Working with Brendan Cox on the memoir of his wife, Jo, has been as profound as it has been moving. It has been one of the most memorable experiences of my writing life because, beyond the sadness and the loss, I came to learn so much about the humanity and compassion of a woman I never met. Jo Cox: More In Common is published this week.
A year ago today, on 16 June 2016, Jo Cox woke up in a small cottage in Cleckheaton in West Yorkshire. Jo, the 41-year-old MP for Batley and Spen, faced another busy day in her constituency exactly one week before the British public voted to remain in, or leave, the European Union. The previous afternoon she had kissed Brendan, and their two small children, Cuillin and Lejla, as she watched them leave their house boat and take to the water in a dinghy so that they could have some fun while Nigel Farage and Bob Geldof insulted each other with loud hailers over the EU referendum on the River Thames. Jo wanted to join her family in a typically madcap adventure but she had urgent work to do.
Just after 8 a.m. that Thursday, on a beautiful morning, her colleague Dathan Tedesco picked her up at the cottage. Jo was very cheerful but she pointed out a problem. Her black tights were laddered.
'Could we go to Tescos quickly to pick up some tights?' she asked.
At Tescos, the MP for Batley and Spen bought some new tights and changed in the supermarket loo. She was laughing as she raced back to the car.
'That was speedy. We're not too late are we?'
'Just a little,' Dathan grinned. They headed for Jo's first appointment, a visit to a local school, and Dathan was entertained by her upbeat mood.
'I've not had a sleep like that for weeks because of the kids having chicken pox,' Jo said. 'I went out like a light. I feel incredible.'
Jo was remarkable that morning. After she had amused the kids at their school assembly, she had been lovely with the elderly men and women she then met at a Care Home. Jo spent longer than usual talking to everyone. There was a much more formal encounter next as Jo met with fifteen businessmen. They were worried about the impact European manufacturing was having on their businesses and they were all committed to the Leave campaign. Jo listened to their concerns and then she began to turn the argument around. She helped the men to consider the referendum from a different angle. Jo discussed the economic dangers of Brexit and the advantages of staying within Europe. Dathan watched the men listening closely to her and he was gratified when a number of them admitted they would reconsider their vote. Jo had opened minds which had been previously shut to any option but a narrow future marked Brexit.
The meeting was so constructive they ended it ten minutes late. Dathan needed to get Jo back to the office in time for Fazila Aswat, her assistant, to drive her to Birstall by 12.45.
Jo finally opened her office door at 12.35 p.m. that ordinary Thursday afternoon.
'Hellooooo!' Jo shouted up the stairs to Fazila and Sandra Major. 'It's me...'
Sandra, who had become increasingly worried how they were ever going to make it to Birstall on time, waited at the top of the stairs. 'You're late again, madam,' Sandra said.
'I know,' Jo said as she ran up the stairs. 'But I had such a fantastic morning.'
Fazila and Sandra smiled helplessly. Jo brought such energy and enthusiasm that they could never be really cross with her. Fazila, in particular, was used to it.
'We are a little late,' she confirmed. 'But I guess you're starving?'
'You know me so well,' Jo laughed.
'I made a pasta bake for the kids last night, and I did some extra for you,' Fazila said as she brought a Tupperware out of the fridge. She heated it up in the microwave as Jo got her papers ready. She had a surgery in Birstall which they would follow with some EU campaigning alongside university students the rest of the afternoon.
Fazila presented Jo with a bowl of her pasta bake. 'Amazing,' Jo said as she began eating.
Sandra was already walking downstairs. 'You can eat in the car, Jo,' she said. 'We've got to get going.'
Jo's mouth was too full for her to answer but she opened her eyes even wider and nodded at Fazila while making blissful sounds as she ate. It was one of Fazila's finest pasta bakes. Jo kept eating as she walked down the stairs.
Fazila had just locked the office when she remembered she had forgotten the box of Remain leaflets. 'Sorry,' she called to Sandra. 'I forgot the leaflets. One minute...'
By the time she had picked up the box, locked up again and reached the bottom of the stairs Fazila could hardly believe it.
'You've wolfed it all down already?' Fazila said in surprise.
'It was that good,' Jo said as she placed the empty bowl and the fork on the bottom step.
Jo and Fazila kept chatting and, ironically, the topic of their discussion was security. That morning Fazila had considered how best they might increase the safety of their office. For the previous few weeks Fazila had been called repeatedly by a man. He was very aggressive in his dislike of their political views. Jo had urged Fazila to contact the police and earlier that week they had sent him a formal warning.
'That's good,' Jo said as they reached Fazila's car.
Fazila opened the doors to her Vauxhall Astra. Sandra climbed in next to her and Jo sat in the back. While Fazila drove them from Batley to Birstall, Sandra ran through the key points of each case Jo would discuss with her constituents. Jo believed that two of the cases could be pertinent to topics she was planning to raise in Parliament.
Birstall is usually a nightmare when it comes to parking; and so Fazila exclaimed in relief when she saw an open bay just outside Birstall library. She looked at her watch. 12.50 p.m. 'Only five minutes late,' Fazila said. 'Incredible.'
The last minutes of Jo's life were a blur. Sandra and Jo got out of the car first. Fazila opened the back door to collect her handbag and the papers and leaflets. She had just pushed the door shut with her foot and locked the car when she saw a confusing sight.
Jo lay on the pavement. Sandra was near her, screaming.
Fazila stood for a moment on the road, on the driver's side of her car. She initially thought Jo must have fallen. Fazila took a step towards her. She then saw the man.
He stood over Jo. Fazila shouted at the man. Hazy images of Cuillin and Lejla were in her head.
'She's got two little kids,' Fazila shouted. 'Get away from her.'
The man didn't even seem to notice Fazila. He stared down at Jo.
Sandra had seen him shoot Jo at close range. It was then that Sandra started to scream, in horror, but also in hope that people would help them.
The man had taken a knife out of his bag. Sandra lashed out at him with her handbag, trying to stop him stabbing Jo. Fazila ran towards Jo, her raw instinct driving her on in an attempt to save her friend.
The murderer turned to Sandra and Fazila. He was ready to stab them too. Sandra could hear Jo's cry, weak but insistent.
'Get away!' Jo said to her friends. 'Get away you two! Let him hurt me – don't let him hurt you.'
The man turned back to Jo. He attacked her even more viciously. He then stood up and waved his knife at Sandra and an Asian man who had run to the scene. They were forced to back away.
Fazila crouched over Jo. 'I really need you to get up and run, Jo,' she said.
'I can't run, Fazila,' Jo said. 'I'm hurt.'
The killer had retreated; but now he came back. There were gunshots. Jo slumped down. Blood seeped across the concrete.
Fazila turned cold. The man's voice chilled her even more. She heard him talking clearly.
'Britain first,' he said. 'Britain will always be first.'
Fazila can still hear his voice now, as the nightmare revisits her often. He sounded calm, and utterly certain. There was no remorse.
Fazila cradled Jo in her arms. Her hands and her clothes were covered in Jo's blood. A young policewoman ran towards Fazila and Jo. Fazila was crying.
She had sensed Jo's last breath. Fazila felt her sigh and then slip away into silence and stillness.
Fazila was sure Jo was already dead. But she wanted to believe she was wrong. She looked into the face of the policewoman who could not have been older than 22. The policewoman carried out CPR on Jo, pumping her heart desperately.
Standing up, in a daze, Fazila knew they needed a miracle. She saw Sandra running towards her. She told Fazila the paramedics had arrived.
'She's not breathing Sandra,' Fazila said. 'Jo's not breathing.'
Sandra held her. 'There's nothing we can do,' she said softly. 'We must just pray.'
Fazila's phone rang. She looked at the name on the screen.
'Brendan,' Fazila said helplessly as she answered.
'I've just heard Jo's been attacked,' Brendan said in distress. 'What happened?'
'Jo's been shot, and stabbed,' Fazila said. 'I'm so sorry Brendan.'
'But she's going to be ok?'
'I don't know,' Fazila said. 'The paramedics are doing everything they can.'
There was silence on the phone. And then Fazila heard the sound of Brendan running.
'I'm leaving London now,' he said. 'Call me Fazila. Please call me...'
Like Jo Cox's parents, Gordon and Jean, her sister Kim, and so many of her old school friends, I had planned to spend the afternoon of 16 June 2016 watching the European Championship football match between England and Wales. I had never met Jo and so I saw the whole game. Her family and closest friends, however, were informed of the murderous attack soon after it happened. Gordon and Jean turned away from the televised build-up to the football in muted shock and drove to Birstall. The two pensioners had to run the last mile because the roads into town had been cordoned off by the police. When Kim heard the news she headed straight for the hospital. But Jo had died even before the ambulance left the scene of the attack.
I can still remember how upset my wife and I, and our three teenage children, had all felt when we heard of Jo Cox's death. We watched the television news and the tributes to a woman about whom we had known so little until then. It was terrible to hear that she and her husband had two small children aged five and three. We tried to imagine how Brendan and his little boy and girl might be feeling both then, on a desolate summer night, and in the bleak weeks and months ahead. It seemed as if the whole country felt the same concern and pity for a stricken family.
Of course I had no idea then that, five months later, I would be asked by Brendan Cox to help him write a memoir of Jo. We met a couple of times in London to discuss Brendan's hopes for the book and I was struck by two facts. Firstly, he wanted the book to avoid anger and condemnation. Instead, Brendan wanted to honour Jo and her belief that, as she said in her maiden speech in parliament, 'we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.' He also wanted to turn the focus away from the man who murdered Jo and to write in celebration of her life. Brendan wanted to document Jo's vivacity and joy and to capture the spirit of their lives together – which saw them climbing mountains, living on boats and exploring countries as diverse as Cuba and Romania, Albania and America, Bulgaria and China. He also wanted to write about their shared political work but, most of all, about the sheer humanity and great empathy which defined Jo.
Brendan told me early on that, in contrast to Jo, he was not particularly good at expressing the depth of his emotions. He was also worried how he might structure the book. We spent day after day, for many months, talking about Jo and their lives together and, slowly, it became clear how such a book could be pieced together. While it was important to chart what happened to Jo in the immediate prelude to her death, and to reflect the grief Brendan has felt this past year, he was empathic that this should be an uplifting book too...a tribute to Jo which, one day, might also be read by Cuillin and Lejla.
Their boat on the Thames sometimes felt to me like a steel cradle that rocks with the changing tide. It was rarely still. Like the river, like all our lives, the boat kept moving, usually gently but, occasionally, with tumult and upset.
He might be a contained and rational man, but Brendan soon opened up. He spoke beautifully about Jo and the kids, as well as his sorrow and hurt. The words flowed and, sometimes, he cried a little. It was immensely moving – especially on two raw occasions when he remembered hearing about Jo's death on a train and, the next night, when he relived the first time that he put his children to bed without their mum.
At lunchtime on 16 June 2016, after talking to Fazila Aswat, Brendan snapped off his phone and ran harder to the station. He was thinking of his wife – and he said to me it felt as if he was talking directly to Jo.
'Just be okay,' Brendan said in his head. 'It doesn't matter how badly hurt you are. We'll get you through this. I'll look after you and we'll build you back up.'
At the station he jumped the barriers, and got on a train to Leeds. Brendan started calling people, numbed and frantic at the same time. He began with Kim, Jo's sister, who hadn't heard anything. It was hard but he had to tell Kim what he knew. Brendan tried next to call Jo's mum and dad but couldn't get through. He learnt later that they were already on their way to Birstall.
Brendan tracked down some of Jo's friends and heard that news of the attack had seeped out on social media. His phone began to hum and buzz. He answered a few calls but shut them down almost immediately. Brendan called his mum and dad and told them what he knew. He could hear their disbelief.
The train had picked up speed and the carriage was quiet. Brendan looked out of the window. The countryside rushed past in a hazy green blur.
His phone lit up again. He looked at the screen. Kim.
'Kim,' Brendan asked, 'what's happened?'
There was a pause, small but deadly, before Kim spoke softly. 'I'm sorry, Brendan. She's not made it...'
Brendan remembered that he began to cry. The tears ran down his face and onto his shirt and the plastic-topped table where he sat. The train kept moving; but his life had ground to a stop.
The man across the aisle, whom Brendan had barely noticed before, touched his arm. 'Let me get you some tissues,' he said.
Brendan kept his head down. The man returned. He had brought tissues and a glass of water. Brendan looked at him, this total stranger. He managed to thank the man. Brendan wiped his eyes and blew his nose. He was not thirsty but he sipped the water the kind man had given him.
Is this what you are meant to do when your wife has just been murdered?
'If there's anything I can do...' the man said, his voice trailing away. He knew there was no point stopping the train. They needed to keep hurtling towards the place where Jo lay dead.
'Thank you,' Brendan said.
His parents had loved Jo so much, and she had loved them. Cuillin and Lejla would be with them soon. Brendan felt calmer talking to his mum and dad and he told them not to say anything to the kids about Jo. He would get back that night and, somehow, he would find a way to tell them in the morning.
'Just be normal with them if you can, mum,' he said.
Brendan called his sister Stacia next, and some of his closest friends. He asked for help. Could they find a child psychologist who might help him work out how best to explain to Cuillin and Lejla that their mum, with whom they were besotted, was dead?
This felt more important than anything else he might ever do again.
On a Friday afternoon in December 2016, a week before Christmas, Brendan and I sat together on the boat. Darkness has begun to spread across the Thames and the river made the boat sway from side to side. We knew each other well enough by then to talk openly. Brendan had just explained how he had broken the devastating news to Cuillin and Lejla.
He told me that, on 17 June, they had made it through supper, and bath time, and then the crash came. Cuillin and Lejla cried bitter, painful tears. They were distressed, wanting to see Jo, calling for her, needing her more than ever. Brendan tried everything he could think of but, in his exhausted sorrow, nothing seemed to work. When he began to sing they became even more upset. They wanted mummy to sing to them, not daddy.
Then, something extraordinary happened.
Cuillin likes to make up songs. It's a gift he gets from Jo who always created new worlds for Cuillin and Lejla at bedtime. She weaved together long stories she dreamed up about her imaginary hero, Finley the Fieldmouse, and thrilled the kids with his surreal new adventures every night. Finley would be engaged in wild boar hunts in the woods in-between dancing with moles and fighting off marauding monsters. Jo had a vivid imagination. Cuillin and Lejla absorbed everything and loved it, especially, when their mum acted out the roles while entrancing them with her rattling yarns of Finley.
That night, not much more than 18 hours since her death, Cuillin asked his dad if he could sing a song. 'It's my new song about mummy,' he said.
Brendan told Cuillin that he would love to hear his song. Lejla, her chest still heaving, nodded. She would also like to hear Cuillin sing about mummy.
Cuillin asked if daddy would sing with him. His dad hugged him. 'Of course.'
On the boat, remembering that night, Brendan told me how he and his children had talked all day and he'd tried to answer their questions honestly. He had to say, no, he couldn't dream up a way to bring mummy back to the boat. He explained to Cuillin that his good idea that scientists might be able to inject life into her wouldn't work. They also couldn't make a new version of mummy out of wood, as Lejla suggested, and they weren't going to see her in another world. Brendan told them that Jo was gone but that she lived on in our hearts and heads. They would never forget her because they would always talk about her. They would always love her.
There were times when Brendan wasn't sure if his well-meaning words were sinking in – such was their torment – but he would soon see they had understood. That gift came from Cuillin.
I felt privileged to share that gift when Brendan asked me if he could play me the recording.
"I'd like to hear it," I said, not quite knowing what to expect.
Brendan turned to his phone. He found the recording and just before he hit 'Play' we looked at each other from across the small wooden table where he and Jo had sat so often. My own recorder sat between us, recording this exchange with his little boy.
Cuillin's voice seeped out of his dad's phone. 'Are we ready?' he asked.
'Yes, we're ready,' his dad said softly on the recording.
Cuillin, like an instinctive musician, counted out the start: 'One, two...' And then he started.
'I really love my mum,' he sang in a husky little croak before he stopped. I heard him ask his dad a question: 'Can you sing it with me?'
'Yes,' Brendan said.
The small boy and his dad slipped into an echoing call-and-answer routine. Cuillin's voice was soft but clear, high but strong. Brendan's voice was a much lower burr, thick with tears, and love, as he repeated his son's words in a husky half-spoken sing-song.
Cuillin: I love my mumma.
Brendan: I love my mumma.
Cuillin: But now she's dead.
Brendan: But now she's dead.
I took in a sharp breath at the use of 'dead' in a small child's song, but Cuillin concentrated with such purity. He sang louder:
Cuillin: She used to be so kind.
Brendan: She used to be so kind.
Cuillin: But now she's dead.
Brendan: Now she's dead.
Cuillin: But she will still be with us.
Brendan: But she will still be with us.
Cuillin: We'll carry her in our hearts.
On the boat I looked across the table at Brendan. I felt close to tears myself but I remember smiling and nodding as they sang on his phone.
Cuillin: I love my mummy.
Brendan: I love my mummy.
Cuillin: I will not leave her behind.
Brendan: I will not leave her behind.
Hope and belief were now surging through Cuillin. His voice was stronger than ever.
Cuillin: That's a very big promise to you.
Brendan: That's a very big promise to you.
Cuillin: But I really, really promise it.
Brendan was so impressed and uplifted that he added his own lines:
Brendan: Promise it, da do do do.
Cuillin: So we will not leave her behind, will we?
Brendan: We'll never leave her behind – she's in our hearts.
Cuillin: Oh, what a time it was.
Brendan: Every day, in every way.
Cuillin: We'll talk about her. We'll sing about her. All times.
Brendan: We'll love her every day of our lives.
Cuillin: So that is a promise. We just love our mumma but now she's dead.
'That was a beautiful song,' Brendan said on the recording. 'Did you just make that up?'
'Yeah,' Cuillin said, sounding shy.
'That was the most beautiful song,' Brendan said again.
'Can we listen to it?' Cuillin asked.
'You want to listen to it now?'
'Yeah,' Cuillin said.
On the boat, Brendan switched off his phone. He wiped his eyes.
I sat in silence for a while and then I thanked Brendan for sharing these moments with me.
'This could also be a beautiful book,' I said.
The sadness was overwhelmed by the beauty – and the sheer vivacity and sense of adventure with which he and Jo lived their lives.
There were so many other moments on the boat – or at Brendan and Jo's cottage where my wife Alison and I spent time with him and his wonderful parents, Gordon and Sheila, as well as Cuillin and Lejla.
I was just as moved when I travelled up to Yorkshire to meet Jo's mum and dad, the amazing Gordon and Jean, and her sister Kim. They touched me, and inspired me with their acceptance and empathy, and all their memories of Jo. It was the same when I met Jo's old school-friends Louise and Heidi, and while talking to Eloise, Steve, Sarah, Fazila, Suzy, Sonia, Joanna and everyone else who cared so much about the woman they loved: Jo Cox.
Jo Cox [third from right] with her friends in 2004
Of course I never met Jo myself but she – and everyone who loved her so much – are much in my thoughts today. The loss of such a gifted and caring woman remains distressing. But what a life she and Brendan led...what special children they created. I loved hearing about her compassion for people in Syria and Batley, about the mountains she climbed and the music she loved, about her adventures and mishaps.
And so today, on 16 June, a day which is so resonant in the history of South Africa, I will also think of my old home country. Jo Cox understood the significance of 16 June 1976 in South Africa – as this was the day when the students of Soweto rose up against apartheid – for she came to love the country.
When she visited South Africa as a young woman, Jo was shaken. She was stunned by the beauty of the country, and Cape Town really is one of the most gorgeous cities in the world, but far more startled by the disparity between white and black South Africa. Neither the grand opulence of suburban Cape Town nor the grinding poverty of Khayelitsha could be escaped. The majesty of Table Mountain was clearly visible from the dirt streets and corrugated shacks of the township, but it belonged to a different world. Table Mountain was part of white Cape Town, with its plush, high-walled suburbs like Bishopscourt and Constantia and beachside beauty spots at Clifton and Camps Bay; while Khayelitsha defined a lack of opportunity and hope in much of black South Africa.
The people she met remained defiantly good-natured and surprisingly cheerful. Even if they lamented the crime and squalor, the residents of Khayelitsha inspired Jo with their warmth. But she felt the crushing inequality of their lives. Those almost overwhelming feelings rose up most vividly in her when she visited a township clinic. Jo went to see one of the doctors and he looked desolate as he showed her his near empty dispensary.
'We have almost nothing,' he said.
Jo was carrying a first aid bag and she opened it up. The doctor smiled wryly and said that it looked as if she was better equipped than his clinic in Khayelitsha. Jo felt like crying but the black South Africans around her cracked a joke and everyone laughed.
The fact that she witnessed such a moment in post-apartheid South Africa, not too many years after the country had been held up as the model Rainbow Nation, forced her to step back and think politically. All the rumours of corruption in the new ruling government, with the African National Congress looking bereft without the moral leadership of Nelson Mandela, were now stacked against the poverty and desperation she witnessed in close up.
South Africa was the richest country on the continent; but Jo knew her allegiance lay with the people of Khayelitsha and all the other disadvantaged communities that crisscrossed the globe. In her own small way she vowed to do all she could to change the world around her.
Until the day she died, Jo used Khayelitsha as the password to her phone. It was a daily reminder to never forget all she had seen in a ragged township on the fringes of a sumptuous city in Cape Town.
And so today I will think of the moment I went home to South Africa last year, just before Brendan and I began serious work on this book. I was interviewing people in a township, and I noticed four photographs pinned together on a wall.
Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, Beyonce and Jo Cox made a black and white line.
I walked over to the wall and ran my finger over the four different faces. I stopped when I reached Jo. I looked at the woman who owned the tiny shack.
'Jo Cox,' I said.
'Yes, baba,' the young black South African woman said. 'That is Jo Cox.'
On a sweltering day in South Africa, the woman paused, and then spoke again. 'We like her. She was a great person.'