Julia Darling: (21 August 1956–13 April 2005)
Julia Darling united humanity, creativity and health in her poetry, prose and plays. Her light continues to shine through a wonderfully witty, inventive and energetic body of work, from her powerful short stories, provocative plays for theatre and uplifting poems to her poignant radio plays and enchanting novels. Writing about Julia’s poems in the introduction to Indelible, Miraculous, Jackie Kay notes: ‘They are the work of a quirky and original mind, a charismatic and generous writer and an inquisitive and enquiring human being who can manage to make the difficult subject of death entertaining and even ordinary. There’s a sharp wit to be found in these poems alongside a tender wisdom, and there’s a mind that is unafraid to take the unexpected turn.’
Sharp wit and wisdom are embedded in Julia’s early plays and short stories, which often relate to female empowerment, while later works focus on patient empowerment. Writing about her personal experience of cancer was pioneering in its honesty and remains both inspirational and therapeutic. By exploring the metaphor of her own physical self as a house, Julia felt she was able to establish a sense of control over her body and cancer. It was the idea of gaining control, which she hoped to spread both through her own writing and her workshops. In the introduction to The Poetry Cure, Julia observed:
‘There is something very healing about working out the jigsaw of a poem, even though the subject matter might be upsetting… Eventually you have a poem that you carry around with you, that has the pleasing form of a well-made object, which can communicate itself to others without frightening them off.’
She light-heartedly feared being a ‘drainish’ sort of person, but the opposite was true: Julia radiated warmth whether working with teenagers at Ashington High School or health professionals at the Newcastle University Medical School. She was generous with her time, creating imaginative, zestful collaborations with musicians, painters, sculptors, photographers, writers and academics. Julia was also at the beating heart of literary life in Newcastle upon Tyne and one of her most visible legacies is in the centre of the city: the glass and marble benches she created with designer Cate Watkinson. Her readers too are within touching distance, as Jackie Kay writes: ‘It’s as if Julia, in the driver’s seat, takes off at speed, taking the reader on an at times hairy journey full of hairpin bends and sudden steep hills, laughing, sometimes wildly, then slowing down suddenly to a leisurely country pace.’
Julia was deeply attached to the North East, and her writing falls into the tradition of the great northern writers with authentic comic stories about ‘invisible’ people, the fragility of relationships, and the ‘raw mess of love’. However her writing also redefined literature about the region, particularly through her deployment of everyday magical realism. She spoke about experiencing a more female and less macho north with ‘a new kind of lyricism’ – quite different to that she experienced in the late 1980s. Julia was constantly travelling and her themes are universal; often finding the extraordinary in the lives of the ordinary.
Small Beauties: early life, education and the 1980s
Julia was born in 1956, the second of five children who grew up in an elegant Georgian townhouse in Winchester. It was the home Jane Austen rented before her death in 1817, and is owned by Winchester College, where Julia’s father John was Physics master. There was much to rebel against here, and as her friend Jackie Kay wrote, Julia ‘hated rules, control and authority’. As young children, she and her brother pretended to be ‘held captive’ at 8 College Street. Pranks entailed lowering a basket from the attic or holding a fishing net through the letterbox hoping that tourists would donate sweets or money.
A politically-aware teenager, Julia earned a complaint from the Jane Austen Society when she stuck anti-apartheid, pro-abortion and women’s liberation posters up on her historic ‘beady windows’. The character of Gertrude in Crocodile Soup expresses the eccentricity of growing up in a revered building. ‘The theatrical nature of our lives was enhanced by a mysterious line of people that drifted past the front door… watching our house as if it was under glass.’ As a non-conformist, Julia found education ‘gruelling’ and loathed the strict regime at Winchester High School for Girls, often playing truant. ‘For years I felt outside the education system,’ Julia wrote, also describing herself as a ‘runaway’ and ‘schoolphobic’. Her teenage experiences are reflected in the defiant character of Caris in her second novel The Taxi Driver’s Daughter. Attending Falmouth School of Art proved a turning point for Julia, as she studied performance and received tuition from writers Peter Scupham, Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove – who was a particular inspiration.
After completing her Fine Art degree, Julia visited friends in Newcastle, a city which she described in an article for the New Statesman as ‘an overwhelming place with its soaring bridges, its black, oily river, and train lines that ran through ancient castles.’ She continued: ‘The moment I got here I knew I would never leave.’ She made the gutsy move to the North East of England at the age of 24 and worked as a community arts officer from 1980 until 1988 in the deprived area of Pennywell, Sunderland. She described this as ‘like waking into the lion’s den. It was so hard… but great too.’ At this time she set up the Women’s Intellectual Group (Wig) and first collaborated with writer Ellen Phethean on a women’s political cabaret group called Sugar and Spikes.
Julia married Ivan Paul Sears and gave birth to her first daughter Scarlet in 1984. Florence was born two years later. Having children encouraged Julia to be more organised and she began to write poetry about ‘motherhood, and relationships and the chaotic life I was living’. Longing to explore her own potential, Julia was appointed writer-in-residence for Newcastle by the City Council and Northern Arts (now Arts Council England) and gave up her regular wage. As writer-in-residence, she worked with community groups and received her first commission for Tyne & Wear Theatre in Education (TiE). Her plays for TiE, youth theatres and drama groups at this time were part-devised and as Julia wrote, ‘had no shelf-life at all. It was all about the process, not the product’.
Just as later in her career she tackled the subject of cancer without flinching; her earliest works for stage confronted the controversial subjects of the time including teen pregnancy and homophobia. Reflecting about this period in 2005, Julia wrote: ‘My early plays were all rather worthy. I wrote about patriarchy, single mothers, bad capitalists and nice socialists, rotten men and brave women trying to find themselves.’ Worthy perhaps, but her early work in theatre laid the foundations for her close collaboration with actors, directors and artists, which continued throughout her life. TiE also brought her into contact with Live Theatre, founded by Val McLane and Geoff Gillham, where powerful new writing flourished. Julia felt proud that her playwriting fell into the tradition of C.P. Taylor and Tom Hadaway, but in the late 1980s-early 1990s ‘did seem to be one of the only women on the landscape, which was odd’.
Newcastle City Library published Julia’s first pamphlet Small Beauties, following a residency there in 1988. Not wishing to read alone for its launch, Julia asked friends to join her and The Poetry Virgins were born. The group was made up of Julia, Ellen Phethean, Charlie Hardwick, Fiona MacPherson and Kay Hepplewhite. Ellen writes: ‘We used to gather round Julia’s kitchen table with bottles of wine and nibbles, laughing and bouncing ideas for poems and performances.’ Performance was integral to The Poetry Virgins and Julia observed that they were ‘a troupe of raucous women who liked a wild night out and who “took poetry to the places that least expected it” (and probably didn’t want it either!) like housing co-op AGMs and women’s refuge coffee mornings.’ In 1989, after separating from her husband, Julia met her life-long partner Bev Robinson through friends at NE1 Theatre Company.
Sauce and Soup: The 1990s
The success of The Poetry Virgins led Julia and Ellen Phethean to set up a small press, Diamond Twig, in 1992. It was named after Julia’s poem ‘Dances’ and was initially established to publish work by the group. The press later championed other women writers from the North East, publishing poetry and short fiction. Diamond Twig’s first publication was The Poetry Virgin’s vivacious collection Modern Goddess. This was followed up in 1994 by Sauce, published with Bloodaxe. U.A. Fanthorpe, who wrote the forward for Sauce commented: ‘It was the foolish virgins who wasted the oil; these are the wise, the Poetry Virgins, in whose hands the oil of knowing what it is to be a woman, now, is not only treasured, but incandescent. Extra Virgin First Cold Pressing – and very, very funny.’
A theatrical partnership was established in 1992 between Julia and Quondam, a small-scale Cumbrian professional touring company. Quondam’s founder and producer Andy Booth commissioned Julia to write Rafferty’s Café which toured England and was followed by two further historical plays Head of Steel and Black Diamonds. Julia was also prolifically crafting short stories and in 1993 won the Tyne Tees Television Put It In Writing short story competition for her story ‘Beyond’. This spiritual tale was published by John Murray’s Panurge in her compelling collection, Bloodlines (1995). Her stories were widely published including ‘The Street’ which featured in Penguin Modern Women’s Fiction (1997); ‘Breast’ in the British Council’s New Writing 6 (1997) and ‘Love Me Tender’ in New Writing 10 (2001).
Julia was central to a collective of women writers working in the North East including Mslexia-founder Debbie Taylor, poet Linda France and playwright Margaret Wilkinson. Also part of this group was Julia’s close friend, the Tyneside-born novelist Andrea Badenoch, who died in 2004 of breast cancer aged 52. As Ellen Phethean wrote in her essay for Fix This Moment (2010) ‘Julia and Andrea’s awareness of, and support for, women writers’ needs have meant they both left a vibrant legacy: running workshops, giving encouragement and critical advice, plus their books of course and perhaps more importantly, as inspirational role models for generations of women writers to come.’
Julia greatly enjoyed running workshops and the exchange of ideas with other writers was an important stimulus for her own work. She taught across the North East and also at Arvon retreats, in addition to participating in groups such as Writing from the Inside Out, tutored by the poet Gillian Allnutt. Julia’s friends organised productive writing retreats together in castles and cottages and provided a crucial support network when in late 1994, at the age of 38, Julia was diagnosed with breast cancer. In April 1995 she moved, with her family into the house where she would live for the rest of her life. This was in Heaton’s Stratford Grove, a stone’s throw from the enclave of Jesmond Vale, which features in her second novel The Taxi Driver’s Daughter. Although her home gave her roots in Newcastle, Julia was often on the road or planning her next trip away.
A shift occurred in 1996, when Julia started ‘using writing as a way of making sense’ of her illness, through the play Eating the Elephant, about four women coping with cancer diagnoses. She wrote: ‘I always thought that the four characters were parts of me, all in conflict, but trying to find common ground.’ The play as written for touring company The Ashton Group, based in Barrow in Furness, and since then has been used by health professionals as a way of facilitating discussion about cancer. Eating the Elephant sparked a new collaboration in 2001 when Dr Dominic Slowie saw its potential in medical education. The ground-breaking company Operating Theatre was founded to initially explore relationships between heath professionals and patients through creative writing and drama workshops.
Also in 1996, Julia collaborated with photographer Sharon Bailey on an Equal Arts project about the experiences of people living in residential care homes in Gateshead. She recorded interviews and used residents’ exact words in the poetry which was inspired by her meetings with ‘extraordinary and interesting people.’ Home Truths was published by Equal Arts that year and was followed by another collaboration with Sharon in 2001 on the Alzheimer’s Society publication Tangles and Starbursts.
Crocodile Soup was published in 1998, five years after she began writing the novel during an extended family trip to Freemantle in Australia. She had completed it with the assistance of a British Council Writers Award and a Northern Arts funded residency at Tyrone Guthrie, County Monaghan, Ireland.
The novel was long-listed for the Orange Prize and a British best-seller which went on to be published in the United States, Canada and Australia. Liza Zeidner wrote in her review for The New York Times: ‘The novel abounds with juicy similies. They’re the crocodile parts in the soup of Gert’s memories.’
Always actively involved with the North East writing scene, Julia also helped found the groundbreaking proudWORDS, which launched in Newcastle in 1999. This was the first literary festival in England to celebrate gay and lesbian writing in England, with an emphasis on creative writing workshops. Interviewing participant – the writer Stella Duffy – for The Crack in July 2001, Julia wrote: ‘We laugh about how it’s harder to come out as a “cancer” victim than it is to come out as a lesbian. People can act very strangely around cancer.’
Posties and Public Places: 2001–2003
Newcastle’s innovative Live Theatre awarded Julia and fellow Newcastle-based writer Sean O’Brien tandem residencies from 2001 to 2003. Julia had first worked at Live in 1989 for a Theatre in Education commission and in the 1990s wrote The Women Who Painted Ships, Venetia Love Goes Netting and The Last Post for Live. The latter was developed into the popular series of five plays, Posties, for Radio 4. During this productive period she wrote plays including Sea Life, based on the ideas of philosopher Mary Midgley and the comedic one-woman show Personal Belongings, which the actor Zoë Lambert took to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for a successful run. The intriguing comic play Attachments, written for actors Charlie Hardwick and Trevor Fox, was first shown alongside From the Underworld by Sean O’Brien as a Double Lives production at Live. Attachments was subsequently made into Cold Calling, a short kitchen drama for Tyne Tees Television.
Julia enrolled on an MA in Poetry Studies at Newcastle University in 2001, where she studied alongside Jo Shapcott and W.N. Herbert. Interviewed by The Crack in August 2003, she said: ‘I decided to do an MA more as a way of understanding contemporary poetry than to become a poet again. However, the course opened out a new seam in me, and I used poems to write about personal matters, and my experiences in hospitals and with doctors and healers.’ As Sean O’Brien observed, Julia ‘already wrote vivid and enjoyable poems but she wanted technique, so in her usual vivid and practical manner she set about acquiring it.’
After being awarded a distinction Julia was appointed an Associate Royal Literary Fund Fellow of Literature and Health at Newcastle University. The School of English gave her a ‘lovely room’ to which her friends at the university were drawn – as Jackie Kay noted – ‘with its photographs, postcards, maps and big sofa’. Julia commented that due to support from the English Department and Royal Literary Fund, 2002 ‘was the most creative year I have ever had!’ Her room in the Percy Building was directly opposite the Royal Victoria Infirmary where Julia received treatment for advanced breast cancer. Here she ran a series of workshops and seminars alongside other writers and tutors including Cynthia Fuller, often working with patients, medical students and GPs. She felt strongly that a non-medical and non-clichéd vocabulary could be used by patients to describe their pain, to help them communicate with doctors.
In September 2002, Julia began her intimate, witty and popular blog, in which she shared her thoughts on people she cared about in addition to books and exhibitions she enjoyed, travelling, and her own health. In her private journal, Julia wrote of her reason for the blog: ‘Here I am, I want to say, still here, not that pale or insubstantial.’ Interviewed by The Crack in 2003, she commented: ‘It’s also a little box to stand on if I have an opinion about anything.’ The blog was abridged by The Times in February 2005 and later adapted by Jackie Kay into The Waiting Room, an afternoon play with music for Radio 4.
If 2002 was Julia’s most creative year, 2003 was possibly her most critically successful year. At the time, the UK’s biggest and most prestigious literary prize was the Northern Rock Foundation Writer’s Award run by New Writing North, which was worth £60,000 over three years. In March the prize was awarded to Julia, who noted that ‘these awards are like little surges of joy and affirmation for us insecure writers’. In an interview with The Independent’s Christina Patterson, Julia said that when she got the call she felt, ‘quite breathless. It makes you feel like your corsets are undone.’ The award funded a research trip in July to Brasil for Julia’s unpublished novel A Cure for Dying, where she travelled from Rio to the capital Brasilia and into the mountains to visit the healer John of God. Writing about her experiences in Rio, she noted: ‘You could watch people all the time. It’s endlessly fascinating and uplifting.’
Julia’s novel The Taxi Driver’s Daughter – the compassionate exploration of a family in free-fall when mum Louise is sent to jail – was published by Viking in August 2003 and as a Penguin paperback the following year. The critically acclaimed novel was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and short-listed for the Encore Award given by the Society of Authors. Interviewed about the book by the Evening Chronicle Julia said: ‘I wanted to show how even normal families are never normal.’ In a review for The Independent on Sunday Scarlett Thomas wrote: ‘Darling’s subtle method of storytelling leaves her room to do what she does best: to create the most evocative landscapes with only the lightest pencil lines. This novel does not feel crowded with ideas, yet it tackles class, family and growing up. The imagery and language seem both tightly controlled and effortless.’
Writing for The Guardian, Alfred Hickling tackled the London-centric perception of Julia being based in the ‘provinces’. He observed: ‘Darling is routinely labeled a “Newcastle writer”, as though literate people on Tyneside were a breed apart. And though her novels of working class life undoubtedly belong to the great tradition of Sid Chaplin, Tom Hadaway and Alan Plater, Darling herself is not a native Geordie at all… But the great strength of her writing is its sense of place, which she often evokes with a few well-chosen smells.’
Julia had returned to writing poetry and her ground-breaking first collection of poetry Sudden Collapses in Public Places was published in 2003. The collection received a Poetry Book Society recommendation along with excellent reviews. Julia describes how she ‘really hit the seam’ with her collection about understanding and taking control of her illness. She felt that poetry helped her to communicate with her doctors, improved her health and, importantly, brought laughter. Writing for the Poetry Book Society bulletin in autumn 2003, she observed: ‘I wrote poetry in waiting rooms. I made up poems while I was having scans. Somehow this was defiant and empowering. I forgot to be a patient, I was so absorbed in another world…Writing poetry was very invigorating, especially as I had time to work on the poems, so they weren’t just outpourings of anxiety. I didn’t see them as therapy, more as doors into other universes.’
In early 2003, Julia had been asked to contribute to the Newcastle and Gateshead bid to become the European Capital of Culture (which Liverpool won). In the New Statesman she commented: ‘It sounds sentimental, but for many of us who live here the city of Newcastle is like a person who we feel very emotional about. When I arrived as a young woman it was like falling in love.’ She also became involved in the debate about a proposed regional assembly for the North East, and although shying away from local politics increasingly felt that Newcastle had been ‘hijacked’ by town planners and property developers. In a prescient piece for The Guardian she wrote: ‘I would certainly forbid the building of any more luxury apartments or offices, and prioritise studio space and public housing. Sometimes the city centre feels like a great mouth with no teeth, filled with empty flats owned by companies.’
Apologies for Absence: 2004–2005
Julia’s thoughts about Newcastle further evolved during a Newcastle Playhouse (now Northern Stage) project based on a theatre production based on Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. She travelled to Barcelona in February 2004 with poets W.N. Herbert and Linda France, where she ‘enjoyed the hot chocolate, like custard.’ Inspired by the Spanish anarchists of Barcelona who opposed the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil war, Julia wrote the powerful poem ‘The Manifesto for Tyneside upon England’ which she described as ‘luddite’. The poem was performed alongside work by Bill and Linda at a cabaret night of music and poetry called Flying Homages at the Playhouse in April. Julia wrote in her blog: ‘I like the word Manifesto very much. It’s powerful and makes me think of women on horses.’
Further recognition of her achievements led to Julia being elected a Royal Society of Literature Fellow in June. The Royal Literary Fund event was held at Somerset House in London, however Julia was unable to attend due to ill health. At the time she was focusing on writing her second major poetry collection about chronic illness, Apologies for Absence. Julia was able to join her wider family on the Isle of Wight, which was usually an annual summer trip, and that year she stayed at the former mill home of the late English historian A.J.P. Taylor. Julia was also invited to be part of a British Council trip to Mauritius, which she described as a ‘passionate, political place’. She travelled with her partner Bev along with Sean O’Brien and his partner Gerry Wardle, attending a writers’ conference at the University of Mauritius. However a trip of this nature was difficult, as she wrote in her blog: ‘This state I am in requires all kinds of attentions in order for it to remain balanced. I bargain with my body, trying to give it so much rest in exchange for something I want to do.’
Also that summer, Julia agreed to be filmed by the BBC Inside Out team for a documentary about her life. The programme, which was broadcast in October showed a flavour of Julia’s daily family life in addition to her working life, running workshops and reading poetry. Inside Out featured Julia’s own video diary which she had recorded over the summer. Writing in her blog about the TV broadcast she noted: ‘I liked the simple message of it although there were weepy bits, on the whole it showed what it’s like to have cancer with its good days and bad days.’
Apologies for Absence was published in November by Arc and her editor Jo Shapcott wrote that: ‘Julia Darling is writing at the height of her powers.’ Writing for The Independent in April 2005, Ruth Padel observed: ‘No sentimental self-pity: amused, inquisitive and graceful, these poems are beautifully cadenced statements about living, little wiry structures shored against the dark.’
The same month, Julia saw her poems from Sudden Collapses in Public Places set as a song cycle and performed by Zoë Lambert at The Sage Gateshead. Julia wrote: ‘There is something wonderful about having ones words interpreted by gifted musicians.’ Music was crucial to Julia and her stereo favourites ranged from rock band Pink Floyd to singer-songwriter Gillian Welch. She described herself as a tone-deaf writer of peculiar songs, which she would often pen with particular performers in mind such as Zoë or Maggie Thacker. She was also a member of song-writing group The Tulips, whose CD The World of The Tulips includes a hilarious song about the virtues of wheelie bins. Julia recorded Rendezvous, which featured her readings of six poems set to music by accordion-player Tim Dalling. The CD was sold in a hand-made knitted CD cover and launched at the Buddle Arts Centre, Wallsend in July. This collaboration provided the music for Radio 4’s The Waiting Room, an afternoon play based on Julia’s blog and edited by Jackie Kay. In October 2004 Julia wrote: ‘Cancer dislikes large hats, and luxurious bedspreads…It doesn’t like loud singing either.’
Visits to the border between England and Scotland had sown the seeds of a remarkable story, ‘The Debatable Lands’. The principle character Rhona seeks silence in Reiver country after being given a Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis. Instead of peace, she discovers a noisy and restless spirit and comments: ‘My body is a debatable land. It is full of marauders who come looking for blood and wealth but I am going to shake them loose.’ As the story develops, Rhona comes to the conclusion that: ‘All we can do in the face of fear is to become ungovernable.’ The story was broadcast on Radio 4 in January 2005, read by Gina McKee.
Julia spent two days at BBC Manchester to be present during the recording of Appointments for Woman’s Hour. Inspired by her own appointments with doctors, masseurs and acupuncturists, this drama features the character Maureen’s response to being given an inoperable brain tumour diagnosis. During this month, Julia wrote a piece about waiting for Radio 3’s The Verb and took the role of The Guardian’s resident online poet.
In development at Northern Stage was Julia’s full-length musical play, A Manifesto for a New City, in which Julia envisioned a peaceful revolution. The play was inspired by the manifesto poems concerning Newcastle, written in response to the theatre’s Homage to Catalonia project. At the end of March Julia ‘hoiked’ herself out of bed to see the dress rehearsal of her last work for stage, which she hoped would ‘fire people up’ in defence of their city. A new production was shown at Northern Stage in 2015, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Julia’s death.
A final collaboration with the artist Emma Holliday was based on Julia’s ‘First Aid Kit for the Mind’ poems. These were exhibited alongside Emma’s paintings at The Rebellious Stamp Exhibition held at The Biscuit Factory. As part of the art project, a limited edition of first aid kits, ‘small pieces of home’, to be taken by a patient to hospital were produced.
The Poetry Cure, a significant anthology on the subject of illness, edited by Cynthia Fuller and Julia, was published the month Julia died. Ruth Padel wrote that ‘this beautiful and humane anthology should be on the waiting room of every ward’. Julia’s introduction included the words:
‘I believe that poetry can help make you better. Poetry is essential, not a frill or a nicety. It comes to all of us when we most need it. As soon as we are in any kind of crisis, or anguish, that is when we reach out for poetry, or find ourselves writing a poem for the first time.’
© Tamzin Mackie