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.