Review: In at the Deep End by Jake Tilson

Eggs On The Roof Reviews

Wafts of fishy scent drift insist­ently into my nos­trils as I talk to artist and writer Jake Tilson in his Peck­ham stu­dio. ‘Oh, it’s that’, he says, point­ing upwards, when I ask him what the smell is. Hanging from the ceil­ing above my head is a large dried cod. The wizened, grey fish is just one of lit­er­ally thou­sands of fishy souven­irs piled up around us: nets, floats, snorkels, dried squid, pack­aging, a plastic grilled plaice, empty tins of sprats, boxes of anchovies and fish-shaped jelly sweets.

The heaps of fishy objects are the flot­sam col­lec­ted over years which Jake has used to illus­trate his beau­ti­ful book, In At The Deep End. He’s a pas­sion­ate, obsess­ive col­lector and con­siders noth­ing too small, crumpled or insig­ni­fic­ant to bring home. While in Japan he gathered hun­dreds of soggy fish labels which had been trampled under­foot in the vast fish mar­ket. Before fly­ing home he washed them in his hotel bath­room and dried them on the heated loo seat. When he spot­ted a par­tic­u­larly fine wooden fish crate, he tried to pack it into his suit­case but found it was a frac­tion too large. So he simply bought a ham­mer, took the box to pieces and rebuilt it in Peckham.

In At The Deep End began as an attempt to shrug off a fish pho­bia that developed from read­ing a lav­ishly illus­trated book about sharks when he was a boy. But his research turned into a pas­sion­ate desire to know everything about just about every edible spe­cies. By the time this eclectic, magical and indis­pens­able book ends, it’s moved from pho­bia ther­apy to become a gently per­suas­ive polit­ical mani­festo, alert­ing us to the eco­lo­gical dangers of over-fishing. Think of it as a recipe book, mem­oir, travelogue and a cul­tural his­tory and you will get just a hint of what In At The Deep End con­tains within its jaunty yolk-yellow covers.

Jake has designed, pho­to­graphed, drawn and writ­ten this work of art with a metic­u­lous eye. Each double-page spread took him up to a week to con­struct, made up as it is of a mosaic of images, draw­ings, frag­ments of text and pho­to­graphs blen­ded and over­laid. He designed spe­cific typefaces for each chapter, so the sec­tion on Scot­land uses let­ter­ing inspired by the regis­tra­tion num­bers hand-painted on Scot­tish fish­ing boats. The chapter on Aus­tralia uses a typeface developed from the intric­ate, lacy iron­work that appears on the bal­conies of Fed­er­a­tion era houses in Sydney. In At The Deep End is a fishy cor­nu­copia on a breath­tak­ing scale that con­tin­ues to reveal new delights with every reading.

Jake’s wife, the ceram­icist Jen­nifer Lee known as Jeff, and their daugh­ter Han­nah trav­elled with him to Sweden, Venice, Scot­land, Aus­tralia, New York and Japan to research the book, devel­op­ing recipes as they went. The book is as much a touch­ing test­a­ment to fam­ily as it is to food. The delight with which Jake describes find­ing a flattened, rusty tin on the floor of a fish mar­ket, know­ing that Jeff will be thrilled because ‘she loves rust’ is infec­tious. ‘The book wouldn’t, couldn’t have exis­ted without the three of us trav­el­ling together’, he says dis­arm­ingly. ‘Jeff and Hannah’s names should really be on the front too.’

For a man so obsessed by visual details, it’s per­haps odd that he prefers to buy cook­ery books without pic­tures. ‘It’s because I get very bored by styled recipes’, he says. ‘I don’t do any styl­ing at all. I might move things to the light, but that’s it. It’s a protest against the norm.’ There’s a won­der­ful pho­to­graph in the book, taken at his mother-in-law’s farm­house in Scot­land to illus­trate a recipe for smoked had­dock and bacon. The star of the pic­ture is an ancient fry­ing pan, its cracked handle proudly and defi­antly stuck together with par­cel tape. 

In At The Deep End has been seven years in the mak­ing, a remark­able test­a­ment to hard work and per­sist­ence. Not that Jake cares how long some­thing takes. ‘I just love mak­ing things. I am a cre­ator. If you were writ­ing a novel you wouldn’t dream of cal­cu­lat­ing your hourly rate. I’m the same about design. You have to be gen­er­ous with your time. I look at my book now and I’m just very happy that it’s finally here. In the end it’s the one copy that sits on my shelf that mat­ters. If other people like it, then I’m pleased.’

Like it? I’m mad about it. So much so that I was for­lorn when I got to the final page. In At The Deep End is a book to read, study, mar­vel at, cook with or simply to smile at. It’s the finest book about food and fam­ily that I’ve read in years.

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12 thoughts on “Review: In at the Deep End by Jake Tilson

  1. A crack­ing review of what sounds like a crack­ing book. It should do very well by the sound of it. The artist author is now prob­ably as well known as his father, Joe — one of the found­ing Pop Artists. The com­bin­a­tion of art and food assembled with such artistry and care is obvi­ously excep­tional. Design­ing spe­cific type faces for indi­vidual chapters must be unique.

  2. Hi Jakey and thank you for your com­ment. I think you’d enjoy study­ing the typefaces — beau­ti­fully done and well thought out too.
    Charlie

  3. My imme­di­ate response to this was to visit Amazon and add it to my wish list. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Lovely review.

  4. I hope you love the book as much as I do — let me know what you think when it arrives in the post.
    Charlie

  5. I’m adding it to my wish list too, I’m busy cook­ing fish, crab and lob­ster here in Brit­tany for the next month, but a great fishy book is a must for the Autumn.

  6. Have just ordered the book too, what a great review of a won­der­ful sound­ing book,clearly a great read. As ever Charlie fant­astic book review.…can’t wait for the next review!

  7. Blimey — this was the eru­dite word that first left my lips hav­ing read this review. One because you made me want to go and buy it imme­di­ately without wait­ing to pass Go! and Two as it was such a lovely review to read.

  8. Thanks Mitzi Fritz — very kind. I’m a great believer in the word ‘blimey’ — it sums up a lot in life!
    Charlie

  9. I’ve just found your site as I too am review­ing Jake Tilson’s book but … what a great blog you have and, incid­ent­ally Karen Blixen is one of my favour­ite writers ever.

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