"Have you met Julia Darling yet. No? Oh, you’ll love her!"
When I first came up to the north east in 1996 to begin work at New Writing North. Everyone I met said that to me. I was fascinated to know who this person was that inspired such devotion and delight. I wasn’t disappointed.
I’ve never me anyone like Julia, she was like an energy generator buzzing with ideas, wit and good humour. I never left a meeting with Julia, even if it was about something a bit dull, without feeling better for having seen and spent time with her. I remember the launch of Crocodile Soup in Newcastle. It’s remains the most amazing book launch I’ve ever been to. I didn’t know many people but said to one of the writers that I had befriended ‘who are all these people?’. The writer laughed and said, ‘well over there are the writers, over there are the lesbians, that group over there have cancer and.. and it just went on and on. Julia had an expansive and impressive constituency and a complete lack of vanity about being such a public and important figure.
I have an enduring memory of sitting in the Rendezvous Cafe in Whitley Bay last year with Julia eating knickerbocker glories. We were waiting to set the scene in the cafe so that we could photo Julia in this place that inspired her. As we waited for Sasa to set up his lights and brief the waitresses she showed me the article that she had written that had just appeared in the Guardian about how poetry can save your life. I remember thinking to myself ‘she really believes it can’ and her wanting this made me want it and believe it too.
Thinking back now, somehow eating knickerbocker glories and talking frankly about death as a fact of life summed up my impressions of Julia.
Since then I was lucky enough to work with Julia on a number of projects and took great delight in seeing her work, her career and her reputation deservedly grow. I love her novels and I hope that the brave and fearless writing that she did on the subject of cancer and healing doesn’t completely over-shadow her other work, both are important. Her views on how the north east is changing are also very important.
A few months ago I offered to pull together a collection of her radio and stage plays for publication. It’s been an epic task (as there are so many of them and they are all so wonderful) and about two weeks ago I collected the final play for inclusion from Julia, around that time she had also decided on a cover image (with Sharon Bailey), so we are now editing what I’m sure will be not only a stunning collection of work but a fitting tribute. I’m really glad she got to pull it together and oversee it.
The last time I saw Julia we talked about her book of plays but also spent a good amount of time talking about how to knit dog coats. I had found a pattern for a very stylish coat but Julia and Bev had a book which went one step further and detailed how you could comb your dog, weave fur into wool and knit clothing from this, it had pictures of hats for humans in it and advice on which kinds of dogs were best for wool production.
Your mind was always expanded with Julia, sometimes in the most unexpected ways.
At the launch of the wonderful First Aid kit last night I reflected on Julia’s organisational panache. Even when she wasn’t there herself she managed to bring a large group of people together. The First Aid kit is so wonderful, so clever, yet so simple and so wise.
We are all so much poorer now that she has left us. I hope she went somewhere fantastic. I envy the new ‘community’ that’s sure to welcome her spirit with open arms.