Julia Darling

Prolific playwright, novelist and poet

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.

Julia Darling, writer: born Winchester 21 August 1956; married Ieuan Einion (two daughters; marriage dissolved); died Newcastle upon Tyne 13 April 2005.

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.

Darling was born in 1956 and grew up in a large family in Winchester, in the house where Jane Austen died. A serial nonconformist, she left school at 15 before studying performance at Falmouth College of Art. In 1980 she moved to the North-East. Working in community arts in Pennywell, a tough district of Sunderland, she gave an early sign of her idiosyncratic approach by setting up Wig - short for Women's Intellectual Group. In the same period she created the political cabaret Sugar and Spikes with her long-time collaborator, the poet and playwright Ellen Phethean.

Coming from feminism and practical socialism (though party affiliation was too inert a condition to suit her for long), Darling's impulse to create groups, to collaborate and make things happen never diminished. The Poetry Virgins, a performance group which included Phethean and the actress Charlie Hardwick, took poetry to unexpected places with great success, and resulted in two anthologies, Modern Goddess (1992) and Sauce (1994).

Typically, Darling took the next step and became a publisher. Diamond Twig, created with Phethean, is an imprint for poetry and short fiction by women, providing a vital staging post for many writers in the North-East. She was also involved in establishing proudWORDS, the first gay and lesbian literary festival in England, now an annual event on Tyneside.

Following the birth of her daughters Scarlet and Florrie, Darling began writing in earnest. A first collection of poems, Small Beauties (1988), was published by Newcastle City Libraries. She undertook residencies and wrote numerous plays, a selection of which, Eating the Elephant, is about to be published by New Writing North. Donuts Like Fanny's, her hilarious three-hander about the life of Fanny Cradock, is currently touring, as is Manifesto for the New City, for Northern Stage, which grew from her role as advocate for the Newcastle-Gateshead City of Culture bid. Her radio drama, especially for Woman's Hour, was extremely popular.

Darling's fiction had a longer gestation. Bloodlines, a collection of short stories, appeared in 1995. She belonged to a group of women fiction writers, including Andrea Badenoch and Debbie Taylor, editor of Mslexia. From here reports emerged of a strange and spectacular work in progress. This was to be Crocodile Soup (1998). The novel brought Darling a national readership and reputation. Like almost all her writing, Crocodile Soup is a work of the comic spirit. It is sui generis, a wholly unexpected tale of love, knowledge and eccentricity, driven by endless invention and a spontaneous aptness which is in the best sense childlike.

1n 1995 Darling was diagnosed with breast cancer and successfully treated. When the disease recurred, she decided that, as she put it, she was living rather than dying. She enrolled on the MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University, studying poetry with Jo Shapcott and W.N. Herbert. Darling already wrote vivid and enjoyable poems but she wanted technique, so in her usual practical manner she set about acquiring it. She gained a distinction and went on to publish two successful collections, Sudden Collapses in Public Places (2003) and Apologies for Absence (2004).

Recently she had held a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship at Newcastle University, followed by a Fellowship in Creative Writing and Health. She saw poetry as a means of dealing with illness, giving fear a name. Countless hours spent waiting or walking the labyrinths of the Royal Victoria Infirmary were put to use in her work with health professionals, many of whom attended her packed readings.

Darling's second novel, The Taxi Driver's Daughter (2003), darker in tone but still very funny and inventive, was a great success with readers and critics. Due recognition came with the £60,000 Northern Rock Award in 2003. The North-East was very proud of Julia Darling. The day after her death three generations of her family and several hundred friends attended the launch of First Aid Kit for the Mind, her medical poetry and art project with the painter Emma Holliday. The event was, like Julia, uncategorisable, the sense of loss balanced by celebration. She lived long enough to receive an advance copy of her anthology The Poetry Cure, edited with the poet Cynthia Fuller.

Julia Darling was blessed in her partner of the last 15 years, Bev Robinson. Her calm practicality, foresight and wry Yorkshire wit made possible not only much of Julia's hectic work schedule and the gradual rebuilding of their house in Heaton, but also the travels - to Australia, Brazil, Mauritius, Paris - which they continued almost to the end. Not a moment went to waste. In the words of one of Darling's last poems, "we all matter, we are all / indelible, miraculous, here".

Sean O'Brien



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