Decca Aitkenhead: falling in love with a criminal

Guardian journalist Decca Aitkenhead fell in love with a crack-smoking, drug-dealing ex-con. He quit the criminal underworld for her, got a degree and they had two sons. But devastatingly, while on holiday in Jamaica, Tony drowned. Today, Decca tells us about this unlikely union…

Decca Aitkenhead was a successful journalist, in an unhappy marriage. Her neighbour, Tony, was a lifelong criminal, who’d spent 14 years behind bars and on his release, started dealing cocaine and smoking crack. Her marriage collapsed and she found herself drawn to Tony but didn’t think there was a future. However, he turned his life around for her and they had two sons together. In the first of two interviews, we hear about the magnetism, “huge-hearted and deeply loving, loyal, dependable character” that made her fall in love with Tony… 

In Decca Aitkenhead’s words

“Funny thing, isn’t it. At the time I kept asking myself what had drawn me to Tony. But I couldn’t begin to answer that question. On paper, it was the maddest, most lunatic, union. It seemed bananas. I knew my marriage had reached its end – before I met Tony – but like most couples, we couldn’t bare to accept it so we were stumbling along.

I certainly wasn’t quite mad enough to imagine leaving my husband for a future with Tony – he was addicted to crack, wholesaled cocaine, led a broadly nocturnal, not infrequently violent, life as a professional criminal. It wasn’t really the basis for a viable or happy future.

When we got together, I thought: I don’t know why I’m drawn to this man, but I’m quite sure it couldn’t possibly last. The rational side of my brain said ‘don’t embark on anything’. But for the first time in my life, I was compelled by something that defied any logical explanation. So I told myself I was mad but this had no bearing on my actions.

After 10 years, I realise it’s very easy to explain what I found so compelling him. He had the most astonishing strength of mind, resolve and determination to make life happy and full. After we got together, we were very much in love but I was clear we didn’t have a viable future with crack. I actually ended the relationship after six months. And that day, he started going to narcotics anonymous meetings and never touched crack again.

Still, I thought it wouldn’t last. But then he went off to college and did an access course. And this was all so far from what he knew. He came back looking puzzled one day and said: what’s a paragraph? He’d been expelled from every primary school he went to and didn’t quite make it to secondary school.

So when you ask why I fell in love with him, it’s easy to answer in retrospect: a man who can change everything about his life to make a relationship work – it’s a fairly compelling proposition. He went on to uni, graduated with a First and started working for Kids Company.

On the face of it, he changed his life. But the person who had the resolve to do that was the person I fell in love with. He had a violent past, he’d been a criminal, but was the most big-hearted, loving, generous, sunny human being I’d ever met. He didn’t come from my background but he approached life with such zeal, gusto and enthusiasm, which meant life was always unpredictable; I never knew what he’d make of a new situation or person, but always interested in his response – as he came with no prejudice.

In fact, I came to realise that the intellectual framework through which I observe the world was full of judgment. He was fascinating, as he came to everything fresh. Life was never, ever boring with Tony and I found that exciting.

I ask myself now why I didn’t ever worry about getting into trouble myself. I suppose that when you say someone has a violent background; sells cocaine for a living, it conjures Hollywood gangster images of car chases and drama but the rather boring truth of the matter is that his line of work was quite dull. It involved having meetings with people or collecting a large delivery from a safe-house. I never worried about him getting caught as he’d been released from prison for 15 years and had not been caught once. Partly that, but it also seemed too mundane to be risky.

One thing he was always careful about was to never involve me in any detailed conversations about work on the principle that should police show up I couldn’t be incriminated or tell them anything about him, as I didn’t know anything. I wasn’t a party to it, wasn’t profiting, it wasn’t taking place in my house – so I wasn’t implicated.

Friends and family didn’t get it

My friends were puzzled by our relationship. Intrigued. Curious but fundamentally doubtful. Everybody who met Tony was bowled over by him on impact – he had that rare quality that some people have to light up a room, magnetise people, make them laugh. My friends met him and fell for him but were very skeptical about our prospects as a long term couple.

My family had mostly made up their minds before having met him; that I’d taken leave of my senses – was behaving recklessly, irrationally. They were very angry with me. There was a large period of estrangement, over a year, where I didn’t speak to my family. Tony was unsurprised, he said: “Dec, look at me – I come from a difficult background, I’ve been a criminal my whole life – course they wouldn’t want you to be with me.”

I felt let down. They described themselves as liberals who believed people had the potential to change. I suppose I found their high-minded liberal ideas all very well in the abstract but when tested in real life, their ideals were exposed as rather hollow.

But, in time, there was a rapprochement and as soon as people got to know Tony – him, rather than the bullet point, headline summary “crack-smoking, violent criminal” – they saw his enormous qualities. Never more so than when we had our first child, as he was the most devoted, dedicated father, as well as a loyal partner to me.

Decca Aitkenhead on her ‘mystifying choice’

My choice always seemed mystifying – Tony was never going to sit down with the FT and a coffee and analyse the latest budget report – but the vast majority of people around us saw him for his huge-hearted and deeply loving, dependable character.

The thing that I couldn’t have countenanced or imagined was having a family while that was his line of work – it was unthinkable, really. I wouldn’t want to have a child with anyone whose line of work I’d have to lie to the kids about – even if he’d been an international spy, for instance.

We got together in January 2005 and by the time Tony had nearly finished his degree, in January 2009, I was pregnant. At that point I felt totally confident that we were settled, with his old lifestyle firmly behind him. I’d never been sure that I wanted to have children but I got near 40 and wasn’t sure I wanted not to have them. Also, I thought it would take a couple of years of trying. But it took two weeks.

Of course, in the end I was very glad. I was dreading it until my son was born, I thought I had made a terrible mistake – but I wasn’t worried about Tony, more myself. I used to look at all these women with prams in the park, and all these women with dogs and think: I really want to be a woman with a dog. But all this evaporated as soon as our son was born. All my doubts flew out the window. And Tony, who’d been reassuring me throughout the pregnancy, had the good grace not to say: I told you so.”

In the second interview with Decca Aitkenhead, she tells us about the horrific, surreal hours after watching Tony drown while on holiday in Jamaica. We also hear about how it felt returning to Kent with her boys, the friends and family who rallied round to support them and the magnanimous task of continuing life without the man she loved… You can read it here.

All at Sea by Decca Aitkenhead is published by 4th Estate, price £16.99