to look after themselves. The boys eventually moved in with Kingsley, while Sally stayed with Hilary, and was sent to boarding school at Eastbourne.
In 1967 Hilary married the classicist D. R. Shackleton Bailey, and she and Sally went to live with him in America, where he had taken a job at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. The marriage was not a happy one, and Sally, by then sixteen, fled back to England alone, arriving unannounced one morning at Heathrow. She went to stay with her father and his wife at Lemmons, their home on Hadley Common, near Hertfordshire. Sally refused to go to school, spending her time drinking, smoking cannabis and taking LSD. Zachary Leader writes that she was briefly sent to the Wrens (the Women's Royal Naval Service), but lasted less than a week, then took a series of low-paying jobs, including at Scotch House in Knightsbridge, where she told her boss she had terminal cancer.
Martin wrote that Sally became "pathologically promiscuous" as a teenager. He told Mark Lawson: "She threw herself into whatever was in the air, promiscuity and new freedoms, but without realizing that none of it was in her interests." He said she was seeking protection from men, "but it went the other way, she was often beaten up, abused and she simply used herself up." She lived in the United States for a time, taking drugs and going to rock concerts with the Hell's Angels. Amis said she was unrecognizable when she returned to England, a child adrift in an adult world. "The life she led was awful," he said. "Uncertain from moment to moment. She didn’t really like sex, so would get drunk, got drunk all the time, and got beaten up ... It was a miracle she made it to 46."
Three years after leaving school, in 1974, Sally took a job in a wine bar in Edgware Road, London, managed by Nigel Service and his brother. Service, 20 years older than Sally, said she was extroverted and funny, putting on voices to mimic people, and that the customers adored her. He and Sally were married at Hampstead Register Office in 1976, with Kingsley, Philip and Martin in attendance. Service rented a flat for the couple in Hampstead, but Sally's alcoholism got worse. She left after six months and moved into a church hostel, where she met another alcoholic and became pregnant with a daughter. She gave the baby up for adoption in the summer of 1979.
Sally converted to Roman Catholicism at one point, but the drinking continued; her mother says that when Sally went to Westminster Cathedral for the conversion ceremony, she was carrying a can of Special Brew in her handbag. She had a stroke at the age of 40 in 1994, which left her with a limp, and from then until her death lived on disability benefit of ₤73 a week in a tiny council flat in Kentish Town, London.
Her father was taken to hospital in August 1995 with a suspected stroke, and again in October after he fell and crushed some vertebrae. She had been sitting for ten hours by his bedside at St Pancras Hospital when he died on 22 October, while Philip and Martin smoked outside. Martin writes that Sally stood up, "electrified, as if italicized – as if so many urgent tasks awaited her that she couldn't for the life of her think where to begin." She fell into a long depression, erecting a shrine of memorabilia to Kingsley in her flat, including signed copies of his books and photographs, with his ashes on an urn on the mantelpiece.
In November 2000 Sally became ill herself, with an unspecified infection, and was taken to the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead. When Martin arrived she was unconscious in the intensive care unit, and died four days later. He wrote in Koba the Dread (2002):
I was apprised of this death, not by any change in my sister's demeanor, but by the twining coils of the monitor screen. She, or the respirator she was attached to, continued to breathe, to pant ardently: a corpse with a heaving chest. Then they disconnected her, and she could be approached and kissed without horror. And I asked her a question I had asked many times before, but would now have no cause to ask again: "Oh, Sally, what have you done?" Many times, as a child, I silently promised to protect her. And I didn't do that, did I? No one could have protected her, perhaps. But those promises, never uttered, are still inside me and are still a part of me.
Martin wrote to the editor of The Scotsman to correct a story that implied Sally had been penniless and alone when she died; she had, he said, left a considerable legacy and had remained in touch with the family. When Sally's daughter, by then a 22-year-old nursery school teacher, heard that Sally had died, she attended the funeral without making herself known to anyone, and later contacted the family via the undertaker.
Martin Amis's writing
Amis dedicated Time's Arrow (1991) to Sally, and wrote about her in Experience (2000), Koba the Dread (2002), and The Pregnant Widow (2010). James Diedrick writes that, a year before the publication of Koba, an examination of Joseph Stalin's legacy, Amis had suggested the book would be about Sally, the story of 20 million tragedies through the portrait of one. In the end only a few paragraphs were about her, but Paul Berman suggests that Koba is, indeed, about the deaths of Sally and Kingsley – that Amis dealt with his grief elliptically by studying Stalin instead of his own loss. Amis said he had a breakdown after Sally's death, though it took him a while to see it for what it was.
In The Pregnant Widow Sally appears as the promiscuous and damaged Violet, the younger sister of the novel's protagonist, Keith Nearing, always drinking, always in hopeless relationships. Mark Lawson asked Amis in 2010 about the morality of writing about family. Amis replied that there is a process in writing fiction where you have to earn certain things: "Often when I read, I think 'that isn't earned' ... things are discussed and described without enough propriety, and I know what that is, and it's suffering. It's sitting in your room feeling very miserable, remembering and re-experiencing these painful things, and doing enough suffering – although it's not a question of will, it's just a question of receiving this deep unease – until you've earned the book."
- Martin Amis, Experience, Vintage, 2001 (first published 2000), p. 101 for her middle name; p. 148 for her date of birth.
- Alexander Herzen, From the Other Shore, G. Braziller, 1956: "The death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir but a pregnant widow. Between the death of one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by; a long night of chaos and desolation will pass."
- For the quote, also see Neal Ascherson, "Memories of Amikejo", London Review of Books, 34(6), 22 March 2012.
- Alex Bilmes, "Martin Amis: 'Women have got too much power for their own good'", The Daily Telegraph, 2 February 2010.
- Alison Flood, "Martin Amis says new novel will get him 'in trouble with the feminists'", The Guardian, 20 November 2009.
- Stephen Adams, Martin Amis: the sexual revolution killed my sister Sally, The Daily Telegraph, 21 November 2009.
- Julia Molony, "Amis takes aim at the wrong target", The Independent on Sunday, 6 December 2009.
- Mark Lawson, Interview with Martin Amis, Front Row, BBC Radio 4, 2 February 2010, at 14:57 minutes.
- Also see Boyd Tonkin, "Martin Amis: Talking about a revolution", The Independent, 5 February 2010.
- For the address, see Amis 2001, p. 148.
- Kingsley Amis, Memoirs, Hutchinson, 1991, p. xvi.
- Zachary Leader, The Life of Kingsley Amis, Jonathan Cape, 2006, p. 195.
- Amis 2001, p. 335.
- Leader 2006, p. 238.
- "Sir Kingsley Amis Dies; British Novelist and Poet," The Washington Post, 23 October 1995.
- Leader 2006, p. 304.
- "Born Yesterday (for Sally Amis)", The Spectator, 29 July 1954, p. 18.
- Amis 2001, pp. 51–52; Leader 2006, p. 381.
- Neil Powell, Amis & Son: Two Literary Generations, Macmillan, 2008, p. 107.
- Kingsley Amis, Memoirs, Penguin, 1992.
- Richard Bradford and Peter Owen, Lucky Him: The Life of Kingsley Amis, 2001, chapter 10.
- McGrath (New York Times) 2007, p. 4.
- Leader 2006, pp. 612–613.
- Camilla Long, "Martin Amis and the sex war", The Times, 24 January 2010.
- Lawson (BBC Radio 4) 2010.
- Geoffrey Levy, Was Martin Amis's sister killed by the Sixties sexual revolution - or her drunken father's neglect?, Daily Mail, 27 November 2009.
- Allan Brown, "Laughter and lost daughters", Scotland on Sunday, 28 October 2001.
- Allan Brown, "Amis breaks silence over sister's death", Scotland on Sunday, 28 October 2001.
- Martin Amis, "Letters to the editor," The Scotsman, 7 February 2002: "I have only just seen your Sunday Encounter piece of 28 October 2001. Your correspondent, Allan Brown, has looked into the clippings file and has reproduced some ungenerous inaccuracies about my sister. My sister's baby daughter was not the result of 'a one-night stand'; in fact, she cohabited for some time with the father. More generally, the impression is given that my sister lived in penury and neglect. Not so. She was in full contact with every member of her family, and her will disposed of a considerable legacy."
- Amis 2002, p. 275.
- "Sir Kingsley Amis Dies; British Novelist and Poet," The Washington Post, 23 October 1995.
- Amis 2001, pp. 339, 351, 354.
- James Diedrick, Understanding Martin Amis, University of South Carolina Press, 2004, pp. 194–195.
- Martin Amis, Koba the Dread, Knopf, 2002, p. 268.
- Amis 2002, pp. 275–276.
- James Diedrick, Understanding Martin Amis, University of South Carolina Press, 2004, p. 194.
- Paul Berman, "'Koba the Dread': A Million Deaths Is Not Just a Statistic", The New York Times, 28 July 2002.
- Boyd Tonkin, "Martin Amis: Talking about a revolution", The Independent, 5 February 2010.
- Lawson (BBC Radio 4) 2010, from 15:14 minutes.