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Review: In at the Deep End by Jake Tilson

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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