Was Martin Amis's sister killed by the Sixties sexual revolution - or her drunken father's neglect?

No one would ever doubt that author Martin Amis loved his late sister Sally, and because she loved him and would call him in times of crisis, she would probably not have objected to him describing her this week as 'pathologically promiscuous'.

Sally died nine years ago, a tragic figure who had existed for years in a council bedsit on state handouts and virtually drank herself to death at the age of 46.

Amis, 60, whose books frequently draw on his dysfunctional family for well-publicised inspiration, has written Sally into the storyline of his new novel, The Pregnant Widow, which explores the devastating pressures on women created by the sexual revolution of the 1960s and Seventies.

Sally Amis

Tragic victim: Sally Amis, who died at the age of 46

His younger sister, who gave birth to a daughter whom she gave up for adoption was, he says: 'One of the most spectacular victims of the revolution. It would have needed the Taliban to have protected her.'

This is a rather different analysis of Sally's life from one delivered by Amis  -  son of the late Sir Kingsley  -  when he made her a presence in an earlier memoir, Koba The Dread: Laughter And The Twenty Million.

This book was essentially a biography of the monstrous Joseph Stalin but also drew on Amis's life, and on that occasion Amis described Sally as 'a victim of my father's power and presence, perhaps'.

He might just as easily have said his father's lack of presence, as Sally was just eight years old when Kingsley, the serial adulterer and brilliant son of a Clapham clerk, walked out on their 35-year-old mother Hilly on her birthday, to live with the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard.

Whichever way you look at it, Sally's is a sad story of lovelessness and disappointment, of loneliness and despair  -  and this in a family where literary success gave them such early promise and advantages.

Kingsley's great friend, the poet Philip Larkin, even wrote a poem, Born Yesterday, for Sally when she was born two days after publication of Lucky Jim  -  Amis's first novel that brought him instant success in 1954.

Larkin's theme was not to wish her 'The usual stuff/ About being beautiful' but to point out that even if she were not so lucky and even 'dull', this ought not prevent the 'Catching of happiness'.

And for the first years of her life, it looked as though Larkin would be right. Not that Sally was dull: she was petite and pretty, and despite moving from school to school as her father, an English lecturer, moved up the academic ladder from Swansea to Princeton and then Cambridge, she was, says her mother, 'a lovely child'.

She was good at English, enjoyed swimming and singing in the school choir, and had a remarkable talent for mimicry that made her consider a career on the stage.

The Amis family

Dysfunctional family: Sally with her parents Kingsley and Hilly and brothers Phillip and Martin (right)

'She was a happy girl and she loved school, but she was a restless soul and made up her mind when she was 16 to move on to something new,' says her mother, who today lives in southern Spain where she set up home with her third husband, the late Alastair Boyd (Lord Kilmarnok).

'She wanted to go to drama school but was put off by Jane,' she continues. Jane is Elizabeth Jane Howard, who had become Kingsley's second wife in 1965, when Sally was 10.

'Sally told me that Jane said she didn't walk or move well enough for the stage  -  something about not having enough grace,' says Lady Kilmarnock, who was living in Fulham at the time, while her ex-usband was in Hertfordshire.

'To be honest, Sally wasn't in the habit of listening to anybody, but this must have put her off completely. It was a real shame. She was such fun in those days, and I'm sure she would have made a good comic actress. And it might have made such a difference to her life.'

Instead, Sally, whose father was already world famous (Lucky Jim had been translated into 20 languages), found a job in a grocery shop.

'My daughter enjoyed that,' says Lady Kilmarnock. 'Serving people was fun. It was a bit like being on the stage.'

As for Sally's father, on whom she doted and whose death years later would accelerate her alcoholic decline, Hilly recalls: 'Kingsley didn't take much interest, really.

'He was fond of her in a funny way  -  his way  -  but none of us got treated particularly well, and I suppose she felt that. When Sally left boarding school, I don't think he even bothered to ask what she was doing.'

It was the start of a rootless life moving from job to job and living in a series of flats with a procession of casual boyfriends.

'Some of them she was with for a few weeks, others for months, but they definitely were not one-night stands,' insists her mother.

Sally had also discovered drink  -  mainly cheap wine.

Three years after leaving school, Sally Amis answered an advertisement for a waitress in a glossy wine bar in Edgware Road, near London's Marble Arch. It was managed by naval commander's son Nigel Service and his brother, and they were impressed with the bright girl who told them she'd had lots of experience serving in shops and bars.

They gave her the job on the spot. Only months later did they learn she was Kingsley Amis's daughter.

Kingsley and Sally Amis

Unconditional love: Sally struggled to cope after the death of her father Kingsley Amis

'She didn't make a big thing of it,' says Nigel, now 74 and living in France. 'She was a really nice person.

'I certainly didn't see any evidence of her being pathologically promiscuous when she was working for us. There was no trail of boyfriends that I could see, at least not around the bar.

'She was a very extrovert character, very entertaining and vivacious, and yes, she did drink a fair amount, but it never affected her work. She could put on voices to mimic people.

'She was fun and the customers adored her. And gradually, I began to adore her myself.'

Two years later, in 1976, when Nigel was 42 and Sally 22, Kingsley Amis, Martin and Sally's other brother Philip were present when she and Nigel were married at Hampstead register office.

Sally had been living in Kentish Town, but now she and Nigel moved into a flat he rented for them in Hampstead, near his parents.

Six months later, though, their marriage was virtually over.

'The problem was her drinking  -  I'd had no idea how mad it was, and it was getting progressively worse,' says Nigel, who is now an amateur botanist and a leading authority on wild flowers, particularly irises.

'The way it took a hold of her was terrible to watch. She liked cooking and I could see that she desperately wanted to be a normal wife, but she couldn't control the drinking.

'I'm convinced that if she became pathologically promiscuous after we parted, it was drink that led her into it, not the other way round.'

Drink was one of Kingsley's major vices, but, unlike his daughter, he never cracked open a bottle or ripped the top off a can of Special Brew before breakfast.

Sally was barely into her mid-20s but she had slid into alcoholism. With her brief marriage in ruins, she returned to the grey streets of Kentish Town, where she regularly met men in its many pubs and bars.

'She especially loved the Irish, but the trouble was it was mainly Irish chaps who weren't quite right,' says her mother. 'They were men who were drinking too much  -  builders and the like.'

Martin Amis

Loving brother: Martin Amis was very close to Sally

One of these hard-drinking Irishmen was Martin O'Vessay, whom she met after emerging from a spell in hospital being treated for alcoholism. The result was a child.

'She didn't like to be alone  -  that's why she did it,' declares Lady Kilmarnock, a frail 79.

'I don't think she particularly wanted to be made love to, she just wanted company.'

Martin Amis said this week that he thought 'what she was doing was seeking protection from men; but it went the other way and she was often beaten up, abused...'

Says Lady Kilmarnock: 'Yes, she was knocked about by some of her boyfriends, but she also knocked one or two of them about a bit as well. She could irritate them terribly by being contrary, and they would lose their tempers.'

As for Sally's baby, both Lady Kilmarnock this week  -  and Martin Amis after his sister's death  -  strenuously deny that the child was the result of a 'one-night stand'.

They insist that O'Vessay and Sally were living together for a period of weeks, or even months. Indeed, Lady Kilmarnock says she met him twice and 'didn't like him at all'.

Sally herself, talking six months before her death, told a different story. She said that after meeting O'Vessay, who had also received hospital treatment for alcoholism, 'I made a terrible mistake of staying with him one night and getting pregnant.

'I didn't want to be pregnant, but sometimes you feel lonely and you want a cuddle and want to feel warm. But he left me the day after. Three weeks later, I found I was pregnant.

'I didn't want to destroy a life  -  it didn't seem right. When I told Martin (O'Vessay), he said he didn't want any responsibility. I had the baby on Christmas Eve.'

Sally's daughter Catherine has turned into the one gloriously happy element of her story. Unable to cope with looking after a baby, within three months Sally had given her up to foster parents.

A year later, Catherine was adopted by architect David Housego and his wife Helen, a teacher, who had been trying for years to have baby. A year after they took Catherine into their Ealing home, Helen Housego became pregnant and gave birth to Louise.

On Christmas Eve 1996, Catherine's 18th birthday, the Housegos decided Catherine should know that she was 'Kingsley Amis's granddaughter'.

Her parents knew she longed to meet her natural mother, but Sally had not put herself on the Adoption Contact Register. This meant she was not open to being contacted.

Catherine Housego with mum and dad Helen and David

Reunited: Catherine Housego who was adopted by Helen and David is now in contact with the Amis family

Four years later, on reading of Sally's death in the newspapers, Catherine wrote to Martin and received a warm reply. Now 30 and a nursery school teacher, she has got to know the Amis family and Martin has taken her to meet her grandmother, Hilly, in Spain.

'She's such a charming girl, and the Housegos are a lovely family,' says Lady Kilmarnock.

But as Catherine was growing up in a warm and loving home, her mother was living in a bedsit in a grimy council block, existing on her weekly social security giro between co-habiting here and there with men.

'If you give money to an alcoholic, they spend it on drink,' says Lady Kilmarnock.

'Sally could knock back a bottle of vodka in a morning. Or if she was short of money, she'd pour a can of Special Brew into a cup and drink it like tea. We all tried to help her and went to see her, but we couldn't change the way she wanted to live.'

There was one glimmer of hope when Sally told her mother she wanted to convert to Roman Catholicism.

'She'd always liked going to church because she liked the theatre of it, and her life was so uncertain that she felt she needed something extra,' says Lady Kilmarnock.

Assisted by her Roman Catholic stepfather Lord Kilmarnock, Sally went through a course of conversion.

'But even when Sally was taken by my husband to Westminster Cathedral to be received into the church, she carried a can of Special Brew in her handbag,' recalls her mother wearily.

'It's hard to think that was the same Sally I used to have such fun with on the odd days when she was sober and would get in touch. We'd have a girlie day out, get the giggles when we had "gravy dinners" at greasy spoon cafes where the cabbage was beautifully overdone.'

In her 30s, Sally had a stroke and doctors told her that if she didn't give up alcohol it would eventually kill her.

Kingsley, himself a fabled drinker, was never able to cope with his daughter's alcoholism, which took her in and out of hospitals on several occasions. She told friends she felt he was ashamed of her.

He had never been a close and caring father, yet when she had her baby, and in the absence of its father, Kingsley was at her bedside. Perhaps this was one reason why her adoration of him remained undiluted.

Kingsley's death in 1995, when she was 41, left her inconsolable, unable to escape a vortex of depression and drink. Four years later, Martin Amis described his sister as 'still capable of calling me in tears when she has a bad day'.

Sally was still in Kentish Town, living on a DSS invalidity giro of £73 a week and drinking herself into oblivion. Early in November 2000, she was taken into the Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead, and after five days in intensive care, Sally Amis died.

'All her organs had gone,' says her mother. 'Her liver, her kidneys .. . her body just couldn't take it any more.

'I think of her every day  -  what fun she was as a young girl, and what might have been. Yes, she was terribly promiscuous, but I don't think the sexual revolution made any difference to her.

'Sally wasn't a victim of the times, but of herself.'

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