‘This happens to other people.’ The Guardian journalist Decca Aitkenhead says she had heard the phrase countless times, interviewing the survivors of random disasters, and the idea had always puzzled her: ‘Why would they think other people are any different from them?’ But when her partner of ten years drowned while rescuing their small son from the Jamaican sea on a family holiday in May 2014, she was startled to catch herself feeling exactly the same thing. She unpicks the emotion in her piercing account of his death and the strange series of events surrounding it:
We read about freak disasters every day, knowing perfectly well that the news is not fiction. And yet, deep down, what we are reading must feel to us made up. Why else would we be so incredulous when they happen to us? Even the journalists who report them must be in the same boat. I have been writing about real people for all these years, and apparently had not grasped that they were real.
To be fair, Aitkenhead’s story began to seem surreal, even to her, from the minute she left her cosy Hackney home and her marriage to Reuters photographer Paul Hackett to move into a sci-fi Canary Wharf apartment with a crack-addicted cocaine dealer. She would get up at 8 a.m. and head to her desk in the spare room with a coffee to begin writing. He would rise at 4 p.m., watch Sky News with a spliff and begin making calls. His growled threats coming through the wall were so menacing they could make her jump. They were hard to reconcile with the man who would then pad through to her in his slippers to give her a gentle kiss before heading out to make good on those threats. He was always honest with her: violence was his favourite part of the job.
The love story at the heart of All at Sea is riveting. Aitkenhead comes from a white, middle-class family of ‘highly educated, intellectually radical’ folk, raised with her three brothers in a large rural home without a television, where swearing was allowed, parents were addressed by their first names and visitors caught using euphemisms for body parts generated smirks. There was theoretical support for hoi polloi, but also a sense of superiority. Aitkenhead struggled to fit in at the local comp: ‘When I Tippexed my Remembrance Sunday poppy, the pacifist protest was widely interpreted to signify lesbianism.’
By contrast, Tony Wilkinson was a mixed-race kid given up at birth by a teenage mother and adopted by a kindly working-class couple in Leeds. He claimed to have been four when he burgled his first house and in his teens before he met another black person. At 15 he ran away from the city where neighbours had sprayed the word NIGGER on the fence outside their house and became a Soho hustler. He was still in his teens when he was sentenced to 14 years for shooting his girlfriend’s pimps. He served nearly five, then followed another girlfriend to California, where he became a violent gangster dealing in drugs and guns before returning to England, marrying the girl, having a daughter and moving into the street where Aitkenhead and Hackett lived.
Her account of his appeal is compelling. He was beautiful, charismatic and brave with an irresistibly unfiltered vulnerability. She became as addicted to him as he was to the crack that she demanded he quit. And he did. Just like that. Becoming an evangelist for Narcotics Anonymous while making his daily bread from the addictions of others.
The story of Tony’s transformation from violent drugs dealer to compassionate Kids Company mentor, earning a degree in psychology and moving to a barn in rural Kent with their two little boys, is such a Guardian reader’s dream that you do find yourself questioning it. But Aitkenhead is (mostly) alive to the complexities, contradictions and absurdities of it all, as he fitted into her world to become one half of the couple he nicknamed ‘Black & Decca’. There are scenes in which he sings karaoke at the Groucho Club with the Tory MP who would go on to become Secretary of State for Culture and is asked to move out of the photographs at the wedding of Labour spin doctor Derek Draper, because the guy with the dreads had to be staff, right?
Aitkenhead’s connectedness adds another layer of surreality to the story. After Tony dies, she’s offered accommodation in a luxury villa last rented by Lily Allen. She receives condolences from celebrities she’s interviewed (including Elton John’s husband David Furnish, to whom she sends a cringeworthy email while stoned, begging for money) and seeks advice on handling her children’s bereavement from media psychologist Tanya Byron. When there’s a visa problem she begins wondering who she can call at the Home Office.
After his funeral it transpires that Tony Wilkinson hadn’t gone totally straight. Aitkenhead finds a ‘modestly-sized cannabis factory’ complete with ‘industrial-strength fans, blinding lights and a complicated irrigation system’ on their land. As grief has rendered her almost incapable of making a phone call she decides this isn’t the moment for her to embark on a Breaking Bad
And perhaps the most extraordinary part of this extraordinary story is Aitkenhead’s surprise at the depth and confusion of her grief. Her mum died of breast cancer when she was nine and somehow she had managed to convince herself that this was a good thing. Her family had ‘organised a system of bereavement in which anything as chaotic as anguish could be reasoned away’. They congratulated themselves on their ‘superior analysis of death, as if grief were a form of obesity or debt — a shamefully irrational lapse of self-control’. And she suspects that
had Tony survived long enough to get to hospital, just 24 hours on a life-support machine would have bought me enough time not to mind very much when he died. Because if you have decided you don’t mind your own mum dying then how could anyone else’s death bother you?
Successfully treated for breast cancer after finishing this book, Aitkenhead is trying to lead her boys through a healthier kind of grief: with shared tears and honesty. She hopes she’s doing the right thing, putting it down on paper while she’s still ‘all at sea’. The book ends with an image of her boys swimming again, back in Jamaica. I closed it fiercely willing them all to stay afloat.