There are some events that stick in your consciousness, global or national news events that you look back on and remember. I remember where I was when the news about 9/11 broke, when 7/7 happened and for a brief time I was worried my sister may have been caught in it because I couldn’t reach her on her mobile. I remember hearing that Shannon Matthews had been found, having had our house searched by the police in door to door enquiries because we live around the corner from her school. The biggest news event to affect me, my family and the community in which I live in recent times is the death of Jo Cox, 6 months ago today. This post, though, is not about Jo. It’s about how local people I know (and in many cases have come to know) have coped with her death and have come together to help our community heal.
I remember the day it happened very vividly. I work in Leeds and my company had agreed we could watch the England V Wales game at Euro 2016. Despite being a Scot by birth, I was keen to see the match. I then got a text from my wife who said that there were reports of some kind of incident in Birstall, and that possibly Jo Cox was involved. I’d met Jo just a few times, spoken really only once, but had been impressed with her and also at how she’d connected with my kids at a recent school assembly on citizenship. I spent the next period of time checking twitter and newsfeeds for clarification. I received a message from Reverend Mark Umpleby of the united benefice of Batley that All Saints Church Batley would be holding a vigil to pray for Jo’s recovery that evening (I look after the churches social media and needed to let people know, and my wife is deputy churchwarden) Soon after 5pm I was on a train towards home when my friend Daniel texted to say he’d heard she had died…our vigil turned into a gathering to mourn and pray for Jo’s family.
That evening hundreds of people came to our church to sign a book of condolence for Jo’s family. These were not all church going Christians. We saw Muslims, in the midst of Ramadan fasting on a hot summer’s day. They had come to show solidarity, unity and that Jo’s message and ethos had resonated in their community too. Most striking was the final two people to sign the book as we were about to close church for the night. Two young lads, maybe 13, rode up on bikes. They came into church and, to be honest, I was worried they may be up to mischief. They approached me and asked if they could sign the book, and then the first young lad sat in thought for several minutes before writing a lovely message. When I asked him (in that naff way grown-ups sometimes do) why he’d felt compelled to come, he thought for a beat then said “just….respect….”. Moved me to the point of tears.
The next morning, I got 2 messages from Gary Skyrme (choir master) and my wife (treasurer) within moments of each other. Batley Community Choir (of which I am a founder member and, you guessed it, the social media overseer) had received an urgent message from the Last Leg, of Channel 4. Would we go to London and sing live in the studio in Jo’s memory? Having briefly tried to envisage contacting 20+ choir members during their day jobs and asking them to be prepared to get on a coach to the big smoke, Gary and I decided the only way this could work would be to get them to come to us. We sang live on Channel 4, and received loads of feedback from all over the country.
The next day the community came together to support Jo’s sister and parents as they visited Birstall. I’d never met Kim Leadbeater before, but was hugely in awe of how she conducted herself as she made a statement to the baying media. The family then spent time looking at floral tributes and speaking to local people. Kim approached me, asked if we knew each other, and gave me a massive hug.
The following Wednesday we met again as Batley and Spen assembled to pay tribute to Jo on what would have been her birthday, just 6 days after her death. Our choir sang again, and (having sought the blessing of Jo’s family) we were able to announce that we were releasing The Rose as a tribute to Jo, and to raise funds for the Jo Cox Fund.
On 3rd July we recorded the single. Kirklees Council kindly allowed us to use Batley’s Town Hall for free (with staff) for the whole day. Roberto’s restaurant donated lunch for us all. My mate John Adams, who is the CEO of Evolutionary Films, gathered some colleagues and shot a video. Creative Scene paid the costs of pressing 1000 CDs. Horus Music agreed to distribute the digital download version for free…more than 200 people from the area came together to sing, including Jo’s colleague, Paula Sheriff MP (Dewsbury). To date we’ve raised almost £2000. This is a pittance compared to the almost £2 million the fund has raised, and I’m sure the new celebrity packed single You Can’t Always Get What You Want will raise more and maybe even get to number 1 – this is fine. Our sense of achievement comes from knowing that we’ve sold CD’s as far afield as Australia and the USA, from knowing that the people of Batley and Spen made something together to honour Jo and to hear from Kim that Jean (Jo’s mum) has listened to The Rose and been moved by it…..
Soon after The Rose was released I got a message from Dan Howard, a colleague of Jo’s. Dan explained that he was helping to put together a group to organise an event under the “More in Common” banner in Batley, and wanted to know if I’d get involved. In just 6 weeks, a group of folk from Batley and Spen put together a family fun day which, despite biblical rain (as Father Martin Naylor put it on the day!) was attended by over 1500 people. the build-up to organising the event was something to behold – loads of folk combining their skills, talents, passions and energy to create something we all felt was helping. Helping each other, helping Jo’s family (who again were there on the day) and helping show the outside world that Batley and Spen embodies Jo’s words, that we have far more in common than that which divides us….
Then came the trial of Jo’s killer, who doesn’t deserve a name drop here. Several of our group, in an impromptu show of solidarity, travelled to the Old Bailey to be a group of friendly faces for Jo’s family at what must have been an awful time. Another awful time. I wasn’t able to go, but have heard about how “the Batley crew” were waiting behind the police cordon when Kim spotted them, and in her customary fashion left the police in no doubt they should be allowed through. Batley and Spen had united again in a show of unity.
Since the More in Common day, and despite the trial and its impact, our little group has continued to plan. We realised that 3 September was great, but it felt like the start (not the end) of something. So we’re planning for the future. I won’t (can’t) go into too much detail here but we’re going to raise some money, then use it to put on a series of events designed to bring our community together to celebrate our commonalities and our differences. The hope is, has to be, that we’ll end up getting together so often that the boundaries between the different elements of our community get blurred, permanently.
The group organising these events is as diverse as the community we aim to serve. We have Anglican priests, local community activists, Muslim community leaders, teachers, knitters, cyclists, lawyers, (even Leeds United and Huddersfield Town fans working together) – all sorts! We’re all committed to building a legacy to Jo’s memory in the area where she grew up, the area she served so well for far too brief a time. Whenever we discuss whether an idea has merit or not, we’re conscious of asking ourselves if it serves our purpose, and at the core we have Kim, Jo’s sister, driving us forward. We have Fazila Aswat, Jo’s colleague, keeping us focused and grounded. We have each other, reminding ourselves why we’re giving up our time and energy. And what we now have is a bond of friendship. the reason we got together is tragic, It’s heart-breaking. But out of it all has to come some good. And if at the very least it means I have made some new, inspirational and amazing friends (which I absolutely have) then I’m at least grateful for that.
So watch this space folks…. Batley and Spen will continue to grow in love, respect and unity together. There will be laughs and fun along the way. And we will continue to prove how right Jo was to remind the world that together we have More in Common.
Follow the Batley Branch of More in Common on Twitter – https://twitter.com/moreincommon16
Buy the rose here – www.batleysings.org/buy-the-rose