I returned from Poland yesterday with a jar of raspberry confiture. I was going to call round with it. In amongst other things, Julia asked for home-grown raspberries in the Manifesto. She also asked for imaginary travel, and I hoped this was going to be an imaginary postcard in a jar.
I also met Julia through a story first – a story called Bloodlines which I found in a small publisher’s collection many years ago. All I remembered about it was its beauty, a nameless city with the metro and references to Spain. Then in 2002 a friend of mine urged me to catch Personal Belongings at that year’s Fringe. When I moved to Newcastle the following month, one of the first people I met was Julia Darling. And when you met Julia it was impossible not to become an instant friend. She was also one of my first visitors in my new home, one Sunday afternoon when she was on a research trip to that part of town. In retrospect I realised that visit was my small casual initiation ritual. Julia had also been a newcomer once and she loved making people feel welcome in this place that she made her home.
Everything about Julia always seemed so effortless – her boundless generosity of spirit, her radiant smile, her literature. She always responded to every call, to every cause, to every occasion – she loved people and she loved writing and those two loves always went hand in hand. And those two loves never asked for anything in return.
I think it was at the time when we were rehearsing Valentine Verses that I learnt about Julia’s illness. We were in the lift in the School of English and just before she got out on the second floor she joked about how her cancer was part of her literary reputation. I stayed behind shell-shocked. I could never have imagined that cancer could co-exist with so much beauty and love, and I tried to reassure myself that the latter would surely triumph.
On occasions like this, when recollection is a means of coping, every memory inevitably seems magnified. In this particular place, where Julia revealed her innermost feelings and thoughts, it is impossible to ignore the cancer. Yet on a daily basis, the strength of Julia’s personality was such that it always overshadowed her actual state of health. Yes, she would casually mention the nurses, her acupuncture sessions and her afternoon naps on her new sofa, but always with her beaming smile.
Almost a year to the date after our theatrical celebration of poetry and love, we were planning another staged poetry event. This time the idea was to link the event with Northern Stage’s co-production of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. We would send Julia, Bill Herbert, Linda France and Colin Teevan on Easyjet flights to Barcelona and get them to write their own homages to Catalonia. Julia returned from Barcelona with a Manifesto for a New City. In it she famously called for the artists and makers to take over the city and for the property developers to cut up their suits and make them again. Soon after her return, Julia found that her cancer had started spreading…
As a result of the success of Flying Homages – the evening of poetry and music performed by the writers together with Northern Stage’s actors – Julia was commissioned to write a full scale musical for the company. We started working on it intensively last autumn and Julia seemed to be bursting with ideas. Occasionally she’d say: “I have to go and have my blood changed, but maybe you could come with me and we can work in the hospital”. Such was her attitude to her work in relation to the demands of her body.
The second floor at the School of English has always been a lively place – a home to writers and creative individuals who would call in on each other with ideas or just wave joyously across the corridor filled with the smell of incense coming from Julia’s office. I loved going into her office for meetings. Not only did it smell nice, but it was a real writer’s den furnished with simple luxuries – beautiful lighting, intriguing pictures and carefully chosen words and notes to herself. And of course – there was the sofa. When Jim Kitson came in on the Manifesto meetings, the second floor was also filled with catchy tunes and beautiful music.
Manifesto the musical had several incarnations. At first it was a proper play with songs and jokes and a character called Maureen who would bring Maureenism into the City. Around Christmas-time, however, the director Alan Lyddiard became really keen on the idea of Julia being in the show herself. For a moment it seemed like Julia was also up for it, but then she confessed that she could not be relied on and just continued writing furiously, bringing up new possible versions of the musical.
I don’t know where she found the time, but she was also keeping at least another fifteen projects on the go – poetry readings, master classes, radio plays, interviews – and she was also travelling or planning travels. In January we staged another reading as part of the Holocaust Memorial Day exploring the theme of survival. At this point Julia was very much into knitting and we built this newly-discovered means of survival into the show. I later thought – what a wonderful metaphor for poetry! I often think of playwriting as weaving anyway – maybe the entire literary activity can be reclaimed by women on the grounds of their inherent handcrafting inclinations.
I would have liked to have shared this thought with Julia. In the last two weeks, stuck at a symposium in Poland, I kept thinking of all the things I would have liked to have shared with Julia but never got the chance to. Then I realised that we shared wonderful moments working together, and work was exactly what kept Julia going. There was never any time for sentiments – only pure feelings, pure enthusiasm and a sense of purpose.
The last time I saw Julia at the dress rehearsal of the Manifesto, we parted with the words “See you!” The last time I spoke to her a week ago, we almost made an appointment. I came back with a jar of raspberry confiture hoping to call round with it as a token of imaginary travel. And it is this set of circumstances which made it impossible for me to see Julia once again that brings out the sentiments in me, and the memories: the times she smiled, the time when I realised I had met her first all those years ago through her story, the time when she came into my office with a radio and two cappuccinos and we listened to the Appointments while watching the snow through the window, the way in which I was swept off the beach while reading The Taxi Driver’s Daughter in Nice and then continued turning the soaked pages till the end.
In a way, knowing Julia was like experiencing that wave in Nice and I am deeply honoured to have had the opportunity.
Dramaturg, Northern Stage