By Maureen Oliver
Key Themes: semi-autobiographical, ambition, empowerment, human rights
Molly Cullen is a naive seventeen year old on the brink of the London art scene in the 1960’s. Fuelled by dreams of success and fame as an artist, she gains a place at a London art school and it is her dreams that sustain her through the pain and disappointments she faces in the ensuing years.
Molly Cullen is a fast-paced tale of a young woman’s struggle against tremendous odds. Molly is a survivor but more than that she is a girl who just will not give up. Her tenacity and inner strength help her overcome the loss of innocence and the trials she must face. As Molly comes to terms with, and learns to celebrate, her lesbian identity, the reader travels with her on the roller-coaster ride that is her young life.
Molly’s thoughts about her world impart a sense of wry humour that tempers the, often painful, experiences described in this semi-autobiographical novel. This book is a testament to the resourcefulness and resilience of the human spirit.
About the Author
Born in 1947 in Catford, South-East London, Maureen Oliver studied art at Camberwell Art College where she trained as a painter.
She has variously been a community artist working in hospitals and day centres; local art projects and with prisoners; a campaigner for lesbian and gay rights and an AIDS activist. She was a founder member of Croydon Women’s Centre and became one of the Women’s Work group of artists at Brixton Artists Collective in the mid-eighties; as a survivor herself, Maureen was later active in working for the rights of psychiatric survivors.
Maureen Oliver has been writing poetry and short stories since childhood, and, in the late nineties, after a long period of being effectively silenced by powerful antipsychotic drugs, she began to write again with renewed passion.
She has held a large number of exhibitions of her paintings including in New York in 2007.
Maureen Oliver is a lesbian, a mother and grandmother to three small children.
It was a hot, sunny summer that year of 1964. The atmosphere in the South London council house was more than usually claustrophobic and Molly felt restless. School had ended in July, and, like the other girls from the local secondary school, she had ritually thrown away the unattractive and much hated school hat and run, yelping with joy, through the dingy inner city streets. But she was not happy, not happy at all; the future looked bleak and she dreaded the futile tedium of working in Woollies or a dreary office. She was an artist and a dreamer and knew that God had greater plans for her…
Her one chance of salvation was the Art School. There she could foster her talents, mix with like-minded students, and throw off the sense of isolation that had dogged her all her young life.
That morning in August seemed just like any other. Her elder brother sat munching toast and quaffing tea at the plastic topped, spindle legged kitchen table, an absent look in his eyes. Her parents were already at work. Mum was labouring away at a Bermondsey sweet factory and Dad would be checking the boilers or shovelling coal at the Woolwich Arsenal. Meanwhile, her little brother was off playing in the street perhaps, or, more likely, moping listlessly in the garden. Molly poured herself some tea and sat down, tugging at the print mini-dress that unflatteringly revealed her pale and chubby thighs. The letterbox clattered and the post tumbled onto the heavily patterned hall carpet. She ran out to fetch it as she had every single morning over the past few weeks. When she saw a typewritten envelope addressed to Miss M Cullen her heart pounded; she sat down abruptly and heavily, nervously ripping the letter open. She must have read the brief message ten times before she absorbed the meaning. Then she whooped and yelled ecstatically, leaping into the air. “I got in! I got in! – I’ve been accepted!” Her brother gave her a slightly bored, distant look but smiled slightly. At a stroke her life had changed, a golden future stretched invitingly before her, or so she thought on that warm day in August in the orange kitchen, the radio blaring out the nine o’clock news, the family dog barking excitedly and her little brother running in from the garden to see what all the commotion was about. She was a just a girl of seventeen with a head full of dreams…
Six weeks later she was on board the number 36 bus headed for the Art School. As always, she sat on the back seat to avoid the possibility of someone slicing off her head with a cheese wire. She had lived with that fear since she was very small and had watched, in horrified fascination, as the grocer effortlessly sliced through hard cheese. Once the thought that he could just as well have sliced off her head had taken hold she could not shake off the fear that someone might do just that. This day in late September, however, she was feeling nervously optimistic. The life of a great artist seemed to be within her reach, never mind that she hadn’t ever heard of a female achieving that exalted status she would be the first… The misery of schooldays were behind her, she was no longer a child but a student, an art student at that, surely she would now find the acceptance she craved from her peers; surely they would recognize her undoubted talents. Surely they would become friends, or even admirers.
Molly was wearing the long, fake fur trimmed, purple coat she had bought at a jumble-sale, an old checked skirt over black stockings and white plastic boots. On her bobbed black hair was perched a ‘Beatles cap’, also in white plastic; the outfit was completed by a roll-necked jumper that had once belonged to her mother. She was also liberally besmirched with paint. Paint in her hair, on the skirt, the stockings and the jumper. She was the perfect vision of an art student.