6 October 2019

The boat, 30 years after

It starts with a few big blue waves, a glass bottle floating on the surface of the ocean, and perhaps some dead fish here and there, belly-up. There’s maybe a lost message inside the whiskey bottle – or maybe not, it depends on one’s imagination and desire for hope and poetry.

The wooden ship stands out, imposing because of its size. To be sure, it looks more like a wide, simple boat from the 16th century, with no sail and obviously no engine either. The curvature of the wooden planks of the boat’s body is elegantly rendered. The knots in the wood make it all the more real because we have all seen pieces of wood with those knots. It’s also very possible that like I have, you have pressed with your thumbs on those knots to get the small pieces of wooden circles pop out.

The boat is loaded with many sacks of… stuff – it could be rice or spices, it doesn’t really matter. This is where it gets a little surprising: at the back of the boat, a cute cottage stands tall. It’s not the kind of house one would see on a ship, let alone a modest wooden boat. Because one would not expect to see any house in the first place. And certainly not one with a thatch roof with a chimney bellowing huge puffs of black smoke, as if it were that steam that was propelling the boat forward.

The depiction of this curious boat, on rough seas despite the bright weather, is how I remember it. I first saw it close to thirty years ago and it has never left my memory. It’s one of those strange recollections which are firmly ingrained in my consciousness, while so many other thoughts and experiences have entirely disappeared. The slightly paradoxical aspect of that specific memory is that I actually never saw this boat in real life. That is to say the boat never existed with real wood. It existed as a drawing, sketched in pencil on white paper by a fellow classmate. I believe his name was Felix Taylor, but I may be confusing his first name with one of my brothers’ friends many years later. What I do remember is that he was short and wasn’t particularly academically bright – but he had this talent for drawing. We were both in year 6, at the Lycée Charles de Gaulle, the only French public school in London.

I had memorised as many details as I could of that drawing. It’s very likely that on the evening of the very same day I first noticed how Felix drew it, I pencilled everything I could remember. Ever since, whenever I would doodle or would be required to draw something, the picture of that boat would emerge. It almost always made others believe I was a talented drawer, which I am not despite my humble attempts.

It’s a drawing that keeps on giving. It’s a little bit ironic though that it’s originally a “stolen” sketch, in the sense that all the inspiration came from that ten-year-old boy. As late as a few days ago, I was participating in some team fun activity in Dublin consisting of painting a massive canvas with water-based spray paints, graffiti style. One of the imposed themes was “searching for a lost treasure”. You can probably guess what my contribution was in the following team work:

Amateur graffiti

Yes, yes, I really played along:

Hard at work

I even played a little too competitively. We had been split into four teams, two teams competing in one round before the next two competed in a consecutive round. The winners of each of those rounds would meet in a final round to determine the ultimate grand winner. Unfortunately the decision on which team was the winner was only based on the amount of noise generated once the paintings were completed – nothing to do with aesthetics.

With a spray can in hand – a photo not to be used out of context!

I had of course observed that one of the teams in the first round was ostensibly weaker, at least according to my sense of artistic beauty. I therefore cunningly and swiftly rounded up everyone I could to support that weaker team. Why? Because I anticipated my team would make it to the final round (we did) and consequently would more easily win the final round. Yes, even team activities are all about winning for me! My strategy however didn’t work as I had neglected the fact that the other team was physically closer to the judge and thus managed to give him the acoustic impression that they cheered the loudest. Totally unfair. Especially since we then went on to lose the final, even though I had gathered my teammates close to the judge, asking them to yell and bang spray cans onto metallic ladders. Oh well, lesson learned for the next time I need to win at this kind of game, naturally.

With my teammates, in front of our graffiti that allowed us to qualify for the final (the theme was “zombie zoo”)
Ensuring that proper work gets executed using our homemade stencils

For the sake of this article, I painted a more elaborate sketch on my tablet, slightly enhancing what I had always been drawing for the past thirty years.

A slight improvement on the original drawing

It was initially meant to be a quick sketch… it ended up taking me a couple dozen hours or so as I was refining details. Here is, for your enjoyment, the 3-minute condensed video of my “masterpiece”: