J. muses on the history of Kingston, a town just to the southwest of London where kings used to be crowned. He thinks about how many pubs the 16th century Queen Elizabeth is said to have visited—it’s a lot—and all the plaques these pubs have put up that commemorate the occasion. He says that if Harris was suddenly leader of the country it would be more sensible to put plaques to mark where he hasn’t had a drink.
The first of J’s imaginative escapes into history, this gives a good sense of his priorities for the trip. He wants to visit places that facilitate his cerebral travel to a time before his own. These thoughts about Queen Elizabeth are about as recent as historical musings go—anything after would feel too reminiscent of his own life.
J. imagines Kingston in its royal heyday, a place full of “nobles and courtiers,” with well-built houses and oak staircases. He knows a shop in Kingston in which the walls are all carved of magnificent old oak. The owner has since covered them up with blue wallpaper to make the place cheerier.
J. mentally transports himself back in time and demonstrates a kind of “golden age” thinking—an assumption that everything was better in the good old days. The shopkeeper represents the ongoing march of capitalist economy, preferring blue wallpaper to the beautiful oak because it suits his customers better.
J. says that, though oak is undoubtedly beautiful, he can understand the owner’s decision—to him, too much oak would make the place feel like a church. Besides, he says, people always want what they can’t have. For example, according to J., married men want to be single and vice versa.
J. could be talking about himself when he says people want what they can’t have. He can’t really find a pure, unspoiled natural world, nor can he go back in time to his ideal England.
This makes J. think of a kid at his school when he was a child. His name was Stivvings, but they called him “Sandford and Merton” after the author of a novel that features a character similar to Stivvings. He was the most studious boy at school, “full of weird and unnatural notions of being a credit to his parents and an honor to the school.” Yet Stivvings was a sickly child, often missing school, whereas J. and friends would have loved to have time off but only ever seemed to get sick during the school holidays.
This anecdote presents further reinforcement of the idea that, as the saying goes, the grass is always greener on the other side.
J. returns to the “carved oak question,” wondering if people only treasure art from the past because it is old. For example, the “soup-plates, beer-mugs, and candle-snuffers”, which J. cites as popular items of his time, were just some of the “commonplaces” of three or four hundred years ago. J wonders whether the same will be true of the future; will the model dog that sits on his mantlepiece at home one day be a “prized treasure”?
J. believes history is too focused on value and objects. He wants a history that is more heroic and noble, and not so tied up with money. This is part of his desire to escape his world—an older version of England seems to make more sense to him but doesn’t appeal to him in the same way as it does to, say, antique collectors. Ironically, then, those older “commonplaces” from centuries before remind him more of his own time than theirs.
Suddenly there’s a commotion in the boat as Harris and Montmorency fall over. Harris is furious with J., who realizes that all this daydreaming has led him to steer into the towpath. He’d forgotten he was steering.
J.’s musings are often interrupted when it becomes clear that he is neglecting his boat duties. Floating on the river requires concentration and effort—work.
At Harris’ suggestion, J. gets out and takes the tow line to pull the boat along. Going past the majestic Hampton Court, once the home of Henry VIII, J. imagines himself living there: “I’ve often thought I should like to live at Hampton Court. It looks so peaceful and so quiet, and it is such a dear old place to ramble round in the early morning before many people are about.” Though it looks peaceful and quiet, he thinks it would get dull and depressing in the evening.
Another example of J. transporting to himself into a historical scene. That Hampton Court would perhaps be too dull and depressing shows that, for all his longing to escape to a simpler time, J. does have affection for the frantic hustle and bustle of city life.
Harris asks J. if he’s ever been in the maze at Hampton Court. Harris tells the story of the time he went there. Harris takes his cousin from the countryside to the maze. Even though they have a map, they quickly get lost. People follow him, thinking he knows the way out. It turns out he doesn’t, and the maze-keeper has to come lead everyone out.
The maze is a great example of leisure—it exists for the simple reason to help people get lost for fun. But Harris, as J. likes to remind the reader, is not the smartest man, and manages to create work out of something that is supposed to be enjoyable. He’s too afraid to admit to those following him that he is lost—he’d rather be lost and save face.