Julia Darling was a writer who was loved by many and lost far too soon. This week her friends and colleagues have been celebrating her life and work in suitably lovely fashion. Grace Scott is sure she would have approved.
Following a long battle with breast cancer, the much-loved and multitalented writer who had novels, poetry collections, stage and radio plays – and accompanying awards – to her name, died in 2005, aged just 48.
Although her death left a hole in the heart of the creative writing community in the North East, it’s fair to say she made the very most of her all too short life.
Darling’s first novel, Crocodile Soup, was longlisted for the Orange Prize and her second novel, The Taxi Driver’s Daughter, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Encore Award. She also held a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship at Newcastle University.
In March 2003 she became the second winner of the UK’s biggest literary prize, the £60,000 Northern Rock Foundation Writer’s Award. She also wrote a linked series of plays under the collective title of Appointments, which were broadcast on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour, and was a poet in residence at Guardian Unlimited.
She worked on a number of arts and health projects, was a member of The Poetry Virgins, a co-founder of publishing company Diamond Twig and was involved in establishing the proudWORDS creative writing festival (1998–2008) and Operating Theatre.
As well as all of the above, she was widely viewed as the goodest of eggs: generous to and supportive of colleagues, writers and emerging artists making new work.
The high esteem in which she was held was in no doubt on Tyneside this week as friends, family and admirers of her work assembled for a series of performances and celebratory events at one of her favourite places, and one of the UK’s most respected centres of new writing: Live Theatre in Newcastle.
Darling, who was a prolific writer in residence at the theatre from 2001–2003, would doubtless have been very pleased at the suitable manner in which she is being remembered – the commissioning and subsequent performing of five new short plays inspired by her work, as well as a couple of evenings of things that she wrote, performed by friends she held dear.
One of these plays is Everything is Wondrous, a verbatim piece based on the true story of Gateshead woman Jo Milne, who you may recognise after a video showing the 40-year-old hearing for the first time went viral.
Milne, who has Usher’s Syndrome which affects both hearing and vision, asked her friend Tremayne Crossley to make her a mixtape filled with all the music he thought she should hear as soon as she was able. He chose one song from every year of her life.
“I never dreamed people would be coming to see a production about me,” Milne said ahead of its first performance. “It’s strange to think that is what’s happening, but then again everything that has happened since the video went on YouTube has been pretty unbelievable.”
The play has been written by Amy Golding, who joins Laura Lindow, Deborah Bruce, Nina Berry and Holly Reed Macrae on the list of playwrights chosen to remember Darling through new work.
“The five pieces are brilliant, all of them individual but capturing some essence of Julia’s humanity and wonderful take on the world.”
The plays premiered under the umbrella title of Rendezvous – named after Darling’s favourite cafe – on 28 May, and will continue to be performed at Live Theatre until 6 June.
Actress Zoe Lambert, who is part of the ensemble performing all five plays, and who plays Jo Milne in Everything is Wondrous, said: “This is a really exciting project to be part of and a great marking of Julia’s legacy. The five pieces are brilliant, all of them individual but capturing some essence of Julia’s humanity and wonderful take on the world.”
If we can assume Darling would have been happy to see this melting pot of new writing being enabled in her name, it’s also fair to say she would have approved of the inaugural Julia Darling Travel Fellowship, a £2,000 prize to help a writer undertake a period of travel to inform their creative work.
This week it was awarded to Northumberland-based Chloe Daykin, who will use it to fund a trip to Norway, researching her second children’s novel.
On hearing the news, Daykin said: “I feel exceptionally proud and a bit overwhelmed to be doing it in the name of Julia; it’s such an honour. I’ll be taking her work with me as part of the journey and carrying her spirit in my heart. I can’t wait to meet the people, I can’t wait to see the places and I can’t wait to dive into the unknown. It’s such an amazing opportunity. Thank you so much.”
Rendezvous runs at Live Theatre until 6 June. Visit www.live.org.uk or call 0191 232 1232 for more info and bookings.
To find out more about Julia Darling’s life and work, visit http://juliadarling.co.uk