I MISS YOU SO, MY DARLING MO
IT IS just three months since the death of former Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam at the age of 55. A concert commemorating her life will take place later this month. Here, her husband, merchant banker and artist Jon Norton, 50, reveals the story of
MO DIED in the summer — but I still wake up each morning expecting to find her there asleep in bed beside me. Then suddenly I remember, and the shock and grief of her loss kicks in all over again. I still find it impossible to believe I will never see Mo again, never hug her or hear her voice. I loved her so very much I cannot believe she is really gone.
It was a sunny Saturday morning in July when Mo spoke her last words to me. She had been seriously ill since the spring and was getting worse, but typically she was laughing about it, joking to me about having to buy a motorised wheelchair in which she could terrorise the shoppers of Sittingbourne, the nearest town to our rather remote Kent farmhouse.
Moments later she stood up, then suddenly
fell backwards, hitting her head on the
top of the bed frame. Her whole body
went into spasm. I jumped up desperate to do something, but she couldn’t
communicate, her eyes just staring.
I called an ambulance and went with
her to our local hospital. The doctors
reassured me they could find no serious
brain injury, but could not explain why
Mo was not regaining consciousness.
Mo never came out of the coma. She
stayed in hospital for two weeks, then
was transferred to King’s College
Hospital in London for more tests.
It seemed a very cruel stroke of fate
following her apparently successful
battle against a benign brain tumour
seven years earlier. It seemed the radiotherapy that had cured her tumour had
shrunk the blood vessels in her brain.
She had been seriously ill, but had
continued to fulfil all her commitments,
even travelling to Australia a few
months earlier, but now I knew there
was something very wrong. The consultant told me that should she ever regain
consciousness, she would be severely
physically and mentally incapacitated.
He asked the family — Mo’s brother
Roger and sister Jean, as well as my two
children, Henrietta and Fred, from my
first marriage, who had become very
close to their stepmother over the
past 13 years — if we wanted further
infections treated. As Mo had made a
living will just two years earlier, we all
knew what she would have wanted.
We agreed Mo would transfer to the
Pilgrims Hospice in Sittingbourne, and
food and water would be withdrawn.
It was Roger who broke the news of
her death to me on August 19. I had left
her bedside in the hospice to walk the
dogs when he appeared at the door of
the farmhouse. He did not need to say
anything. I knew already, the shock and
grief on his face told me Mo was dead.
In the weeks since I have often felt I
have lost a part of myself. But the Mo I
miss is the Mo I knew and loved before
her illness, the tremendous life force she
really was, not the shadow she had
become in the last months. I began to
lose the real Mo almost a year earlier,
becoming her carer rather than her
husband and lover. I know she would
never have wanted that to continue.
WE HAD both believed we would spend the rest of our lives together, just the two of us at last. But the future we had planned together was one of travel, new opportunities and new adventures.
She would never have wanted me to feel, as I admit I had started to do, that I was tied to someone who was just growing worse and worse. Mo, I know, would always have chosen a quiet, dignified death over a life of increasing dependence and frailty.
Yet I still find it impossible to believe that I will never see her again.
I can still remember our first meeting. It was in 1989 and I was still married to my first wife, writer and journalist Geraldine Bedell. We had been together since university and had two children, Henrietta, then five, and Fred, who was just a year old. I had been working as a merchant banker in the Middle East where we had enjoyed a wonderfully luxurious lifestyle.
Having always been politically active, I realised how strong Labour was becoming and decided to set out to forge links between the party and the traditionally Conservative-voting world of City financiers. I set up a group called the Smithfield Group and, after consulting with the MP Frank Field, I was introduced to Mo.
I liked her at once and quickly came to respect and admire her. Over the next three years, I became part of a committee who advised her on City issues and we grew to know each other very well. But I would never have dreamt of making a pass. I don’t even think I was aware I found her attractive.
As far as I was concerned, I was a married man with a young family. Mo was single, I knew, and had confided to me that she had only recently ended a very unhappy and distressing relationship with a man who had left his wife to be with her. So the last thing either of us was looking for was an affair.
THEN a bombshell hit me. I returned home one night to be told by my wife that she was leaving me for my friend and colleague, political commentator Charlie Leadbetter, with whom she had been having an affair.
I should not really have been as shocked as I felt. Not that I had been consciously unhappy, or we had been arguing a lot, but neither of us was investing enough time or energy into our relationship. But I certainly had not realised she was unhappy enough to have fallen in love with someone else. I was losing not only my wife but my family, my home and my security. I felt as if my whole life was collapsing.
The children, who were only eight and four, began to split their time equally between Geraldine and me. I had them to stay every other night and alternate weekends. I worried they were constantly living out of a suitcase, while I spent most of my time driving them between different homes.
Meanwhile, Mo, knowing nothing of my family break-up, had bought a large house in her constituency of Redcar. She repeatedly invited me to bring my wife and children to stay for the weekend. At first, to save embarrassment, Geraldine agreed to come.
But one weekend just before the 1992 election, Geraldine was unable to come and I went up to Redcar with the children alone.That night, after putting the children to bed, Mo and I sat down with a bottle of wine and I finally told her about the break-up of my marriage.
Even as I did so we looked at one another and suddenly knew how attracted to each other we were. That night was the start of a relationship of such passion that within days we were discussing whether to have babies together. Although I did not really want any more children, I would have agreed if Mo had wanted them, and at 42 she was still young enough to try.
She eventually decided ‘no’. Although she was very happy to act as part-time stepmother to Harriet and Fred, she needed to concentrate on her career.
Fortunately, my children adored her. Mo was full of fun and loved playing with them. I moved into her flat in Kennington following the 1992 election. Harriet and Fred would come to stay and I would cook dinner for us all after Mo returned from the Commons.
At first, we kept our relationship a total secret from Mo’s colleagues. My only worry was that it might look odd to the public for Mo as a senior Labour politician to be revealed to be having a relationship with a merchant banker. Mo had often joked that the only thing she didn’t like about me was my Oxford accent. She hated what she regarded as the Establishment and was never in awe of anyone. But when the story did eventually appear in The Sun, it did not seem to attract much attention.
For the next few years we lived a really wonderful life together. Mo’s political career was soaring. Every Wednesday we would hold a dinner party. Regular visitors included the Blairs, the Straws, Alistair Darling (now Secretary of State
for transport), and Margaret Jay ( now Baroness Jay, former leader of the House of Lords). Mo was hopeless domestically and often laughed about her inability to cook. So I became head chef as well as host, although my signature dish was usually no more ambitious than chicken and chips.
Holidays were spent taking the children to Greece, sailing, or on our own, most notably on a container ship to Gdansk where the entire crew spoke only Polish and the only other passengers happened to be two defrocked priests. I think the two of us spent almost the entire trip giggling. We were incredibly happy together and looking forward to an even more exciting future.
Marriage was not a big issue for either of us, but we were concerned about any destabilising effect that their parents’ divorce might have had on Harriet and Fred, and we finally decided to marry in 1995.
AS GERALDINE had also remarried we felt this would provide the children with a greater sense of security than if we continued just living together. Mo insisted she did not want an engagement ring or any fuss. We married in a register office and held a party at Redcar racecourse. Only the arrival of novelist Ken Follett with a crate of champagne made it feel like a wedding.
Life continued very happily. It was not until 1996 that Mo became seriously unwell. During that year she was frequently ill with apparently minor infections such as colds and sore throats. Then, more worryingly, she developed a recurrent twitch in her right arm. A doctor friend noticed this at dinner and warned Mo she should have a brain scan as soon as possible. Mo did not tell me the date and went to Charing Cross Hospital by herself. It was not until I received a call from her saying, ‘ Jon, can you come quickly, please? I have been told this looks very serious,’ that I had any real cause for alarm. When I arrived we were taken into an office by two consultants, who told us immediately that Mo was suffering from a brain tumour, and would have to undergo urgent tests to discover whether it was malignant or not.
We went home in a state of shock knowing that if the result was malignant she might die. All we could do that night was cuddle and talk, preparing ourselves, if we had to, to face her death. Mo had the test the following day. To my joy we got the news that the tumour was benign the next week. Mo was told she needed radiotherapy but the prognosis after that was good. We felt like celebrating although Mo knew that she must tell Tony Blair, and that this might still threaten her political future.
She deliberately underplayed the seriousness — emphasising that she would not allow her illness to interfere with her work in any way. Tony Blair accepted the news calmly, offering her his support as well as reassuring her she would still be eligible for a senior post in government.
With the 1997 election looming, Mo wanted to undergo radiotherapy treatment
as soon as possible. Although she was warned of the likely side effects it was still a horrible shock for her, as it would be for any woman, when she lost all her hair and rapidly gained several stone.
I felt she was having to cope with an awful lot at once, and regretted bitterly that due to my own work I was not able to be around to support her more. Every time something traumatic happened, such as the day her hair fell out, I would be on the end of a phone line in the Middle East, desperately trying to say the right thing while feeling I should be there beside her.
Betty Boothroyd was enormously kind at this time, allowing Mo to sleep in the Speaker’s apartments in the afternoons and instructing her housekeeper to bring Mo tea and toast.
By the time of the election on May 1, 1997, Mo had received the all- clear from her consultant who confirmed that the tumour had completely gone. Mo quickly recovered, or so we thought, from the side effects of the radiotherapy and started looking forward to taking up her new post as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Although this meant that we still had to be apart during the week, I always went over to Hillsborough Castle at weekends.
In spite of the seriousness of her commitment to the peace process, Mo still managed to have fun there, where we held the most wonderful weekend house parties. With acres of grounds, beautiful apartments and tennis courts, staying at the official residence was like owning our own country house. Guests included our family and friends, including actors Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack, Lenny Henry and Dawn French. Mo did a wonderful job as Northern Ireland Secretary, winning the confidence of the Unionists and Sinn Fein alike. For the next four years we lived the most fascinating and fulfilling life I could possibly have imagined. In the months after the 1998 Good Friday agreement, Mo’s political star hit its highest point.
I felt very proud when she got a standing ovation at the 1998 Labour Party conference and was even talked of as a possible successor to Tony Blair. But increasingly the politics of Ulster were decided in No 10 and we talked about how resentful and upset she was at being by-passed.
BLAIR offered her the party’s candidacy for the London mayoral election. She refused — and I supported her all the way. She was playing for higher stakes and told Blair that she wanted to be Foreign Secretary. But in October 1998 she had to settle for Minister for the Cabinet Office, and Peter Mandelson replaced her in Northern Ireland. She knew this was a dead end, but she did not make a fuss. She was too professional for that.
I witnessed how very hurt Mo was by whispers that the return of her illness was affecting her performance. She blamed certain rivals and announced her intention to leave politics at the 2001 election. I was not that surprised — considering all she had been through.
Then in 2002 Mo began to suffer attacks of dizziness and temporary confusion. Following further investigation, she was diagnosed with low sodium and prescribed hydrocortisone. At first, this seemed to control the attacks. She made her living will in 2003, but for the next twoandyears she seemed fit and well.
It wasn’t until autumn last year that I became really worried again. I noticed her memory and balance were getting worse. It was as if she had suddenly aged 20 years, falling asleep in the car whenever we went shopping.
The consultant disclosed the possibility that the radiotherapy had caused the blood vessels in her brain to shrink. He warned Mo that if this was the case, there would be no cure and that her condition could only deteriorate further.
Between April and July 2005, Mo became considerably worse and at a far swifter rate than the doctor had predicted. For the first time she began to talk about not wanting to live. I think I knew when I saw her face on the morning she fell that this was the beginning of the end.
After her death my grief was mixed with the relief that she no longer had to suffer.
Making the arrangements for her funeral, I realised I must do something that reflected Mo’s tremendous passion for life.
I sent out invitations stating ‘No black ties allowed’ and chose John Lennon’s Working Class Hero instead of traditional hymns. Mo’s body was committed to the incinerator to the sound of The Kinks and Lazing On A Sunny Afternoon.
I don’t yet know what my plans for my own life will be now. Life after Mo is hard for me. I don’t want to sell the house which Mo and I bought together only about two months before she died. But it is also very remote and makes me more conscious of her gaping absence.
I find myself still thinking about her constantly, almost listening for the sound of her laughter in the empty rooms around me. Most of all I miss her humour and tremendous sense of mischief.
The other day a friend reminded me how she kept a children’s remote control ‘Fart Machine’ under her desk in the Cabinet Office which she would set off whenever someone started behaving pompously. That was Mo. It made me realise I am not the only one who will miss her terribly.
A MEMORIAL concert will be held in London on November 20. All proceeds will go to MoMo Helps (www.momohelps.org) and the Pilgrims Hospice (www.pilgrimshospice.org). For tickets at £20, call 020 7494 5061 or visit www.momowlam.co.uk
Full of fun: Mo enjoys a holiday in Sri Lanka, left, and a happy occasion with her husband Jon, above