Amis breaks silence over sister’s death

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THE subject of his previous book was the death of his father. The subject of the next is the loss of his sister.

Martin Amis, Britain’s most renowned literary novelist, has spoken for the first time about Sally Amis and the forthcoming memoir that deals with her death from alcoholism almost a year ago.

In Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, to be published next year, Amis weaves reflections on Sally’s final years into an account of the life of Joseph Stalin, the tyrannical ruler of the USSR until 1953.

"Stalin always claimed that one death was a tragedy and twenty million deaths were a statistic," Amis, 52, this week told Scotland on Sunday.

"He was utterly wrong, of course: twenty million deaths are twenty million tragedies. That’s the idea I’m exploring, by looking at one individual death."

Sally Amis, the writer’s younger sister, died last November at the age of 46. She was a manic-depressive, an alcoholic and had struggled vainly to recover from the death in 1995 of her father Kingsley Amis, author of Lucky Jim and The Old Devils.

Amis, who visits Edinburgh on Wednesday to collect the James Tait Black Prize for non-fiction, has no doubt that his father’s demise contributed to that of his sister.

He said: "She adored him, she loved to make herself useful to him but she was physically weakened by his death, though not necessarily in an alarming way.

"She would visit my mother in Spain, she lived up the road from me, I’d see her. She seemed alert and prosperous. I just didn’t realise how diminished she was.

"She was a victim of my father’s power and presence, perhaps, but only in the saddest way. Kingsley always worried that when he died Sally would lose her raison d’etre. It’s only now that I realise how prescient the remark was."

As a baby, Sally had the poem ‘Born Yesterday’ composed for her by Philip Larkin. But writing twenty years ago, Kingsley noted the onset of her troubles. "This afternoon I take her to the doc and try to get her into a drying-out place," he said in a letter.

There was to be little respite. Her marriage in the 1980s to Nigel Slater, a wine merchant twice her age, lasted only six months, after which she found herself living in a church hostel. She later gave birth to a baby daughter following a one-night stand with an Irish alcoholic but the child, Catherine, was given up for adoption.

In 1994, at the age of 40, she suffered a stroke that left her with a limp. When she died of an unspecified infection after five days in intensive care she had been living on 73-a-week disability benefit in a council flat in Kentish Town, close to Martin’s family home, itself in the same street where their father had lived.

Sally Amis made no secret of her unusual devotion to Kingsley. Speaking last year, she revealed that she kept his ashes in an urn atop her fireplace, admitted that she missed her father "amazingly" and that she watched an edition of The South Bank Show featuring him "fifty times a day". On why she had inherited her father’s propensity for heavy drinking, she said: "I don’t know what causes alcoholism. Psychiatrists have asked me. Well, do they think I came whooping out of the womb saying, ‘I want to be an alcoholic?’ "

When asked about the nature of the Amis clan, she said: "Dysfunctional? Yes, of course we are. What family isn’t?"