Friday 24 July 2009

Cafe Culture, Julia Darling & Things Overheard


I relish the fact that writer Natalie Goldberg and my late, Juliagreat, very lamented, friend Julia Darling have both, in their times, been great advocates of writing in cafes.

While I was in Agde in France I posted here a eulogistic piece about scribbling in the Cafe Plazza and the cafe on la Place de La Marine. In fact my delight in getting away from the desk, out into the street, into the inspiring neutrality of a cafe did not start in France. It is an old habit that I found I shared with Julia.

Julia was not just a great tutor, poet and playwright, she was a novelist and lyrical poet who wrung every last drop of joy and delight, love and affection, out of her writer’s life, before her tragically early death.

For several years she came here to give wildly popular workshops on her own and sometimes alongside me. Despite her great gifts she was modest and comradely - as well as merry, enabling and respectful of others’ talent. She always worked alongside the work-shoppers, never sat on a pedestal above them. She risked herself alongside them in the read-around, saying, ‘Well this is mad, but…’

Julia was the mistress of original, telling, firecracker metaphors and knew the magic of the right word in the right place. The work-shoppers would go off inspired to write closer, to do better.

When lunchtime came around she’d rush off, either to swim, or go to the nuts and bolts cafe near the old Post Office. She did this for rest, for refreshment, and inevitably, for inspiration from the other tables, where bin men and office workers would stoke themselves up with cake or a good fry-up for the afternoon’s work. Things overheard there would be filed away in that considerable intelligence and become natural resource for her in her writing. She had a sympathetic and an empathetic ear for the natural dialogue of so called ordinary people.

This is interesting, as although she was a bit of a maverick, she came from a distinctive upper class intellectual background. But she was uniquely classless in her apprehension of the life and people around her - so very refreshing in writing circles that can be riddled with all kinds of snobbery.

Much has been made of the graceful and poetic way in which she tackled the process of dying - writing of its challenges with frighteningly forensic insight and luminous grace. To be honest, though I prefer to think of her in terms of the way she lived. She was a joy to be with, wryly witty and always kind. She was inspirational and prepared to be inspired. She lit up any room she was in with her broad smile and wide eyes.

In my own cafe sojourns eavesdropping is of secondary importance to a clear table not far from the window and staff who will both take care of me and ignore me. Mostly I sit here and fill my diary with plans; make both creative and practical lists; draft these posts for my blog; scribble the next chapter for At The Villa d’Estella; read a heavy tome about ‘Gaul in Antiquity’ for said novel. And so on.

These times away from the desk are essential for someone who works from home. Surrounded by strangers, I work very quickly, get a great deal done. (I’ve been thinking that this perpetual desire to get away has something to do with my Pisces star sign, which I wrote about recently…)

But yesterday as I was walking to the cafe I passed two men talking. One man was saying to the other. ‘…and as well as that I’ve got this cancer ripping away at my insides…’ This so perfectly expressed a combination of anger and stoicism that it made me want to cry.

And it made me think again about the exceptional and radiant Julia Darling.


(AFTERNOTE I see now that Julia’s star sign was Leo - Generous and warm-hearted - Creative and enthusiastic - Broad-minded and expansive - Faithful and loving. But her sign tipped into Virgo - Modest and shy - Meticulous and reliable - Practical and diligent -Intelligent and analytical. I am thinking about all this because my mind if full of Stella, the astrologer in my new novel. But thinking now about Julia, all this fits…)

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  1. Mum, what a lovely reminder of what a magical, sparkling, brilliant person Julia was. We were all lucky to know her.

    And as for cafes, some of my earliest memories are of you scribbling away while G and I sucked up milk shakes or orange juice through staws until it made that gurgling sound so addictive to the under 10s!

    Love, Dx

  2. Oh Wendy - I'm afraid I shed a few tears over this. You've evoked Julia so completely it opened up a lot of memories and the black hole of how much I still miss her. Also all the anger of why why why. Why couldn't she have had the time to finish the third novel? Her life?
    X Kathleen

  3. Wendy - a beautiful and touching tribute to someone who touched the lives of others so very deeply. Julia will never be forgotten - and as you say it is the manner of her living and not her dying that we should continue to celebrate.

    A x

  4. It is amazing how many people. like debora, kathleen and avril here - as well as many offline - share such memories of Julia. She was in inspiration to so many people. And leaves a black hole, as Kathleen says.

  5. Hi Wendy,
    I have to admit I shed tears reading this as well as it's a really lovely memory and tribute to Julia. I remember Julia writing in cafes all over the world bringing back little gems that would find their way into her plays, poems and stories. She loved being with people but I also think it was so she could have a roll up and would have struggled with the no smoking in cafes now. Thanks for this and good luck with the novel. Bev x

  6. Hello Bev

    How wonderful of you to say something here. You -most of all of us - must miss her sorely but I'm sure she's lodged there in your heart, the thought of her giving you a bit of cheer on rainy dark days. You were a very significant pair.

    She did like her roll-ups. Maybe nowadays she would be one of the stalwarts under the fancy umbrellas. We even have umbrellas here in Bishop now! Now there's posh. Julia would have smiled at the pretensions...

    Thank you for your kind comment and I hope you keep well.


    Hope you are well, and



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