At the age of 83 Molly Parkin has lived a life that positively bursts at the seams. Her tumultuous personal life and inimitable body of work are legend, yet the motivation and rationale behind her unique artistic and personal worldview remain a lesser explored facet of her life.
In the second part of this extensive interview with Wales Arts Review, the Pontycymmer-born auteur imparts the definitive take on her life and work.
The sound of jazz music, always jazz, permeates Molly Parkin’s small Chelsea flat like Soho perfume as she gazes out at the night sky. ‘Before I go to bed I always perform the same ritual. I look up at the moon and say goodnight to everyone who is, or has ever been, special to me. My daughters, granddaughters, my mother, my husbands and lovers, and now, even my father. It’s a ritual that takes about ten minutes but it’s one that I undertake every evening. It gives me such comfort to know that all of these people are still close to me, still part of me, regardless of whether they’re still alive’.
In her 1993 autobiography Moll – The Making of Molly Parkin the artist speaks at length about the presence and influence of her father, a seemingly intelligent yet undoubtedly erratic man, forever at the mercy of the demon drink. Yet it was not for another eighteen years – via the pages of its follow-up, the life-affirming Welcome to Mollywood – until she felt sufficiently empowered to publicly disclose incidents from the much darker recesses of her early years. A shocking catalogue of paternal sexual abuse inflicted upon her from an early age. Moreover, and especially given that Moll is a woman hardly renowned for her discretion, it speaks volumes about the shadow that these experiences have seemingly cast upon her adult life that it was not until she reached her sixth decade that she even felt in a position to reveal to her own sister the truth that lay behind the resentment that she would openly display toward their father.
‘It wrote it out of me,’ she reveals. ‘I went to Mexico to paint, staying at a friend’s house, and as I began to work my father’s voice came immediately to me, criticising me, crucifying my work as he’d always done, and I decided at that point that I wouldn’t have him in my life anymore. It needed to be over before I could be truly free. But even then, so many years after his death, I’d never written about what he put me through, let alone talked about it. When you see these little kids cowering away on the charity TV ads, hiding in fear of the moment that their father or uncle comes home, well that‘s how I was at that age. Whenever he called my name, when he was in the bedroom or in the bath, I became filled with fear because I knew how it would always end. I was saved from him only when I ended up being rushed, dying, to Willesden Green Hospital.’ – a case of acute mastoiditis, at the time a precursor to the killer meningitis.
‘The hardest part was breaking the news to my sister, Sal. We were sitting on the seafront at Barry Island, looking out to sea, and in a situation like that where you’re not looking someone directly in the eyes you tend to say so much more than you normally would. And she just asked me: “Moll, why were you so horrible to that lovely man who was our father? He’d come into the room and you’d just walk out. Why would you do that to him, Moll?” In everyone’s life the moment comes and so I told her, and moments later I took a glance at her, a tear running down her cheek, and I said, “Don’t worry Sal, it’s over now”. And for me it was.’
‘Until you can learn to forgive in life,’ she later tells me, ‘you can never truly be free.’
This sense of forgiveness, (and forgiveness is very much what it is – on this Moll is unambiguous) is one informed by selected recollections of a volatile childhood that yo-yoed between verdant Pontycymmer and the leaden-grey environs of Dollis Hill, North-West London; a dreary suburb that seemingly spent most of the Cold War trying to outdo Gdansk in the international drabness stakes. It was a habitual cultural exchange that would take in both the inspirational vista of her valley and the capital’s abundant artistic treasures. Never one, without the other.
‘My father often took me to art galleries and the theatre. Most influentially the National Gallery, something that informed my thinking in a way that eventually led me to becoming a landscape painter and for which I am forever grateful. At a very early age he put me in front of Constable’s “The Hay Wain”, just a few canvases away from Turner’s “Rain, Steam and Speed”, the Great Western Railway painting. And then once, when he went to the loo, I caught a glimpse of pink, the glimpse of a seashell, that kind of pink, and those were the Reubens. Naked people, which for a chapel girl came as something of a shock! All of that flesh, the womanliness of it all, and this for a girl whose mother was so very, very slender. A true beauty, but ever so thin. These were the experiences, the positive experiences, that steered me in the direction I eventually went in, and it was my father who first opened my eyes to these great works.’
Yet even then, it would appear that Moll’s father could not be happy for his daughter.
‘Oh, he hated it, absolutely hated it. He’d always wanted to be a painter; that was his ambition. But he just wasn’t cut out for it, and when this young girl came along, his daughter, someone for whom it came so easily, started to win awards and scholarships, and be praised for her artistic achievement he became very resentful.’
During an initial telephone conversation, Moll reflects upon the experiences that ‘caused me to wreak revenge on men’ and I press her further on this. ‘Well, I have broken many hearts, I can’t pretend that’s not the case. I’ve had about eighteen fiancés, but that’s what happens when you’re a drinker, you spend the weekend together in a nice place, a swanky hotel or apartment, I’m not talking about back alleys. The chap says he can’t get you out of his mind, he asks you to marry him, and so – drunk – I’d just say, “Why not? Shall we go and buy the ring now?” It’s an unstable way to live your life but what’s always saved me is that I’m a worker. Even as a child I’d do a paper round in secret. I’ve never been kept by anyone and have never expected to be kept by anyone. Whatever happens to me, even if it’s unpleasant or difficult, it always leads to another opening, or something wonderful that happens after it.’
Moll is especially keen to talk about her friendship with the writer, dramatist, and wit, Gwyn Thomas, a man whose work she feels has been criminally under-celebrated: ‘Gwyn Thomas lived in Barry, near my sister, not the kind of place you’d have expected to see Gwyn Thomas, Barry being a bit of a cultural arsehole of a place at the time. Until,’ she smiles, ‘…you met his wife, who always longed for a lovely bungalow. When I’d first started teaching in London I got involved with the folk scene, the coffee house scene. There was an artier end to it that particularly attracted me, the Nashville-influenced stuff. It was quite the thing to be a communist at the time, or at least to say that you were a communist. It was very much a reaction against fascism, and I became friends with one of these guys, one of the singers. When he heard that I came from South Wales and that I knew of Gwyn Thomas he asked if he could come back with me to interview him, Gwyn being one of his heroes. I didn’t know Gwyn at the time. I’d see him of course, coming back from the pub. We were all in awe of him. He had this persona that was quite frightening if you were an ordinary person.’
Did Gwyn Thomas feel extraordinary to the young Molly Parkin? ‘He did. Very much so. But because I was also an artistic person it felt as if we were somehow on the same level. Then one night we bumped into each other, literally bumped into each other, the lamplights not working properly. He’d probably heard of me by then, the word had got round that Sally had an odd sister, a painter, not normal. We both burst out laughing, and that was how our friendship started. I told him that there was a chap in London, a communist, who wanted to come and interview him and would that be all right. “Sure thing,” he said; “Any communist would be welcome.” It was a lovely interview, and I did a drawing of Gwyn that was used by the communist magazine to illustrate the feature. And through that sitting, we got to know one another and began to form a friendship; the humour was in the right place, you see. The friendship grew from there. I went on to paint him, at his wife’s request, and I can’t remember ever being interrupted so frequently. She kept coming in, she didn’t quite trust me, and I can hardly blame her. She’d never seen anyone quite like me. I think I might have had a crew cut at the time, not the kind of person you’d normally expect to see in Barry in the 1950s.’
‘Years later when I was on the train with my mother from London to Cardiff, Turner’s “Great Western Railway” again, word got out that Gwyn Thomas was on the train, in the restaurant carriage. Soon, he caught sight of me. He was well-pissed, but always jolly in his drunkenness. Drink seemed to enhance Gwyn like it did so many of those I gravitated towards. It just didn’t enhance me. He asked us to stop off at that grotty hotel near Cardiff station for a drink and my mother was very excited. Yet having done so, his wife turned up visibly upset, shouting at the top of her voice, causing a ruction. Gwyn was so upset, almost crying. We didn’t let it affect our friendship, though. We were drawn to each other. It never occurred to either of us to sleep with one another, he was always very much in love with his wife, and a very honourable man. We just made each other laugh and when my first novel came out he gave it a fantastic review, he took it seriously, and appraised it as literature. He was a big television star by this point, he wasn’t really writing anymore, and he invited me on for an interview. We’d had a few drinks before and because it was live, they couldn’t edit any bits out.’
Though no doubt a televisual tightrope act, it was an appearance that nevertheless seemed to endear both parties to the viewing public: ‘It seemed to go down well and we started to be invited on to things as a kind of double act. That was until we were effectively banned from ever being on live television together again. The hospitality pressed you to have a lot to drink, “to calm the nerves”. Our problem was that we weren’t ever nervous, and we’d already had a few in advance. We were arseholed, basically. It was a phone-in show, with me as some kind of agony aunt. We were talking about cremation, which was a fairly new thing in Wales at the time, and where one’s ashes should ideally be stored or scattered. It was supposed to be a serious conversation, but we weren’t taking it seriously. I suggested to some woman that she might like to put her husband’s ashes in an egg-cup above the fireplace and the phones went crazy with complaints. It was felt to be very disrespectful at the time. They couldn’t ban Gwyn because it was his show, but I was out on my ear!’
The notion of being out on one’s ear is something that has begun to trouble Moll of late, her manifest love of her nation seemingly not reciprocated to the same degree.
‘A number of months ago, after I’d been given the royal stipend in recognition of “artistic contribution to the nation”, it made me think, “Well, what nation?” as Wales had nothing of mine. I really felt that this was wrong and so a conversation with the Museum of Wales was entered into. But when they came to visit me, to choose a piece, my heart went to zero. They were so corporate, so English. They were pleasant enough in their dealings with me but the atmosphere felt so wrong and I had to open all the windows after they’d left. They had a good eye, to be fair. Sadly, they chose the three pieces that I couldn’t possibly part with, ones that were too personal to me. “Tsunami”, the one I always associate with Louis Armstrong, being one. And that was effectively the end of the conversation. No further discussion, or ongoing relationship, no suggestion of any kind of exhibition. It felt like it had been a bit of a pointless exercise. It saddened me a little.’
Despite having had numerous popular exhibitions of her work staged across the globe, it seems particularly strange that no significant showings of her art have ever taken place in Cardiff, and I ask her what her relationship is like with the remainder of the Welsh arts establishment. ‘None at all,’ she snaps, indignantly. ‘There’s no relationship at all. It’s made me feel closer to Gwyn Thomas, funnily enough. We were both outsiders, badly behaved, and I still feel like I’m perceived in that way, especially in Wales. That the drinking and the way I’ve lived my life has left me mistrusted and under-appreciated. My inclination is always to do things for Wales and to work with Welsh people as a preference whenever I can. It always makes me think of that Garw newspaper quote that was used on the back of my autobiography, “She’s a disgrace to the valley”.’ – a quote that sat at the foot of a nude painting of a 22 year-old Moll by the artist Alistair Grant. ‘It infuriated a journalist from The Western Mail that “disgrace to the valley” thing. “Watch my words,” he told me. “The time will come when people realise what a pride of the valley you are.”’
‘The universe is an abundant place,’ Molly Parkin once wrote. ‘There is plenty for everybody, but we humans block off our own successes, that’s what I believe now. Negativity breeds negativity, but the reverse is also true. My own fear of financial insecurity has been dissolved completely. My poverty thinking has been replaced by prosperity thinking.’
In this sense the reality of the artist’s financial bankruptcy sits at jarring odds with the opulence of her spirit and the abundance of her generosity. An 83 year-old woman who lives exclusively in the moment, her Pandora’s box of recollections seldom steeped in the debilitating and prematurely ageing malaise of either nostalgia or regret. A force of primal nature who, despite her knowingly self-deprecating claim to be a ‘sequinned relic’, attacks each day with the same youthful vigour that she does a canvas.
To paraphrase her beloved Louis Armstrong, she has all the time in the world.
All images courtesy of Molly Parkin and Robert Chilcott