To mark International Women’s Day on 8th March, Alice Maxwell met inspirational Arran resident Cicely Gill, to talk about writing, gender and life on Arran. Cicely Gill is well known on Arran as a poet, writer and jeweller. She has also been a therapist, and is currently Chair of the board of trustees at COAST.
Why/when did you move to Arran? Are you aware of spiritual energies on Arran?
I moved in 1968 when I married Nicky Gill whose family were craftspeople working in St Columba’s, Whiting Bay. Having been brought up 50 miles north of London I wondered how I could possibly live so far from the capital but I very soon grew to love and prefer Glasgow.
I can’t speak about spiritual energies but I do feel the dominating presence of the rocks and mountains which seem to be saying to us: ‘We are bigger and we’ve been here much longer than you, so recognize your size for what it is.’
What did you do here when you first arrived?
Since Nicky had just graduated from the Glasgow School of Art, he was able to teach me to make jewellery. I had a long apprenticeship and we worked amicably at a double bench for many years.
I made jewellery because it was an easy option but I did enjoy working the silver and gold and setting semi-precious stones. As a child my mother had taught me to knit and sew and I learned early to be creative.
Do you think wearing jewellery increases femininity, and self esteem?
I don’t like to think jewellery increases self-esteem. I can’t believe people like and respect you more for having a pretty or valuable necklace. It is difficult enough to discover who you are without covering yourself with ‘stuff’.
What made you train as a therapist?
In 1991, after over thirty years of jewellery-making, I went to see a therapist in Glasgow around issues concerning my mother’s death twelve years previously and I was so impressed by the way the therapist worked I decided I wanted to be able to do what he did. Fortunately, he ran a course, so I was able to learn from the horse’s mouth and after qualifying I worked part-time for a wonderful organisation called the Centre for Women’s Health which was non-hierarchical and had sprung from the needs and wants of grassroots organisations in the city.
Was being a woman an advantage to this work?
Although the place ran very smoothly under the benign leadership of Alison Miller an Orcadian, and only women worked there and we only helped women, I would not say that being a woman fitted one particularly to the task. If we succeeded it was when we were at our most human and most compassionate but I think men are just as capable of behaving like this given the opportunity.
Could you talk a bit about your writing?
I always wanted to be a writer and tried my hand at poems, novels and plays from an early age.
I don’t plan my work beforehand, at least not consciously. My words come out of the end of my pen. The characters in the story or play tell me what they want to say and how they want to act. I don’t really know how things will end till I get there.
I love words and enjoy forming sentences which flow and which can be easily understood. Writing poetry teaches me to be sparer and to try to have cadence in prose as well as verse.
I like even my bad characters to have some good in them. I write to entertain and like to mix seriousness with wit. I am slightly superstitious so I have to be careful who dies in my work as I am afraid of drawing things in.
I can start a short story or a poem from a fragment. For instance, I wrote one recently based on the memory of a woman in our small town who, allegedly just lifted the pictures on her walls and papered up to the picture hooks, not taking the pictures down. My mother seemed to think this was terrible. Writing my story, I discovered that the woman loved Trollope and the adult ‘I’ in the story made friends with her and they went to the library together!
Did you study English at university? Were you brought up in an academic family?
I did study English Language and Literature at university but I did not come from an academic background. My absent father was a Jamaican doctor and my mother was a primary school teacher. Her father was a coalminer and her mother was a cook in service.
My mother did love books and had Scott, Hardy, Milton, Keats and Shelley and one or two books of modern verse in her book shelves.
We lived in an avenue and all the children played together whatever age – cricket, hopscotch, marbles. Every Saturday, Helen Durney, who was about 14 took a group of us to the library two miles away on the bus. I have loved libraries ever since.
I was in the Labour Party Branch when it successfully campaigned for the permanent library we have here on Arran now. My granddaughter tells me they can’t borrow books from her school library in Glasgow and rarely even get to go into it. That is depressing.
Could you talk a bit about gender and equality?
It is good for women to become more like men if we mean by that more confident and able to hold their ground. My mother taught me to answer back if a teacher was sarcastic to me. Equality should have nothing to do with gender. It was, with hindsight, probably a mistake in the 60s and 70s to counter male superiority with verbal aggression though there is no denying that there is still an enormous amount of work to be done before all genders feel equal and this will of course be because they will be treated equally before the law.
However, it may be that some apparently unattractive behaviours are in the human gene and are completely intractable. By the same token, I don’t expect we will ever be able to herd cats, whatever their gender!
Are you hopeful for the future of our planet?
Personally, I don’t see a way out of our mess. The following poem perhaps shows my hope and my despair.
You may consider the poem is inappropriate for an International Women’s Week but Dawood has a mother and sisters so it could be for them and other women in that grim position of having relatives in prison.
Dawood-al Marhoon. Saudi Arabian student. His life so far.
Today is a day of rejoicing:
Dawood-al Marhoon is free.
Do not hear this lightly.
Remember the Arab Spring of 2012?
For Dawood at 17, it became a long winter.
Arrested and tried on false evidence.
Sentenced in 2015 to death by beheading,
followed by crucifixion.
Sentence not ratified.
‘Dawood, what did you think about
when you were waiting for your day to become different:
to wake up knowing that you could use that day
to study for your engineering degree, to play football,
meet friends, visit family, feel the sun, watch the sky,
do a contented nothing?
Many days will have been a dark imagining
of the looked-for announcement:
‘Tomorrow is your beheading day’.
How many times did you wake in the small hours,
hearing footsteps following you to your last night?’
But it is 2020: the law has been revoked.
You cannot now use the death penalty
for crimes committed by minors.
Sentence commuted to 10 years in prison.
Well, he had done 8 – only 2 more!
What could go wrong, this near the end of the tight rope?
And now he is released and with his family.
He is 28 today and can dream of a long life ahead.
I hope the years behind him
were not wasted, did not build bitterness
but strength, not sorrow but courage,
not anger but love
for there is so much to love.
With many thanks to Cicely and Alice for this fascinating insight into Cicely’s life.