The next evening, the three friends meet to flesh out their plans. They need to figure out what to take, and Harris suggests they make a list. The way he says it reminds J. of a story about his Uncle Podger.
The three men try to bring structure and order to their plans by making a list. They want to be in control of the trip and, at this point, believe that to be possible.
Uncle Podger, according to J., has a special talent for making a simple task complicated. In this, case it’s hanging up a picture. Uncle Podger’s methods are convoluted and calamitous. He sends his children to fetch all sorts of tools and on first lifting the picture manages to drop it, cutting himself on the glass frame.
Uncle Podger, rather than just being similar to Harris, is representative of all three of the men. Like them, he is inept and creates more work than is necessary by making things complicated.
Uncle Podger keeps losing his things (like the hammer and nails), chastising everybody else for his errors. He slips off his chair and hits his thumb with the hammer. Auntie Podger tells him off for swearing. He says women make “such a fuss over everything” and that he likes this kind of DIY. Hours later, as midnight strikes, the picture is finally up.
Of course, Uncle Podger, like the men, would never admit the error of his ways, and blames the calamitous episode on other people. The mask of politeness quickly slips as he swears, frustrated at his own bad work. A simple task made difficult—this is a good way of summing up a lot of the episodes in the book.
J. says Harris will be just like Uncle Podger when he’s older and insists he (J.) does the “hard work” of being in charge of the list. The first list the friends make has to be thrown away as it has far too much on it, George comes up with an observation: “we must not think of the things we could do with, but only of the things that can’t do without.” J. thinks that very wise, though they then start the next list with a varied list of grooming products.
The three men love to compete over who is doing the most work, and often pretend to take charge of proceedings. That their first list has too much on it is indicative of the way the men find it difficult to leave the city behind. The fact that they feel they need to take grooming products with them shows that they are no so interested in being “wild and free” but want to maintain a refined level of appearance throughout the journey.
J. follows through on George’s philosophizing, imploring the reader to reject superficiality on their journey down “the river of life.” Get rid of material things (the “lumber”), he insists—“expensive entertainments, formalities and fashions, pretence and ostentation”—and there will be time “to think as well as to work. Time to drift in life’s sunshine.” He loses his train of thought. Meanwhile George has been working on their list.
This section sets up the main premise of the book: that the trip is about getting rid of what is not essential in life. But the men don’t see the contradiction—they are planning a return to a simpler way of life but are packing much more stuff than they need. They’re not, then, entirely committed to this return to nature—it’s a fairly shallow and naive ambition.
The three friends aspire to go swimming every morning on their river trip, though J. knows this is quite unlikely. George suggests they don’t need many clothes as they can wash them in the river (he’s never done this but “knows some fellows who had”). J. tells the reader that in the coming days it becomes clear that George didn’t know what he was talking about.
The men forget that a lot of the Thames is actually quite dirty and that clean water is needed to wash clothes. Again, this shows their poor planning and warped expectations of the trip.