Small Boat Theory

Small boat theory is based on boats but just as boats are vessels for the wider dreams of man, so the theory seems to have application elsewhere.

My central observation is that there is a common pattern to the ownership of boats. A person may get into boating with a modest purchase, a starter boat. This might originate in their youth or in their later years. This boat is bought on a budget and is just enough to contain the reality of what we hope to do with it.

The small boat has the advantage of being no more than we need. Not only is it cheap to purchase, it is easy to maintain, has less complicated bits added onto it and less to go wrong.

As long as the vices of nasty haven’t been combined with the joys of cheap, small suffices.

Fewer troubles generally occur at the smaller end of the scale because micro challenges get solved easily. Small is simple. Small is human sized.

Over time though the possibility of the boat and the size of the dreams that go alongside it can expand. A shower, warm water, more cooking space, a bigger bed, faster cruising speed, competion, ego expansion; any number of things might attract us to a bigger vision of what is possible.

An industry exists to sell us dreams and it is easy to succumb to. We dream of what we might have and what we might be able to do. In a progress that often takes place in a number of steps, the boat gets replaced with something bigger, more luxurious and more expensive to buy and maintain.

Before long the vessel is big enough and well appointed enough to contain all possibility. Then, over time, reality tends to fail to keep up with possibility. Holidays are booked elsewhere, expediency takes over and the dreams are not fulfilled. Because our busy lives are elsewhere, the vessel sits lonely in the water gathering weed and costing, because of its size, a small fortune.

At some point the boat’s size on the water thus gets questioned. We can’t go a particular place because the boat is too large or I can’t go today because I need additional crew to help. At the same time the overall cost gets analysed. Does this make sense any more we ask? We decide not and tell ourselves we can always charter a boat in the sun or go with our friends. The boat finally gets sold and our fun on the water stops.

In all this we don’t step back to look at what has happened. It is difficult to consider going back to small again.

Instead, in all this escalation of dreams it is a rare thought that in the first place says: why not stay with something that is yes, always a little bit constricting but nevertheless gives us fun?

Why not value the cheap, the simple and the easy to justify over the large and complicated? Is not the seamanship, that being on boats is all about, centred on being economic after all?

In that searching for economy we are also forced to be more self-reliant and creative rather than resorting to our pockets to sort out our problems.

Small Boat Theory is the challenge to resist the charms of the bigger and simply stick with the least we can, knowing that we’ll be happy thereby.

The image at the top of the page is my small boat “The Magic Mushroom” beached at the bottom of the tide on Osea Island in Essex. 

Creative Tapas and the Chair Game


Last weekend most of the family Gallo partipated in an event convened by Robert Poynton and family at La Serna near Avila in Spain. The event was called the Creative Tapas and it was properly exceptional. A group of about 40 of us did simply what we wanted, from dawn to dusk and beyond. In that loose array, we became truly creative.

Many things struck me. The shrunken heads that became photo head bombs, the random phrase conversation, the water wheel run, the shadow play, the paper planes, the movies, the move from light to dark…  I could go on.

In looking back I already know one distinct thing that sticks out for me and will particularly remain. That was a late evening running, an “after lights out” version of “The Chair Game” played on the thankfully lit but deliciously dewy night-time lawn.

The Chair Game is both a simple and a highly complex thing. In simplicity it is one person, the walker, whose job it is to sit down on the one free seat that is not occupied by a group of players who sit on all the other chairs. Those players are free to move around the chairs as fast as they like to block the walker from sitting down in the free chair with the one caveat that once their buttocks leave the chair they are on, they may not move back to the same chair.

From this simple start the game becomes a frenzy of movement that continues in wave after wave. The complexity comes once you start playing the game and realise just how many lessons it can teach us. There is obvious teamwork and communication on the immediate surface but then one starts to notice all the different styles of play and participation that emerge. Underneath there is also a structural thing going on that partly depends on the layout of the chairs. In the game we get to see the devils of structure and process pitted against reliance on pure emerging human ingenuity. Nowhere have I seen this balance better demonstrated. Altogether, this game seems to have most of the big life and corporate lessons meshed into it somewhere.

At the weekend I got the nickname “The Rock”. I think this was because I spent a lot of time watching the game and moved rarely. I learnt things about the game from sitting tight but I also learnt that to really learn I needed to take some risks. I needed to get up and mess up a move. Lesson no 1: Movement is required. Lesson No 2: To really learn you have to be prepared to fail. I did then duly learn these lessons.

In this playing the game also took on another dimension. Earlier in the day there had been an experiment with commentary for a football match. Like many situations in life we thought this was about the match when really it was much more about the commentary – the story which builds up around the play. Steve Chapman and Jorge Alvarez were the initial commentators and they each took specific roles in character. Steve and Jorge now provided the same commentary to the Chair Game.

Now you might think that providing commentary on a game you know very little to nothing about is difficult and that would be true. However that only remains true if you remain under an assumption that knowledge is always helpful. I don’t want to decry the experts here but in an uncertain situation such as this game too much expertise can simply blind us to new possibility. Here the progress of the game is far better served by the commentators just making believable stuff up, but doing so convincingly.

What really helped here was that Steve took the job of “Advance” whereas Jorge was “Colour”. This is a classic story-telling approach, the balancing of the job of advancing the story on the one hand and the colouring in of details on the other. Too much of either can kill our interest – a balance is what works best and finding that balance can be tough. Here, Jorge playing the local “expert” extemporised beautifully and Steve grabbed back the action as the play developed.

The role based approach works in commentary partly because of the handover. When colour is required the microphone was physically passed over. When advance is needed, as the action picks up, it is handed back. It also works because each knows their role. Colour knows that the job required is to paste in information that will interest and entertain. So we learn something about the player – how they got their nickname and what off field behaviour they are renowned for as well as something about their playing history. If as in this case there is not much real information then the job is simply to make it up. And boy did they make it up.

As the night turned into morning the commentary got swapped around as more and more people had a go at the microphone. Before long the history of the game emerged; a rich legacy of international championships intertwined with the lessons of Reykjavik and Oslo in the late 90s and early 80s. Classic moves such as the Etruscan Defence and Newton’s Shuffle were explained as they got discovered, demonstrated and then repeated on the lawn.

As the commentary got intertwined back into the game the power of story telling and improvisation, offer and acceptance, knitted the game stronger. This showed us the power not only of the thing but of the legends and stories that surround it, how history is created and sustained.

La Serna 2016 will now live on in the history of The Chair Game as it continues to grow. This is a game that not only has a lot to give but also now has a growing culture of moves, plots and characters. It is a simple creation of complex genius and I commend it to you.


Thank you to Steve Chapman for the photo used above.

Thanks also to John Willshire who is starting to curate the moves and history of the game.

Here is a slowmo video of action at a previous running at the V&A by Rowan Gray 

No Change to Punch and Judy?


The rosy glow of summer sun conjures up a feeling that anchors us back in childhood. It’s a call of the beach that features sandcastles, ice-creams and fun. Once experienced, it is always remembered – an anchor point of safety and escape in an ever crazy world.

Into this mix we throw a show. This show comes to us, at the beach. It’s loud and colourful and before long we are pushing forward to see it. Adults stand at the back and children are pushed forward in ranks, the very youngest sitting at the front.

This is a game of puppets in which smart one-liners matter – the well timed blow just has to land. If it doesn’t quite convince, there is always the Machiavellian stick behind it. We are all laughing because we, as the audience, feel safe. Ice-cream in hand, we are satiated. Our little ones, pulled in by the Top Gear action, are transfixed.

No-one is going to speak out at this moment. No-one is going to say what they really see. No-one dares. It is part of the furniture of the place.

What we are really watching is a scared man beating up his scared wife. This is a woman with whom he has fathered a child. The baby is a product of an abusive marriage. For part of the show he will abuse the child in front of us, before disposing of the body. A policeman will be sent but he too will be ridiculed and then dispatched. Before long sausages will be stolen, burnt, fought over and finally lost.

Nevermind that. As an entranced audience we will not only push the children forward, we can also be relied on to pay for the show.

As the characters in the drama retire into their homes whistling their happy tunes, the audience too can be relied upon to depart back into their everyday lives also.

In doing that what we walk away from is a perfect mirror. Punch and Judy is a show without script that exists only because it reflects us and thus amuses us. It amuses because it parodies the very worst of what we are. All the bits that we don’t like about ourselves are up there to be walked away from, to be paid away in our ticket to the show, as entertainment.

It is these flawed bits of us that quietly undermine us, even in our moments of determined good intent. Yes, we are positive. Yes, we are focussed. Yes, we work. Why then do we fail to deliver on the promises we make? Staying and looking deeply into the mirror would tell us all we need to know; yet that is the one thing we tend not to do.

In December 2005 when David Cameron was elected leader of the Conservative Party he made a simple promise to get rid of “Punch and Judy politics”. We liked that headline and we bought it.

These few weeks, in June and July 2016, show just how badly he has failed. He has failed because he is part of the cast; a cast that can continue to play a show they know and love to an audience that paradoxically loves it too.

The show is very simple really. It is project fear writ large. It is old style Empire based dominant power that cleverly now uses economic power in place of good old fashioned fighting with the law paid to prop it up. Ethics? Principles? What fun are they? When swords stopped being entirely fashionable, Flashman choose to employ his Father’s wallet.

In the show, the governing narrative is about fighting. It is about building a tribe, a band of brothers. To do that one needs first an enemy and secondly the power, economic or military, to fight that foe. The House of Commons, with its lines holding the opposing forces the minimum distance of two sword widths apart, takes that model and places it in a civil format.

We, as the audience take the model into our own lives too. As “hard-working families” we fight our own foes in our daily battles, as we wage economic warfare in the world.

The model is broken however. It is broken because the internet post 2001 has made us realise that fighting is no longer a model that serves a connected world. It may make good drama but if we allow it to rule our lives we have to, at very best, always choose sides. Sides then fail us. A model that doesn’t genuinely serve all, fails even the victors.

We exit from situations all the time. Exit can work but only if in that walking away we are in the process of walking towards something far better – creating something that is more creative, more connected, more embracing. 

If this was the leaving of a battlefield to do that healing, then the doctors who understand the wounds and the process of change and healing would be all around us urgently doing their work.
As one leader departs and another one takes over, are we, the paying audience, in danger of just walking away from one show, clutching our remaining pennies, whilst already quietly readying ourselves for the next?

Or has this happened because we took a good look in the mirror and really understood the problem?