As the first anniversary of the death of Jo Cox nears, her husband Brendan talks to Sarah Freeman about life as a single parent and his hopes for the future.
Today, Brendan Cox should have been reflecting on the dying hours of a hard fought election campaign. Tonight, he should have been at Huddersfield’s Cathedral House, standing by his wife Jo’s side, just as he had been when she was first elected as MP for Batley and Spen in 2015.
But that life, the one which involved slightly chaotic breakfasts on their houseboat with their two young children, Cuillin and Lejla, and weekends escaping as a family of four to their tumbledown cottage on the Welsh border, ended on June 16 last year when Jo was murdered on the steps of her constituency surgery. As the first anniversary approaches, Brendan admits that he hasn’t decided where or even whether he’s going to watch tonight’s results. Like most things these days, he prefers to play it by ear.
“It is strange. Usually, I am heavily involved in the election campaign, but for obvious reasons this time I have taken a step back. The kids are very excited. I will take them with me to drop off my postal vote and when they wake up on Friday I know they will want to know who won, but for me it will be painful to watch. Maybe too painful.”
The last 12 months have been littered with heartbreaking moments and there have been times Brendan has cried so hard the skin around his eyes has cracked. However, amid those tears there have also been moments to treasure. The now family of three spent the recent school holidays back at their beloved cottage, which is a mile from the nearest road, making the elderflower champagne Jo loved so much. For the most part six year old Cuillin and Lejla, four, were blissfully happy and while talk still often turns to their mum they no longer ask whether they can make a new version out of wood or whether scientists might be able to bring her back to life.
“We are getting there, but there is still a huge absence in our lives,” says Brendan. “For the 10 years before Jo died every adventure I went on, everything I did involved her. The grief hits me in vicious waves often when I least expect it. It’s hard for me when the children are asleep and their tiny room is dark, but it’s also hard when they are screaming their heads off and being totally unreasonable as young children sometimes are.
“When I’m alone at the table, writing or working, I wish I could push the laptop aside and see a laughing Jo and tell her what we’ve all been up to and share with her those small moments of family life. But I can’t. When I was writing the book it sometimes felt like a heavy burden doing it on top of everything else we are trying to create in Jo’s name. But now it feels more important and more relevant than ever.”
For Brendan, the children have inevitably and understandably been his priority over the last year. It’s for them that he initially started writing the story of their mother’s life, which will be published next week, but it also became his way of remembering the woman he fell in love with a decade earlier.
“I didn’t want all the memories to blend into a mush. I wanted to capture what Jo was like for the kids, but I knew it would help if I had a deadline and an extended reason for doing it, so that’s when I had the idea for the book. Also a number of Jo’s friends had said that her’s was a story worth telling.”
Jo’s career, beginning as an assistant to MEP Glenys Kinnock and afterwards setting up Oxfam International in Brussels, was well documented following her death. However, Brendan says he wanted to show people the real Jo, the one behind that stirring maiden speech in which she noted that travelling around her ethnically diverse constituency she had been struck by the fact “we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us”.
While Jo had a fierce political mind, she also once forgot to bring her bike on a cycling holiday, was always late and the fridge of the house she rented back home in Yorkshire was usually empty. A hopeless cook, it had been known for her dad to drive round a bowl of bananas and custard before a busy day of constituency business.
“Jo was wonderful and maddening at the same time,” says Brendan. “I don’t find it easy to talk to other people about how I feel, so writing the book has definitely been part of the process of coming to terms with her death. The chapters about our early years together were a joy to write, but when it came to what happened that afternoon in June and the weeks and months afterwards, it was obviously hugely painful. However, I wanted to remember how it had made me feel. How it had made us all feel.”
Scattered throughout the book are some of Jo’s own diary entries, most taken from the journal they kept at the cottage. They talk of planting roses, of cycling through field of buttercups and of Sunday roasts.
“I started reading those diaries relatively soon after Jo died. One of us would write about what we had done every time we went to the cottage, but more often than not it was Jo. They were some of our loveliest times together. However, it was odd reading some of her older diaries as it made me realise just how much she had found her voice.”
While most remember Jo as a political dynamo, as a teenager she was so shy she would get her younger sister Kim to ring British Rail to find out the times of trains and when she first arrived at Cambridge University she almost didn’t make it through the first term.
Jo was the only Heckmondwike Grammar pupil at Pembroke College and there were few others on campus whose father worked in a factory which made deodorants and toothpaste and whose mother was a junior school secretary.
However, it was in that rarefied atmosphere that Jo’s determination to champion inequality was born. It was also where her pride in her Yorkshire roots shone through. Back then she was Jo Leadbeater and using the flattest of vowels she would quietly remind anyone who pronounced her surname ‘Leadbetter’ that it should in fact rhyme with Rita.
“She sometimes found the culture clash at Cambridge overwhelming, but she stuck at it and like at pretty much everything else she did, she excelled,” says Brendan who met Jo when they were both working at Oxfam.
They had only been together a matter of weeks before they took off on their first adventure, hitchhiking around Cuba. It was the start of a decade of travels which included a promise to hike up all 282 Scottish munros. By the time of her death the couple had completed 98 and had named their son after the mountain range Jo scaled just before finding out she was pregnant.
“Family always came first for Jo, but she always had a desire to help others and becoming MP for Batley and Spen was a long-held dream. There’s a theory which says if a woman sees a job description and she doesn’t meet one of the 10 criteria she won’t apply, where as a man will apply if they only meet one out of 10. It’s quite a crude generalisation, but I think a lot of women suffer from imposter syndrome. Jo did for a while at Cambridge and there were times later in life when she would have a complete collapse of confidence. But it never lasted long. She would go away, think about things and come back stronger than ever.”
While her career as an MP lasted a little over a year, Jo packed a lot in. When she died she had founded and co-chaired the Friends of Syria group, had just set up the Loneliness Commission and back in Batley and Spen had already attended to 4,372 constituency cases.
“Jo was Labour to the core, but she wasn’t tribal,” says Brendan. “She worked with people from across the political divide. When it comes to elections we often focus on our differences, but I think more than ever there is a desire to change the narrative.
“It was Jo’s sense of community which drove her into politics and I know she would love it if her death helped in some small way to bring communities back together again. Whatever the result of the election, right now the country is crying out for a sense of togetherness.”
Through the Jo Cox Foundation, Brendan has spent the last 12 months continuing where his wife left off. Those efforts will culminate next weekend with a series of community events taking place across the country under the Great Get Together banner.
“Initially it was just our way of remembering Jo, but after what has happened in the last few weeks it feels more important than ever,” he says. “It is much easier to hate people that you haven’t reached out to, that you haven’t shared a meal or joke with. Right now getting together and celebrating what we have in common feels like a good thing to do.”
Brendan is not entirely sure what he will do next, but he and the children have begun to plan for the future. And while he admits his ‘To Do’ lists are less exciting than Jo’s, the fact he’s making them at all feels like a positive step forward.
“I had never met anyone like Jo and I never will again. We climbed mountains together. We saw the world together. We worked and dance together. We lived on boats together. And most of all, we brought Cullin and Lejla into the world together. I can’t bring her back but the memories we all have of her keep her alive.”
Jo Cox More in Common by Brendan Cox, is published by Two Roads, priced £16.99. Royalties from the book, out on June 16, will be donated to the Jo Cox Foundation.