INTERVIEW: Decca Aitkenhead

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Decca Aitkenhead took part in the talk, Love and Loss on Saturday 8th October. 

Words by Amrita Paul. 


For an obsessive memoir reader like me, part of the job involves conjuring a personal image of the author. This can be difficult, especially when their stories have made you weep in public places, smile and also wonder if there is anything in the world that a good book can’t fix. As such, I was incredibly happy to discover that Decca Aitkenhead, author of All At Sea, is, in real life, the same person I had imagined her to be: kind, warm and lovely to talk to.

Her book is an account of the time when, on a family vacation at a Jamacian beach, her partner Tony drowned while trying to save their four-year-son Jake. Having worked as a journalist with The Guardian for many years, Aitkenhead’s book doesn’t hover around the incident. Tony dies in the first chapter itself and the rest of the book looks back at his life and the author’s own difficult relationship with grief.

But the nature of a book like this is that, when you go out and talk about it, the trauma is never fully out of sight; you are reliving it with every retelling of the story. Does it ever get difficult for her?

She says, ‘I worry about it becoming not difficult, I worry that once you write a book and you talk about it and you get familiar with talking about it, there is a kind of detachment and an ease which feels inappropriate and almost unseemly.’

The author doesn’t know if it is healthy to get to that place where one is slightly emotionally disconnected, but because she writes for a living, she is wary of this tragedy becoming work – of professionalising it. She adds, ‘At the same time the alternative would be to not have written a book about it, or not be talking about it and that would trouble me more.’

It has just been over two years since the incident and although her sons were incredibly close to their father, they are already forgetting about him. Aitkenhead looks sombre in her realisation that when Tony passed away, it was a shared experience between her and her three and four-year-old sons. Now with them not remembering much, it feels like just her loss which is a painfully isolating experience.

The family still continues to visit Jamaica, where they feel closest to Tony. Aitkenhead says, ‘Jamacians are really comfortable talking about death, they don’t have the English reservation. There he is absolutely a part of the conversation. One thing Jake cannot stand is “the voice”, which is slightly contrived and doesn’t make sense to perhaps anyone below the age of 15. He loves that his dad is mentioned absolute matter-of-factly in this little village in Jamaica.’

Unable to concentrate at work, Aitkenhead wrote this book very quickly, over a period of just six months. She says, ‘I didn’t have to focus my mind on it because my mind wouldn’t go anywhere else. The thought was, whilst I am bleeding anyway, I might as well bleed on to the page… It wasn’t a cathartic experience in the literal sense although it discharged some of the horror. It was about organising the incident in my mind so that was my way of making peace with something so jumbled up and chaotic.’

‘It is still a bit disabling and unsettling, but writing helped me gain a sense of coherence. When you find yourself at the mercy of a senseless event, that itself is a very destabilising thing, but the book helped me revive the myth that the world is a logical sensible place..’

Shortly after submitting the manuscript of the book Aitkenhead was diagnosed with breast cancer. She thought of writing at least one chapter about it in the book but the ongoing chemotherapy sessions kept her from even writing a sentence. Eventually, she had to concede defeat.

She says, ‘I also found it harder to write about cancer. It felt like an intense, lonely, dark place without a great deal of revelation. I didn’t feel as if I had learned much that I would want to share with the world.’

I ask the author about what she has learned about life and happiness from these two traumatic incidents and her answer just breaks my heart.

‘I don’t want this to sound gloomy, but the concept of being in a good mood, that feeling of well being is as unimaginable as flying to the moon. I can’t quite remember what that feels like. Everyday life does bring lots of good things, but one’s default setting, one’s centre of gravity or one’s emotional resting place is in the sunlight.’

I don’t know how or when that will happen [again] and I am partly superstitious that bad things could keep happening to us. I can’t imagine myself as being the recipient of fabulously good luck.’

The author adds that the traditional assumptions about grief or bereavement are simplistic clichés and there is so much more to it than feeling sad and people saying they are sorry for you.

She says, ‘The practical, logistical reality of life without Tony is so intensely overwhelming and demanding that there isn’t very much room for anything anyway. I have just become cerebral and pragmatic because I have to keep getting the show on the road.’