I was on my first novel when I met Julia. I was embarrassed, would never tell anyone I was working on a book. My partner Ally interviewed her for the Big Issue. "You’ve got to read Crocodile Soup, it’s great," he said. "The author, she’s lovely. She wanted to know all about you."
Yes. He interviewed her, but somehow she ended up asking about his family. And our dog. She was particularly interested in our dog.
It was a few years before we met again. My book was published. I asked Julia for a quote. She must have been inundated with manuscripts from hopeful new writers, but still she read it, and gave me a lovely quote for the cover. She gave me a leg up into the world of visibility.
I carry little images with me. Julia, riding a bike. Julia, walking on the beach. Julia, going to the shops or riding in a taxi. I read her blog, and she painted these pictures in my head. Sometimes she talked about writing retreats. I felt like a little girl, nose against the sweet shop window. Writing retreats! Such things existed? Wow.
She hardly knew me at all, and yet she treated me like an old friend. I travelled up to Newcastle on my own, to see a short play of hers, set in a Turkish baths. She didn’t hesitate in asking me to join her table. She budged some chairs around, introduced me to her friends.
The last time I saw her was five weeks ago. It was Manchester Central Library, an incredible circular building, with curved rooms and a hole through the middle. The room was tall-ceilinged, wood-panelled, bathed in a golden light. I’m not being fanciful. It really was. Julia remarked on it. Something to do with the wood, I suspect. Julia read some of her poems, and I was so struck with her vibrancy, her humour, her life.
She signed a couple of poetry anthologies for me, but there was a disaster. My books got thrown away by accident.
I emailed her, not knowing how ill she was. A surprise Jiffy bag appeared, a week or two later. Two replacement books, signed by Julia. "keep on writing girl!" she wrote.
A friend of mine was undergoing chemotherapy recently when she heard Julia on the radio; Woman’s Hour. It made her feel better. She asked me to tell Julia how much she’d touched her life.
Julia’s taught me that cancer is about life, not death. That as long as there is blood in your veins there’s a reason to hold your head up, and smile at the sky.