There are so many beginnings to the story of Julia Darling. The one about how she was born in the house in which Jane Austen died. The one about how she moved to Newcastle in her twenties to become a poet. The one about her passionate and compassionate political endeavours throughout her life culminating in poetry for doctors towards the end. And then there are the beginnings significant to those of us who have had a chance to meet her.
Julia was one of the first people to welcome me into her adopted city almost as soon as I arrived in Newcastle in 2002. My post as a Dramaturg was initially jointly hosted by Newcastle University, Northern Stage and the regional writers’ organisation New Writing North. This was my first job after long years of studying; I could not afford to live in the part of town favoured by the city’s artists and intellectuals and was instead settling into a housing association building among some motorbike shops on the much shabbier Westgate Road. As soon as we met, Julia said she needed to come round to my place to do some research for a novel she was writing. And there she was the next Sunday afternoon with her generous, beaming smile, a copy of her first novel Crocodile Soup, and a story about how she writes everything she wants from life on little pieces of paper, leaves them around the house, forgets all about them, and then finds them again years after.
Though she wrote in all literary forms and was regularly on commission with the region’s new writing hothouse Live Theatre, it was through her poetry that I collaborated with Julia most often. On several occasions I staged evenings of performance poetry in Newcastle with ensembles of local poets of which Julia was always a part: to celebrate Valentine’s day, to voice resistance against (Iraq) war, to commemorate the Holocaust memorial day. Sometimes we recited poetry while lounging on sofas; sometimes we stood solemnly; often we had a live musical accompaniment; once, Julia knitted throughout the whole performance, her long knitting needles providing a steady rhythm to the proceedings. Poetry in action.
Somehow I didn’t realize for an unusually long time one thing that everyone in Newcastle knew about Julia: that she was fighting a long and difficult battle with cancer, and that her prospects weren’t great. Her whole demeanour was always such that no one could ever envisage anything gloomy happening to her.
In 2004, Northern Stage, by then renowned for its long-running touring productions of Animal Farm and 1984, was working in collaboration with Calixto Bieito’s Theatre Romea in Barcelona on a theatre adaptation of Orwell’s Spanish Civil War memoir Homage to Catalonia. As a satellite project to this production, we managed to get Easyjet to sponsor a trip to Barcelona for four local writers (Bill Herbert, Linda France, Colin Teevan and Julia Darling), one photographer (Sasa Savic) and myself to create our own homages to Catalonia. As is the way with Barcelona, we all came back refreshed and inspired (it was February and the sun had done its magic), but Julia came back with – a Manifesto.
In it she re-imagined early 21st century Newcastle as a city getting back to its roots, ‘treasuring its pedestrians’, having a siesta, planting apple trees, having the businessmen cut up their suits and make them again. She called it A Manifesto for a New City. But then she went a step further, imagining the citizens of Newcastle living according to the Manifesto – a clerk having an afternoon nap, a bus driver learning a disappearing language – and she gave each one of them a voice…
Jim Kitson, actor and musical director at the Northern Stage ensemble, set some of Julia’s poems to music, and several other actors came on board to perform in this poetry evening in which, inspired by Catalonia, we also served handmade chocolates. It was a truly joyous event. Artistic Director Alan Lyddiard was so impressed with the result that he immediately commissioned Julia to write a full-blown musical based on this idea. By then it was May 2004. We were looking to programme the piece for the spring of 2005. And Julia had plans for travels and projects and residences, and she had just got the news that her health was deteriorating.
We worked hard in the coming months. There were various versions of the play in the pipeline including one in which a character called Maureen hijacks a music hall performance in order to present her Manifesto to the public and start a Maureenist revolution. There was another in which Alan wanted Julia herself to be on the stage reading and leading the revolution. Eventually, we settled for a structure framed by the figure of a Poet letting her vision unfold before us – counterpointed by the satirical Chorus of the Disgruntled – folding us in gently along the way, and then letting us wake up to the reality of broken idealism.
When I re-read my Programme Note for the original production of A Manifesto for a New City, which opened on 31 March 2005, I realize that the political moment this production belonged to was one of disillusionment. At the time there was still a lingering disenchantment with the leftist ideals of the 1980s and 1990s, but also maybe disillusionment in the early 2000s corporatization of the North East of England and the New Labour government in its full swing. There was a sense of a lack of political diversity, and this production, which we jokingly referred to as ‘The Village People meets Brecht’ was very much about trying to reconnect with the grassroots and the real basics of political theatre.
It snowed heavily that winter in Newcastle. I remember sitting with Julia in our offices at the University of Newcastle, drinking cappuccinos, thinking, listening to the radio, and then deciding to get out there, wade into the snow with a camera and talk to the real people of Newcastle. I remember chatting to the cleaners and the builders we met on campus, asking them where was the furthest they ever travelled and one of them telling us he hadn’t even been to London yet. I also remember Julia refusing to give in to the limitations of her body, saying: ‘I’m going to the hospital to have my blood changed tomorrow, but it doesn’t matter, you can come with me and we can work there’.
As the rehearsals progressed, Julia’s condition worsened. She came to see the dress rehearsal in Hexham, the site of our premiere; she came with her beaming smile; she liked it; we hugged and said ‘See you’. That was the last time she got out of bed. I went to a conference in Poland with the intention of seeing Julia on my return, but sadly, just days after the show opened Julia passed away. I imagine it happened like she described it in a poem she wrote, leaving a sense of warmth, elevation and endless fascination behind her.
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…
Manifesto for a New City is at Northern Stage from 15th-17th October 2015