Like her son, Nick Drake, Molly (neé Lloyd) was born in Rangoon, Burma—possibly, according to her sister Nancy, in the same hospital. She was christened “Mary,” but no one ever used that name. Her nickname, Molly, seemed much more suitable for the little girl with flaming red hair. And Molly she remained for the rest of her life.
She was born on November 5, but the year of her birth was, throughout my childhood, shrouded in mystery. My mother belonged to a generation that believed it was discourteous to ask a woman her age. Therefore, if anyone was so impolite as to make the query, she considered it perfectly legitimate to tell a white lie. Thus, till the day she died, I believed she was born in 1916. Only when we came to engrave her tombstone did her beloved sister say “we cannot lie before God,” and the correct year was finally carved in stone, which was 1915. It was, after all, a very small white lie.
Her father, Idwal (later Sir Idwal) Lloyd, was part of the British Administration in Burma—the elite ICS (Indian Civil Service). Her mother, Georgie, belonged to the formidable ranks of the Women of the British Raj, and perfectly suited her later title of Lady Lloyd.
But the Far East was not considered to be a healthy environment for children, so Molly and her two sisters—elder sister Gwladys, and younger sister Nancy—were sent back to England to be brought up in the happy household of the Dunns. Aunt Helen and Uncle Willie, despite straitened circumstances, seemed to have a gift for creating happiness and giving their extended family of servicemen’s children a haven in which to flourish. What could have been a time of disastrous unhappiness turned out to be one of joyous development, where the bond between Molly and her younger sister, Nancy, was irrevocably forged. It would last their entire lives.
All three girls were eventually sent to boarding school at Wycombe Abbey. Molly was not a good scholar and professed to hating school, and although she managed to scrape through her School Certificate, she left as quickly as she could.
She returned to Rangoon, and with the casting aside of school uniform, ugly glasses, and straight hair (her first perm must have been a great joy to her) a butterfly emerged from the chrysalis. Her glamorous sister, Gwladys, who had returned to Rangoon some years earlier, had paved the way on the social scene.
Molly feared letting her elder sister down with her gaucheness and shyness—but, nevertheless, it seems that she quickly took her place in the carefree whirl of those pre-war years in Burma. And by the time her sister Nancy arrived in Rangoon, the Lloyd sisters were known as “the prettiest girls in Burma.”
Molly met her future husband, Rodney Drake, almost as soon as she arrived in Rangoon. He was a young engineer with the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation—already a rising star in the firm, and well established on the social scene. Rodney was immensely popular, with an easy wit and charm and an ability to set people at their ease. He must have been a great comfort to the shy young Molly. But it would be some time before either of them recognised that they had found a partner for life. They eventually married in 1937: it was to be a marriage forged in heaven, which endured, vibrantly, for 51 years, until Rodney’s death in 1988.
The grim reality of the Second World War only came to Burma in 1942 with the invasion of the Japanese. Hasty plans were made for the evacuation of the British women, and Molly and her sister Nancy—now married to Rodney’s close friend in Burma, Chris McDowall—joined the great trek out of Burma into India. Both husbands joined the army to fight in the Burma Campaign, and Molly and Nancy, now homeless and husbandless, took refuge with their uncle, Alan Lloyd, and his wife Mary.
Alan, also in the ICS, was part of the British Administration in India, based in Delhi, where the War seems to have hardly impinged. Life for the girls must have taken on a surreal similarity to life in Burma before the war, with the same giddy round of social events: more so, since their aunt Mary, though delightful and loving, was as formidable a member of the British Raj as ever their mother had been, and made it quite clear that the girls must not let the side down.
Faced with desperate uncertainty as to their husbands’ whereabouts, the sisters took comfort from each other: both were musical, both sang and played the piano. It was perhaps inevitable that the sisters should form a duet, singing together unaccompanied, in close harmony (arranged by Nancy), popular songs of the era. And when Molly went to work for All India Radio, she roped her sister in, and they broadcasted as The Lloyd Sisters. Sadly, there is no record of them ever singing together one of Molly’s own songs.
For Molly, music was a private joy, as was her poetry. All her life, both provided a retreat and a place from which to draw inner strength. And though she was happy to play and sing her songs to friends and family, their composing was always an intensely private affair, and she would sit for hours alone at a piano, working out words and music. Her poetry, she would read to Nancy.
Towards the end of the war, with the Japanese occupation of Burma cutting off India’s supply of teak, Rodney was seconded out of the army, and commissioned to build a sawmill at the foot of the Himalaya Mountains, in the hill station of Jhelum. This meant that Molly and Rodney could be reunited, and when the pre-fabricated sawmill arrived crated from America, Rodney, ever practical, built his wife a house out of the redundant packing cases. Here their first child was born—myself. Since I am an actress, it has always seemed to me appropriate that my first home should have been a packing case.
After the war, the Drakes returned to a Rangoon where British rule had been restored, and Rodney was again working in his old office at the BBTC, but this time as Manager. And it was in Rangoon, on June 19, 1948, that their son Nicholas Rodney Drake was born.
In 1952, Rodney’s erstwhile boss wrote to him from England, offering him a job as managing director of a small Birmingham based firm. Rodney and Molly loved the life Out East, but they knew that the time was rapidly approaching when their children would have to be sent back to England for their education, and they hated the idea of the family being split up. So, with considerable sorrow, the Drakes packed up, lock stock and barrel, and trundled back Home, taking with them the children’s Karen nanny, Rosie PawTun.
Rodney bought his wife a house which, at the time, he could ill afford, but which Molly had fallen in love with. Far Leys was spacious and well-proportioned, and looked out over an expansive garden to the glorious Warwickshire countryside beyond. Molly made it both elegant and comfortable; it was her haven. The sitting room would become a hub of legendary social events—often music based, for both Rodney and Molly were proficient piano players. But this was also Molly’s private place where, usually in the afternoons, she would sit at the piano, or at her desk, composing and writing. It never occurred to her that her work could be of interest to a wider audience. Neither her songs nor her poetry would be published during her lifetime.
On the surface, Molly’s life now followed the conventional path of an English middle class wife and mother: bringing up her children and looking after her husband, who rose rapidly in the Birmingham business world. They sent both their children to the schools they had themselves attended. However, the fact that neither of their children followed a conventional career path after school worried them not one whit. Indeed, both Molly and Rodney almost seemed to feel that their children were pursuing a destiny which was a natural follow-on from their own lives, in which music, drama and literature had featured so significantly in their leisure hours.
Both parents delighted in their son’s songwriting ability, though they were not surprised by it: both were immensely proud of Nick’s albums. Both faced the ordeal of their son’s depressive illness—during the last years of which he spent the majority of his time at home—with baffled fortitude, with extraordinary patience, and with a never-ceasing desire to understand—Rodney with his keen analytic intelligence, Molly with her intuition. From her poetry, one realises that she must have understood much of what her son was going through—yet she was powerless to help him.
Nick’s death on a bleak November morning in 1974 was the greatest tragedy of Molly’s and Rodney’s life. No one can know the toll it took on them both. Outwardly they recovered, drawing strength from each other, as well as, over the following years, from any recognition given to their son’s music. Alas, neither of them lived to see the burgeoning of their son’s fame.
Molly died on June 4, 1993. Her ashes are buried, mingled with those of her husband and her son, in the graveyard at Tanworth in Arden. On the gravestone are chiselled the words written by her son Nick: “And now we rise, and we are everywhere.”
—Gabrielle Drake, 2012