Writer and performance poet Cecily Holland, 67, moved to Southsea a year and a half ago after falling in love with Portsmouth after many visits to friends over the years.
“I love it, every time I came to visit there was always something going on, so much creativity,” she says.
Cecily is now preparing to present her book, All who sail within us, at several upcoming events such as Portsmouth Pride in June and Literacy Live, an event held in conjunction with Victorious Festival in August this year.
To commemorate 50 years of UK Pride, Cecily has written a poem dedicated to her own experiences as a member of the LGBTQ+ community which she plans to perform at
“It’s going to be a bit of an anthem, almost a musical. I’m really excited about that one,” she said.
While Cecily now relishes living and working freely here in Portsmouth, having grown up in Manchester in the mid-70s as a working-class lesbian when ‘queer bashing’ was rampant, it wasn’t always so easy.
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“Where I was from in a housing estate in Manchester, you couldn’t even say the word gay, let alone be gay,” she said.
“You’d get beat up to be honest,” Cecily adds.
Cecily quickly moved to Lancaster at age 20 at the start of gay liberation, to escape prejudice in her hometown and lived openly as a gay woman.
“All Who Sail In Us has been part of my life story, from the days when you couldn’t be gay,” she says.
“Lancaster was one of the only places other than London in the country to be part of the start.”
All who sail within us is set in the spring of 1978 and follows Cecily as she arrives to live in Stepney in London’s East End two years later, after hitchhiking from Lancaster with her sister
“I went to live in a street of a ten-house squat, five were squatted by lesbian households and the other five were Asian families,” says Cecily.
“We kind of looked out for each other, we thought we had it bad but they had it really bad,” she adds.
Along with her 18-year-old sister, also a lesbian and the ‘only gays’ in a huge Irish Catholic family of 11 girls and two boys, readers are guided through the hardships of life in London as ‘out’ lesbians.
“I had a very quick eye for spotting trouble ahead. You just had to watch your back all the time,” says Cecily.
“My book goes through every inch of it, we lived a very fast life, it’s funny and it’s quite emotional too.”
Although they face constant threats and avoid IRA bombs, homophobic bullets, police brutality, racists, fascists and being stuck in the Brixton Riots, the two sisters manage to have fun like never before.
“It was pretty heavy, but we still had an amazing time, we were living openly as lesbians, which took some courage to be honest,” says Cecily.
“But we just took the risk.”
Cecily recalls one particular incident when her sister and girlfriend linked arms one afternoon on their way home from their local pub and had to defend themselves against two men who had followed them home.
“We had cans of beer to bring back and two bottles in a carry bag,” she says.
“All of a sudden we could hear all this effin and blinding, ‘you queers’ and this and that, I got this real tingle in my back and I knew they were going to jump on us.
Growing up on a ‘quite rough’ municipal housing estate in Manchester, Cecily has developed a sixth sense of trouble and, as a strong, tall and feisty northerner, she maintains that no one has ‘ever’ gotten the better of her.
“I bent down, put my hand in the bag to grab one of the bottles, turned around and put it up to my chin,” she said.
“He went back to his friend’s house saying ‘no, no, no, we don’t want any trouble,'” Cecily laughs.
This tale is one of the many anecdotes shared in All who sail within us, currently Cecily’s only published work as of February 2019, and one she felt she needed to share with the world.
“The only places women could go at that time in London were attics or cellars,” she says.
Cecily points out that the odds were stacked against lesbians at that time, as women who came out not only had to deal with homophobia, but also sexism.
“People really needed to know my story, what it was like, it was never documented for lesbians of that time,” says Cecily.
“It’s because we are women, the first lesbian kiss on TV was in the 90s, it’s completely crazy.”
In 2009, when Cecily thought she had already faced her fair share of adversity in life, she was diagnosed with a progressive form of MS.
“I had my own decorating business for women, it started to get harder to climb ladders, I just thought I was getting old,” says Cecily.
“I didn’t pay attention to it, I got sick thinking everything would be fine in a few months, and it wasn’t.”
Against all odds, she continued to write and began to perform her poetry – appearing on stage at the Wedgewood Rooms, the Aspex Gallery and other creative Open Mic events around Portsmouth.
“MS can be quite difficult to diagnose. One of my sisters had it too, it kind of crept into my subconscious.
“It took me about two years to get over the shock, I also wrote a poem about it,” she adds.
Cecily ‘couldn’t help but’ move to Southsea to be part of Portsmouth’s many creative communities, including the LGBTQ+ community, and she recalls a night she recently visited South Parade Peter.
“These five young women walked by, four of them holding hands, two couples, I sat there and was totally blown away,” she says.
‘It’s a normal thing now. In my time you would never have seen this in a million years, it’s amazing.
Cecily looks forward to her creative endeavor being accepted, just as it was, into the Portsmouth fold and hopes her book can encourage others to tell their own life stories during this difficult time.
She says about her book: “It’s unique, it’s a book in itself.”
“Because I’m down-to-earth and working-class, not many people like me can write books, which is very important to me.”
“I’ve had a very colorful and full life. The way I look at it is that I’m lucky to be alive.