Julia Darling was a writer who lived on Heaton’s Stratford Grove Terrace between 1995 and 2005. Among her many published works were several collections of poetry, two novels, two books of short stories and many works for stage, TV and radio. She was a major literary figure in the north-east until her untimely death.
Julia was born in Winchester, Hampshire on 21 August 1956 in the very house in which Jane Austen spent her final days and eventually died. Later in life, Julia spoke about the connection with Austen and how, when she was a teenager, the Austen Society had complained about anti-apartheid, pro-abortion and women’s lib posters she had put in her bedroom window.
Julia’s father, John, was a physics teacher at Winchester College (which owned the house the family lived in); her mother, Patricia, was a nurse and a Quaker. Julia attended Winchester High School for Girls, but was expelled at the age of 15, before going on to Falmouth School of Art.
Julia’s connection with Newcastle began in 1980. She had just completed her fine art degree, when she visited friends in the city. She was so struck by it, still years before its Quayside renaissance, that she later told the ‘New Statesman’ that Newcastle was, ‘an overwhelming place with its soaring bridges, its black, oily river, and train lines that ran through ancient castles‘, before continuing ‘The moment I got here I knew I would never leave.’ She never did.
It was around this time that Julia began her writing career. Between 1980 and 1988, she worked as a community arts office in the Pennywell area of Sunderland but at the same time she set up the Women’s Intellectual Group (Wig) and began collaborating with writer, Ellen Phethean, on a women’s political cabaret, Sugar and Spikes.
In 1984 Julia married trade union organiser Ivan Paul Sears, with whom she had two daughters, Scarlet and Florence.
When, in 1988, Julia was appointed writer-in-residence by Newcastle City Council and Northern Arts, she gave up a regular wage in order to explore her potential as a writer. Newcastle City Library published her first pamphlet ‘Small Beauties‘ following the residency and, not wanting to read alone for the launch, a performance group, The Poetry Virgins was born, comprising Julia herself, Ellen Phethean, Charlie Hardwick, Fiona MacPherson and Kay Hepplewhite.
Ellen recalled: ‘We used to gather round Julia’s kitchen table with bottles of wine and nibbles, laughing and bouncing ideas for poems and performances.’ Julia observed that The Poetry Virgins 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.’
Julia was always prepared to take on subjects that were controversial at the time, including teen pregnancy and homophobia. Indeed when looking back in 2005 at this early period of her writing, she 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.’
But Julia’s early work in theatre also laid the foundation for her close collaboration with actors, directors and artists, which continued throughout her life. Tyne and Wear Theatre in Education brought her into contact with Live Theatre, where powerful new writing flourished. She felt proud that her writing fell into the tradition of men like C P Taylor and Tom Hadaway, but said that in the late 1980s-early 1990s she ‘did seem to be one of the only women on the landscape, which was odd’.
Julia and Ivan had separated in 1989 and Julia met her life-long partner, Bev Robinson. The 1980s had kick-started Julia’s career but it was arguably now that it really took off.
The success of The Poetry Virgins had encouraged Julia and Ellen Phethean to set up a small press, Diamond Twig, in 1992. The original idea was to establish an outlet for work by The Poetry Virgins. Later the press went on to support other women writers from the north-east, publishing their poetry and short fiction.
In 1992, a theatrical partnership was established between Julia and Quondam, which was a small-scale Cumbrian professional touring company. Andy Booth, Quondam’s founder and producer, commissioned her to write ‘Rafferty’s Cafe’. This play toured England and was followed by two further historical plays ‘Head of Steel’ and ‘Black Diamonds’. In 1993 Julia won Tyne Tees Television’s Put It In Writing short story competition with her story ‘Beyond’. This was a spiritual tale, which was was published in her 1995 collection, ‘Bloodlines’. Now Julia’s 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). In 1995, ‘The Street’ from ‘Bloodlines‘, was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 4.
In 1998, Julia’s first novel, ‘Crocodile Soup’ was published by Anchor. It was long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction, which recognise the achievements of female writers. The novel went on to be published in Canada, Australia, the USA and across Europe. Later editions were published by Penguin and Mayfly.
Soon after this, Julia had a residency at the Live Theatre in tandem with Sean O’ Brien and five of her plays were developed into a series called ‘Posties’ for Radio 4.
But amidst this success, in 1994, Julia was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of just 38. She was able to write about her illness, including in the play ‘Eating the Elephant’, in which the four female characters are all dealing with cancer diagnoses. Julia herself wrote: ‘I always thought that the four characters were parts of me, all in conflict, but trying to find common ground.’
After being awarded a distinction on her MA in Poetry Studies at Newcastle University in 2002, Julia was appointed an Associate Royal Literary Fund Fellow of Literature and Health at the university. Her room in the Percy Building was directly opposite the Royal Victoria Infirmary where she received treatment for advanced breast cancer. She called this time ‘the most creative year I have ever had’. It was at this time that Julia began her popular blog, talking about books and exhibitions and about people she cared about. She said this about her reason for the blog: ‘Here I am, I want to say, still here, not that pale or insubstantial‘. When interviewed by The Crack in 2003, she also commented that, ‘it’s also a little box to stand on if I have an opinion about anything.’
2003 was the year in which, arguably, Julia gained most critical acclaim. That March, she won the Northern Rock Foundation Writer’s Award, worth £60,000 over three years. As part of this, Julia was able to take a trip to Brazil to research her unpublished novel ‘A Cure for Dying’.
And in August 2003, her novel, ‘The Taxi Driver’s Daughter’ was published by Viking and in paperback by Penguin the following year. It went on to be long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and short-listed for the Encore Award given by the Society of Authors.
It is, of course, a particularly loved work in Heaton, set as it is in places close to Julia’s heart and her home at 9 Stratford Grove Terrace and re-imagining, as a key part of the plot, the birth of Armstrong Park’s famous ‘Shoe Tree’. The book’s central character, Caris, has echoes of her own young, rebellious self.
Unfortunately Julia’s success could not prevent her from being typecast as ‘Newcastle writer’ rather than simply a writer. Alfred Hickling, in ‘The Guardian‘ referred to 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.’
In early 2003, Julia was asked to contribute to the ultimately unsuccessful bid by Newcastle for the title of European City of Culture. 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.’ Julia developed her thoughts about her adopted city after traveling to Barcelona as part of a Northern Playhouse project about George Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia‘. The trip resulted in Julia’s powerful poem ‘The Manifesto for Tyneside upon England’ which she described as ‘Luddite’ and which was performed at the Playhouse at a cabaret night of music and poetry called ‘Flying Homages‘.
In further recognition of her talents, in June 2003, Julia was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and in 2003, she was also invited to be part of a British Council trip to Mauritius, which she described as a ‘passionate, political place’. Julia also became a television star of sorts by agreeing to be filmed by the BBC ‘Inside Out‘ team for a documentary about her life. The programme gave a flavour of her family and 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’.
Julia continued not to shy away from writing about illness. Her collections Sudden Collapses in Public Places (2003) and Apology for Absence (2005) explored issues around body, health and illness, including the experience of being treated for and living with cancer. Sudden Collapses in Public Places was set as a song cycle and performed by Zoë Lambert at The Sage Gateshead. Julia loved music and wrote: ‘There is something wonderful about having one’s words interpreted by gifted musicians.’
Another piece about health issues featured a character called Rhona who sought solace on the Scottish/Northumbrian border after having finding out that she had multiple sclerosis. Poignantly, Rhona doesn’t find peace, discovering instead a noisy and restless spirit about which she 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.’ Rhona eventually comes to the conclusion that: ‘All we can do in the face of fear is to become ungovernable.’ Gina McKee narrated the story when it was broadcast on Radio 4 in January 2005.
And there was a collaboration with the artist Emma Holliday. Julia’s ‘First Aid Kit for the Mind’ poems were exhibited alongside Emma’s paintings at The Rebellious Stamp Exhibition held at The Biscuit Factory and in waiting rooms around the country.
Julia was further inspired by her own situation to write about another character, Maureen, who had been given a diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumour. She then took on the role of The Guardian’s online poet in residence and also wrote a piece for Radio 3’s The Verb about waiting.
Despite her illness, Julia maintained a connection with her work and in her own words, ‘hoiked’ herself out of bed in March 2005, to see dress rehearsals for her final stage play, ‘A Manifesto for a New City’ , which Julia hoped would inspire people of Newcastle to stand up for their city. The play was inspired by manifesto poems written as part of the earlier Home to Catalonia project at Northern Playhouse.
In the month Julia died, The Poetry Cure, described as a ‘a significant anthology on the subject of illness’, edited by Julia and Cynthia Fuller was published. In response, Ruth Padel wrote that ‘this beautiful and humane anthology should be on the waiting room of every ward’.
Poignantly, 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.’
Julia died on 13 April 2005 in her beloved adopted city of Newcastle upon Tyne, having already chosen her burial plot in Jesmond Old Cemetery.
The inscription on her gravestone reads: ‘Mother & Writer; she electrified the ordinary; we all matter, we are all indelible; miraculous here‘, the words taken from her poems.
She wrote this poem about choosing her plot:
I went to old Jesmond Graveyard to find my plot, to mark a place.
Doug from Bereavement showed me a spot green and reflective, under a willow.
He apologised for the trimming of the weeds, he liked it messy overgrown, but the government had made stipulations for health and safety.
Things must be neat, in case of gravestones squashing children, so raggy old Jezzy was having a clean up.
But you know, said Doug, death isn’t tidy.
It’s a plague of knotweed, a bed of nettles, a path through thistles, that’s how it should be.
In their obituary, The Guardian commented that Julia’s ‘love of the north-east informed much of her work‘
The Independent said this of Julia in their obituary: ‘Julia Darling was a writer of great gifts and versatility and, in recent years, an extremely prolific one. She wrote novels and short stories, plays and poetry, as well as collaborating frequently with painters, musicians and other artists. She was also an instigator and a teacher, though the latter word, which she viewed with suspicion, does not adequately suggest her power to excite and inspire a sense of possibility – in writing, in life – among the many who encountered her.’
Jules Smith for the British Council commented that, ‘Julia Darling’s work is brave, engaging, often funny; but above all, thoughtful.’
In its review of ‘Crocodile Soup’, a ‘Goodreads‘ review stated that the book is,‘a narrative studded with relentless humor and giddy self-deprecation, Julia Darling introduces an endearing cast of characters whose shared and wayward search for love is irresistible.’
Northern Stage revived A Manifesto for a City in 2015, saying: ‘There are so many ways to begin the story of Julia Darling and often it feels like there is just that one world-shatteringly sad ending. But even ten years after her passing, Julia’s voice is still as gripping as before. It manifests itself as a presence of a kind. The Manifesto receives a new production at Northern Stage this week, and one can’t imagine a more fitting moment than the one in the aftermath of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory as the leader of the Labour party. It is a time of renewed idealism which Julia and her Poet would certainly have relished. It represents an opportunity for a happier ending. In the run up to this production I opened an old box looking for the final version of the script, and I found one of those notes Julia used to write and leave around the place. And that certainly makes for a happier ending for me’.
Perhaps the most unusual review of Julia’s work was written by another cancer sufferer, Anthony Wilson, who in a blog entitled ‘Lifesaving Poems’, compared Julia’s poetry to Psalm 102, as both could be seen as cries for the light of life amid the dark pain of serious illness. Wilson said ‘I had come across Julia Darling’s marvellous poem “Chemotherapy” nearly a year before I fully understood what she was talking about. There is not much I need to add to it, except to say I think “the smallest things are gifts” sums up for me the entire universe of pain, gratitude, suffering, relief, anxiety and humour which the word “cancer’ registers in me.’
Julia was a woman and a writer who touched many people’s lives, with her wit and her courage, both in her life and in her writing. As she lives on in her writing, so may this continue.
The last word goes to Ellen Phethean, the Heaton-based writer, who was a good friend of Julia’s for over a quarter of a century, as well as being a close colleague of hers in many writing ventures.
When asked for her memories of Julia, Ellen said:
‘I first met Julia when we performed together in the women’s political cabaret group Sugar and Spikes back in 1979/80. When Julia began to focus seriously on her writing, producing a pamphlet of poems, ‘Small Beauties’, she asked some women to perform with her and so began The Poetry Virgins, which I joined as another writer. The PVs were extremely popular, breaking the boundaries of traditional poetry readings, encompassing Trade Union Study Days, Women’s Aid AGMs and Literary Festivals, producing two collections ‘Modern Goddess’ (1992) and ‘Sauce’ (1994).
‘Julia and I also began our small press, Diamond Twig, with the aim of encouraging other women to write, a central tenet of our philosophy, and we ran all sorts of events and reading nights.
‘We inspired each other: ideas would bubble up, we’d bounce them around, coming up with some grand wacky ideas. Her humour and imagination meant she was a joy to work with. Her generosity of spirit brought writers together, she was at the heart of the vibrant, busy writing world of the north-east. Everywhere I go I meet women who tell me how important Julia was to their writing journey. Despite her cancer diagnosis, she was always busy living, not dying, believing that poetry gave her a language and control over her bodily experiences. Her openness in the face of death was inspiring, anticipating it as the beginning of a wild new adventure.’
Researched and written by Peter Sagar of Heaton History Group. Thank you also to Arthur Andrews and Ellen Phethean for their contributions.
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Originally published 20/03/2023