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Memories of Julia Darling spark festival of words at Live Theatre in Newcastle

Playwrights and poets will be marking a decade since the death of Julia Darling with a series of events at Live Theatre

Sasa Savic Julia Darling at her favourite Rendezvous Cafe
Julia Darling at her favourite Rendezvous Cafe

To many of those who knew Julia Darling, it will seem extraordinary that a decade has passed since her death. In life she shone so brightly that her memory will take a very long time to fade.

Perhaps it never will. The poems and novels – Crocodile Soup, the sparkling debut over which rival publis`hers joined battle, and the Booker Prize-longlisted The Taxi Driver’s Daughter – are still there to be read and the plays available to be performed.

And so, among The Journal’s library cuttings, are the interviews.

Every interviewer warmed to Julia because she wore her talent lightly. She was friendly and unconventional, always good for a laugh and a journalistic ‘quote’. Even after the breast cancer diagnosis in 1995, and during the following years of treatment, an interviewer – I speak from experience – would go away feeling cheered up.

In her poetry she explored a range of emotions but in language everyone could understand. Newcastle poet Sean O’Brien, in The Sunday Times, said she could write “with beautiful plainness about ordinary life”.

I always loved Sudden Collapses in Private Places for being sad and serious but also (is this just me?) summoning images of Buster Keaton falling down the stairs.

It was the title of a poem and of her first collection, launched in 2003 at an event with songs, strawberries and Champagne and inspired by Julia’s treatment for cancer.

Fellow poet Jackie Kay called the poems “funny, irreverent, moving and never sentimental”.

In the poem Too Heavy – which you can still read online at www.juliadarling.co.uk – she complains to the doctor who has encumbered her with words like “lymphatic, nodal, progressive, metastatic”.

“They must be made of lead. I carry them everywhere.” They ticked “like bombs”, overpowering her own “sweet tasting words” like “orange, bus, coffee, June”.

Julia was born in Winchester and grew up in the house where the novelist Jane Austen died. As a child she thought everyone’s house came with sightseers outside. When, as a rebellious teenager, she stuck up anti-apartheid posters in her bedroom window, there was a complaint from the Jane Austen Society – Austen, clearly, being all for racial segregation.

Julia was a young leftie who was expelled at 15 and then went to art school but “wasn’t very good” (her words). She wrote anti-Thatcher sketches and “hung out” for a year. Then, in 1980, she came to Newcastle because a friend recommended it.

Immediately she felt at home. She told me once: “I remember standing in the middle of the High Level Bridge and being bowled over by it. I had a feeling about the North that I never had in the South.’’

After getting a job at a community arts project in Sunderland, she started to take writing seriously and never looked back.

She was a founder member of a five-strong performance poetry group called The Poetry Virgins, confessing one day: “It started because I was too scared to do readings on my own.”

Her plays included Eating the Elephant, based on her experience of breast cancer, The Last Post, following a year as artist-in-residence with the Royal Mail, and the brilliantly titled Doughnuts Like Fanny’s, about the pioneering celebrity cook Fanny Craddock.

From 2001 to 2003, Julia was a writer-in-residence at Live Theatre – which is doing its level best to keep the memories alive and nurture the legacy with Rendezvous, billed as a celebration of her life and work.

Literary manager Gez Casey said: “In the 10th anniversary year of Julia’s death we wanted to create an event which celebrates Julia’s life and writing but also summed up her passion for encouraging writers and emerging artists to make new work.”

Five writers were each commissioned to write a short play inspired by Julia and her work. Directed by Clive Judd, Anna Ryder and Max Roberts, they will be performed together as an evening’s entertainment from May 28 to June 6.

“With everything from mysterious love letters and big decisions to the comings and goings on a hospital park bench, Rendezvous promises to delight, surprise and entertain,” adds Gez.

The plays are:

Currently Under Construction by Laura Lindow – following the life of a hospital park bench and the fragments of the stories of the people that come and go;

The Light by Deborah Bruce – examining our need for comfort and reassurance when we are about to embark on one of life’s big decisions;

Words With Love by Nina Berry – featuring two awkward individuals whose worlds collide due to an accidental letter;

Anti-Gravity by Holly Reed Macrae – a “stark depiction of a mother and daughter’s transit against the tide of illness”.

Everything Is Wondrous by Amy Golding - the story of two friends and a mix tape. It’s a true story, told in the words of the two people involved.

Rendezvous 2, on May 24 and 31, presented in association with New Writing North and hosted by actress Charlie Hardwick, will be a cabaret-style show featuring poetry, fiction, extracts from plays and live music. Among those taking part will be The Poetry Virgins, still going strong.

Announced during the first of these performances will be the winner of the inaugural Julia Darling Travel Fellowship, a new award offering a writer the chance to broaden his or her horizons.

Various other events will also take place as part of Rendezvous – named after Julia’s favourite cafe on the prom at Whitley Bay – including a First Aid Kit Workshop at 10am on May 30 presented by artist Emma Holliday and writer Anna Woodford.

The original First Aid Kit for the Mind – of which I am a proud possessor – was made by Julia, Emma and Jay Smart. It consisted of a box full of little reminders of home should you find yourself in hospital or unfamiliar surroundings.

The five-hour workshop will feature art and creative writing activities designed to help you create your own box or one for someone else. Julia would have loved it.

For further details of Rendezvous and to buy tickets, visit www.live.org.uk or telephone 0191 232 1232.

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