Joanna Witt was my first love. She spotted me talking to someone her friend knew on the other side of the quad of Rutland Hall and pushed for an introduction. We were in our first year at Nottingham University and hit it off right away.
Jo was passionate, determined and funny. She had a habit of saying “Right!” right before she set off to achieve something – something she still did 20 years later. Together we decided to get as much out of university as possible, which, at its most productive comprised learning about all sorts of new things – from art nouveau to the Tibetan Book of the Dead – and at its least productive, comprised lots of alcohol and dancing.
In the second year, we moved in together – with three others of course; we were still poor students – off campus and into number 14 Sherwin Grove. It was one of the happiest times of my life.
Jo and I are both fiercely independent – we had separate rooms even though we both effectively lived in mine, the larger one – and we liked that in one another. A few posters, a mattress on the floor, a good meal, a semi-adopted cat that loved Miles Davis, and a ton of spare time. It was bliss.
Somehow down the line it all went awry, as every relationship did sooner or later at university. But we talked it through with honesty and an open heart and the pain of breaking up became more of a hurdle to overcome than a wound to heal from.
It was only years later, having assumed that it was always going to possible to stay close friends with ex-girlfriends, that I realized how rare and valuable that was. Ever since I have had a hard time jumping that hurdle with others; Jo I think managed it with almost every ex – something that speaks volumes about who she was.
Soon after I found out Jo had died – suddenly, unexpectedly, a nasty cold that was actually something far, far worse but didn’t have the decency to give anyone time to realise – my brain started feeding me flashes of her. Mental pictures I didn’t realise I had taken over the past 23 years.
Every picture was a different place and I quickly came to realise I had probably stayed in every house that Jo has ever lived. From her childhood home in Parkstone to the multiple houses in Nottingham to the cluster of homes of North London.
She would always expound on the qualities of North London, even when living in a tiny two-bed flat at the top of an enormous flight of stairs.
I would argue the value of grittier South London – and then later Cornwall, Paris, Oxford, Los Angeles and San Francisco. I was always looking; she had found where she wanted to be. She only ever conceded San Francisco over her beloved North London, and even then she had reasons why it was only better in certain ways.
One painful picture my mind flashed up was in one house in Nottingham that she shared with Lisa Blount, Ginny Hooker and Oliver Sexton. As unlikely as it would have seemed back then, she would later marry Oliver and have three adorable boys with him.
In this case my picture comes in two parts on the same evening: us drinking red wine – good stuff that didn’t stain your teeth – and listening to a brand new copy of Radiohead’s new single – Paranoid Android – on vinyl that Lisa had just arrived home with.
The second picture is of us all holding and hugging Jo after she found out on the phone her mum had just died. Her father, Rodger, arrived soon after to take her home.
The next day, I called and Jo asked me to come down to Poole for support. Then, over the course of a week, I saw where her incredible emotional strength came from. Rodger pushed through his pain, talking openly and honestly about his memories and feelings and he encouraged Jo to do the same. It was agony and it was beautiful. We cooked and laughed and wept.
At night, Jo would fall asleep sobbing. She asked me to lay beside her and hold her. I told myself I might be able to take away some of the pain if I held her tight enough.
But as awful and painful as it was, it became a life-affirming experience. We dealt with death by focusing on life. There was another thing: blue butterflies. One morning Rodger came down to the kitchen to find a blue butterfly happily flying around; no windows or doors were open and it wasn’t butterfly season. He told us he had found its presence oddly calming. Jo was dumbstruck: a blue butterfly was one of her mum’s favourite things.
We laughed at ourselves; people in the depth of grief trying to attach meaning to small things. But it didn’t go away. Blue butterflies kept appearing despite no one but Jo seemingly knowing about Shona’s love for them. On cards. On people’s broaches. It was a sign that she was still there, that she was making her presence known, looking out for her family in the only way she could.
We didn’t really talk about the butterflies after the funeral. And as time brought down the spiritual shutters, the idea seemed almost hokey. But Jo and myself and Rodger were there and we knew it, and we know it, to be true.
It’s probably worth mentioning that I wouldn’t be a journalist if it wasn’t for Jo.
I’ve spent almost my entire adult life as a journalist and it was Jo that first opened that door. Jo persuaded me to go with her to the offices of Impact – the University of Nottingham newspaper – to see if there were any jobs available.
I ended up writing film reviews. She worked on features. It was wonderful. I got to see films early and for free. Soon I started covering gigs and met and interviewed many of my favourite bands. But the newspaper itself was lacklustre (although we preferred the term “dull as shit”). The journalism was soft – too soft. It covered the little groups of (self) important people on campus – hall presidents and the like – as if they were the future leaders of our country rather than what they really were: jumped-up future city councilors or rich kids with a grating sense of entitlement.
When the paper accidentally hit on a big news story, it failed. And it failed badly. A senior lecturer killed himself and sent a copy of his suicide note explaining it was a “Roman suicide” intended to highlight problems and abuses of university management. The news team and editor did the right thing and wrote a front page story on it, but the university got an injunction which it took to the printers and forced them not to roll the presses.
Jo and I saw this as a test of press freedom. We were ready to man the barriers. But instead the editorial team folded. The university threatened to cut their funding. They brought in some big-talking lawyers. And in response, the newspaper team simply handed the letter over and said no more about it.
We couldn’t believe it. So when the editor left later that year (she had finished her degree), we disrupted what was supposed to be a clean handover to the chosen successor – a personal friend of hers who was frankly no good at the job. We asked for a vote.
It resulted in all sorts of maneuvering as the incumbents tried to fix the result. Finally, an early morning weekend meeting was called (who gets up early at the weekend at university?) which we were informed about, I recall, the day before. The vote was supposed to be only people that had worked on Impact but when the numbers didn’t look good enough, suddenly it was open to everyone in the room – and there just happened to be some friends of the editor and wannabe editor there.
I wanted the editor job but it quickly became clear that my bolshy attitude was never going to bring in enough votes. So I told Jo she had to stand. She secretly wanted the job anyway; she just didn’t like the politics. But we still didn’t have the votes and Jo was ready to concede. I suggested some alternative routes and she angrily told me not to do anything dodgy; if she lost, she lost.
I’m not sure I ever told her how she won. I wonder now whether she knew or didn’t know or decided not to ask. None of us had mobile phones so there was no opportunity to rally people. So instead we delayed the vote by asking the candidates to give a quick speech explaining what their vision was. And while this was going on, I went outside and persuaded a group of students leaving some club – I think it was the chess club – to come in and listen. Then I went around the room and made some promises to existing Impact people – mostly about how the same editors would not be automatically put back in the same posts – and I bad-mouthed the opposition to anyone that I thought was sitting on the fence.
In her speech, Jo was full of fire and passion about what Impact could become. A drab newspaper turned into a cutting-edge magazine. We’d give the students what they wanted – the first thing she would do is carry out a survey asking them. No more dull-as-shit stories about the hall presidents; we would hold the university to account. We would reach outside campus and find out what was going on in Nottingham – and across the Midlands. We’d be as good as any newspaper from any other university.
By contrast, the wannabe editor was hopeless. She basically said she’d just do the same thing with the same people. And so, Jo won easily. We didn’t even need the chess club members.
Would Jo have won solely on the basis of her speech? I would love to think so, but even back then I was surprised by how much people are driven by personal advancement. But who cares? The end result was that Jo got in and we got rid of a lot of dead wood at the same time. It was a victory and a heady exercise in taking on the establishment and winning.
Jo later rewarded my enterprise by firing me. I missed a big deadline. It was the main spread: a night out with Blur and the launch of their new album. I was supposed to do the event and write it up that night to catch the latest edition the next morning. Instead, I woke up with a powerful hangover in a hotel room in Liverpool with a terrific story but not the ability to write it. I decided to head back to Nottingham and hope I would recover enough to write it in the office. I finally arrived as the deadline closed and there was Jo pacing about, demanding I hand over a piece that I hadn’t even started. She was not impressed and fired me.
And the funny thing is, she still got angry about this years later. I like to think it’s because she realized she’d made a mistake and didn’t want to admit it. There was still time. There’s the deadline and then there’s the print deadline. My belief might even be true. But regardless I didn’t stay fired for long – at the start of the next year I sat down with Jo, who remained editor thanks to some behind the scenes lobbying, and explained why I should become film editor. We had the buzz and the know-how and we had started raising other people’s games. It was a close-knit team and we were going our own direction. It was exciting.
The powers that be
The establishment however hated us. We were punished for stealing the editorship away from the important people. Our “temporary” offices in the bowels of the admin building while the second floor was being renovated became permanent. I believe the union president decided to move himself into the massive room set aside for Impact rather than give it to us. We thought that was alternatively appalling and hilarious. Our room in the basement was so small it was comical – you have to let someone out before someone else could get in. And there were no windows. It became a source of pride for us. Nowadays I would have embarrassed the president with his petty power grab but back then we decided we would simply ignore them.
When we didn’t heed the advice from on high that we might want to lay off the criticism and cover more of the student president’s speeches, we had our funding cut. Jo responded as a true editor: she advertised for people interested in sales and reached out to local businesses to pay for ad space.
By the end of it, Impact was a proper magazine with growing readership, free of control from the petty bureaucrats, and I recall we got shortlisted for university magazine of the year. We were beaten out by Sheffield (?) who really did knock out an amazing magazine but had something like ten times our budget.
This whole experience was so exhilarating that when I finished my masters in Mechanical Engineering and received three offers of employment from various engineering firms, I didn’t respond to any of them because I realized I wanted to be a journalist. And so, of course, did Jo. Over the course of her career she has worked at the BBC and The Guardian and just recently she decided to go freelance and start up her own business covering the topic of working from home – Panaroma Road – so she could spend more time with her kids.
Shit. Fuck. Shittity fuck. I can’t believe I’m writing this. This has become an obituary for my friend: my lovely, charming, fiery Jo. Barely 40. With three young boys who will now never fully know their mother. And she was a great one.
I’ve been living in the United States for nearly a decade. But it’s never felt like I was out of touch with Jo. Every time I came to the UK, once or twice a year, we’d make a point of meeting up. When each of the boys was born, me and sometimes my family would turn up to celebrate. In between, we’d grab a coffee or a glass of wine and catch up. Every time it was a pleasure. Within minutes, sometimes seconds, we’d be back to where we were, updating each other, laughing at the ludicrousness of life and adding another layer to our friendship.
I saw Jo for the last time less than two weeks ago in a short but lovely afternoon by the Southbank in London. Jo was with two of her boys – Ned had chickenpox and was home with Oliver – and, wonderfully, Lisa and Ginny were there too. My girls were with me as was my wife Sapna. All the kids ran around chasing pigeons by the London Eye. It was a typical grizzly London January day. Jo and I didn’t have time for a full catch-up but it didn’t matter. Next time.
I told Jo we were thinking about moving back to the UK in the next few years. Her response was every bit her. “Why would you want to leave California and come back here? It’s shit.” Then a pause. “But you should do it. I would love to spend more time with you.”
I didn’t tell her one of the attractions of moving back would be that I could see her more often and we and our kids could all grow a little older together. But she knew that.
When we said our goodbyes to catch a tube back to Ealing, Jo caught me off guard by giving me a much bigger hug than I was expecting. I immediately gave her a huge hug back. It might be a year before I saw her again. As it turns out, it’s going to be much longer than that.
I don’t know how I am going to handle only having you, Jo, as a voice in my head. I already miss the conversations we’re never going to have. I wanted you to become an influence in my girls’ lives and I still can’t quite believe that you aren’t with us. I want to be angry but I can’t do it. I’m grieving. I’m miserable.
The only answer I have right now is to think back to what you and your dad taught me all those years when your mum left so quickly and left such a chasm. I will talk and laugh and cry. And cook.
Lisa tells me she’s already started sharing Witt stories. I’ve put a few of mine down here. I have many more, but then you know that. Goodbye Jo, I love you. I will always love you. Thank you. I’m so sorry you weren’t with us longer.