The writer Julia Darling, who has died of breast cancer aged 48, specialised in finding new ways to describe everyday experiences and approached every situation, including her own death, with a spirit of optimism and openness.
The second of five children, she was born in Winchester, in the house where Jane Austen died. From an early age, she was an activist, upsetting janeites by putting anti-aparthied posters in her window. She attended St Christopher’s School, Letchworth, where the headmaster was a Quaker. After school, she studied performance and fine art at Falmouth School of Art. Subsequently, she joined the Quaker Peace Caravan, spending four or five months with Barry and Jill Wilsher, and writing material for their street theatre and education work. Later, she moved to the North East of England, to work in community arts.
Julia attended Quaker meetings at various times in her life: with her mother, Vicky Darling, who was a member of Winchester Meeting, later its warden; and with me in Newcastle off and on from 1997. Because we attended together, Friends jumped to the conclusion that we were married, which irritated her. She got her own back by laughing at their shoes: typically, Julia had found a small visual detail to convey the other-worldly eccentricity she enjoyed in Quakers.
Julia’s creative life was multi-facetted: performance poet, with the Poetry Virgins; publisher, through Diamond Twig Press; playwright, with companies including Quondam, Live Theatre and Northern Stage; writer of stories for Women’s Hour. Her first novel, Crocodile Soup (1998) was longlisted for the Orange Prize, and her second, The Taxi Driver’s Daughter (2003) was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In 2003, she won the Northern Rock Writers Award.
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she reacted with the same honesty and directness that she brought to every subject. In two collections, Sudden Collapses in Public Places (2003) and Apology for Absence (2004), she made witty and moving poetry which communicated the predicament of illness and bounced people out of fear or pity. For her, writing was a medicine which could make illness bearable and hospitals human.
Through her weblog (www.juliadarling.co.uk), she spoke directly both to her fans and friends, and to a wider community of people living with terminal illness.
Julia was generous with her time and her skills, endlessly energetic and enthusiastic. Cordon-bleu trained, she was always ready with soup and cake, at the home she shared with her long-time partner, Bev, and her daughters Scarlet and Florrie, her ‘small beauties’. She was a wonderful companion, who was interested in everyone, and made others feel valued and privileged, even when she herself felt weary and frustrated. The order of service at her Humanist funeral, included her poem indelible, miraculous:
friend, think of your breath
on a cold pane of glass
you can write your name there
with an outstretched finger
or frosted, untouched grass
in the early morning, a place
where you can dance alone
leave your footprints there
a deep pool of silver water
waits for you to make waves
the beach is clean after the storm
the tide has washed away yesterday
we all matter, we are all
indelible, miraculous, here
Julia Darling, writer and activist, born 21 August, 1956, died 13 April 2005. Survived by her partner, Bev Robinson, and her children, Scarlet and Florrie.