The Heart of a Goof by P G Wodehouse (1926)

Review by Jane V:

The Heart of a Goof consists of nine stories related by the Oldest Member of a golf club.  He sits aside from the action puffing a cigar and observing the joys and the sorrows, the triumphs and the defeats in matters of golf and the heart enjoyed and suffered by the club’s members.  He is a raconteur of the Ancient Mariner type.  The Oldest Member’s victims are pressed into listening to a long and involved tale from which they can’t escape.  Whatever the plight of the trapped one is, the OM can find a tale to fit his situation.  The details of the stories the old man recounts could not possibly be known by him but using him as a mouthpiece is a neat way for Wodehouse to hold the collection together and not to speak with his own, authorial voice.

I enjoyed these stories very much – without the need to put myself through the tedium of finding out the least thing about golf.  I could guess the meaning of ‘waggle’ and foozle’ through onomatopoeia.  None of the characters seems to have anything to do except play rounds of golf.  If the men are engaged in gainful employment it is vague, and ‘in the city’.  These characters belong to a class of society now long gone in England.  Wodehouse sets out to produce nine little comedies of manners.

The players in each story are caricatures of human foibles and preoccupations, rather than real characters.  Golf permeates all the stories; chaps are defined by their enthusiasm for the game and girls are judged first on their physical attractions and second on their level of prowess on the course.  Anyone who does not play golf is lampooned; any other game, like bowls, is lampooned Rodney Spelvin is not at all interested in the game.  He is a poet and intellectual with

‘a high forehead and tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles.’

He is ‘a sickeningly romantic-looking youth’ who dazzles Jane Packard, girl- and golfing-friend of stolid, emotionally constipated William.  Spelvin entices Jane away from William with his romantic talk and proposes to her in true ‘Mills and Boon’ style.  He is attentive at dances and picnics:

‘it was Spelvin who, with zealous hand, brushed the ants off (Jane’s) mayonnaise and squashed wasps with a chivalrous spoon.’

It is not until Spelvin ruins Jane’s concentration at a match game she is hoping to win with his babbling about glorious vistas that she sees the light and throws him over to return to good old William.  The OM had advised William to get on and propose to Jane ‘with zip and romance’, using something of the romantic  tactics of the sheik in The Love that Scorches, the book which has led to Jane’s wandering off the true course in life.  The old man’s advice is to somehow lead her into the

‘that large bunker to the left of the sixth fairway. … I have reason to believe that Jane would respond more readily to your wooing were it to be conducted in some vast sandy waste.’

Poor William, who thinks Rodney looks ‘a bit of a gawd-help-us’, says,

‘I can’t possibly seize (Jane) and clasp her in my arms and do all that hot-breath stuff with this pie-faced exhibit hanging round on the outskirts.’

 

In a later story about the love triangle of Jane, William and Rodney, Jane is seduced away from her ordered life of golf and cinema and shopping when she bumps into Rodney in town.  He doesn’t remember her from the next ex-conquest.  But she demands of William that they go to live in London where they rent ‘an attractive bijou studio apartment in the heart of the artistic quarter’. There is

‘a nice bedroom for Jane, a delightful cupboard for Braid Vardon and a cosy corner behind a Japanese screen for William.’

There is one main room, where Jane (improbably) runs a salon to which

‘flock a horde of extraordinary birds in floppy ties . .  rising young poets . . . many of them playing ukuleles.’

This room is ‘handsomely furnished with cushions and samovars.’  Thus Wodehouse, in the words of his narrator, paints for the reader the whole set-up of Jane’s new life-style.

The last of the three William/Jane/Rodney stories would work well as farce of the French bedroom type.  Jane, intent on saving her sister-in-law from the ‘libertine’ Spelvin, breaks into his flat and hides as she knows that Spelvin and the girl have an assignation there.  William believes that his wife Jane has an assignation with Spelvin and follows her there with two key-stone cop type detectives in tow.  They overhear a snatch of conversation between the girl and Spelvin which could be interpreted as seduction, but are in fact, the teaching of proper golf holds.  Ridiculously delicious comedy!  Wodehouse did also write for the theatre.

Rollo Podmarsh is the pampered hypochondriac son of a widow who has no appreciation of golf.  She believes going round the course in 120 is ‘a good score’.   At his mother’s insistence Rollo

‘wears flannel next the skin, changes his shoes the moment they get wet and from September till May . . .  never goes to bed without partaking of a bowl of hot arrowroot.’

But ‘Rollo is a golfer and consequently pure gold at heart.’  Rollo is rescued from Mummy by keen golfer Mary Kent – and by golf.   Even Rodney Spelvin is saved from his pretensions towards the artistic, by golf.  He falls for the sister of William Packard who is a champion lady golfer.  To win her he gets her to teach him the sacred game.

In the second story – ‘High Stakes’, a super-rich American who has only taken up golf in middle age and whose ‘youth was spent in the pursuits of commerce’ is ridiculed in a story involving English butlers.  Bradbury Fisher and his wife have a butler of the Jeeves type, doubtless a big status symbol.  Mrs Fisher is continuously concerned for Blizzard, the butler’s health.  Clearly the butler despises the Fisher’s lack of ‘class’.

Mrs Fisher visits London and brings back one better – a duke’s butler to replace Blizzard.  The new butler is soon unspoken boss in the household.  One gathers that, since Fisher’s alma mater is Sing-Sing that his ‘profession’ has been gangster.  He is rolling in money.  His house has a du Bari bedroom, a Louis Quinze library, a baronial hall and a Byzantine smoking room.  This miss-mash signifies the American’s vulgarity.  And neatly typifies a popular view of our American cousins!  Jews are presented as caricatures.  In The Magic Plus Fours Chesney is thrust into the improbable plus fours in a second-hand clothes shop owned by ‘Cohen Bros’.  The shop is ‘a museum of derelict goods of every description.’  The Cohen brothers,‘sombre-eyed, smileless men’ speak in a stereotypical Jewish way –  ‘“They’ll fit you nice,” said Lou.  “Sure they’ll fit you nice,” said Isidore.’

Golf, according to the Oldest Member, ‘acts as a corrective against sinful pride’.  If an earnest enthusiast is, nonetheless, rotten at the game he has the hope of being ‘a nice, unspoiled fellow’.  Wallace Chesney is such a character.  He has good looks, is rich, dances and rides well, in fact

‘has has everything calculated to make a man conceited and arrogant’.

But his game is abysmal.  Then he purchases a pair of gaudy plus fours which seem, magically, to give him confidence in his game.  He improves beyond all recognition but becomes insufferably arrogant.  The lovely Charlotte Dix breaks off her engagement to him.  It is not until the flashy plus fours catch fire as the result of a glowing match carelessly put in the pocket that the ‘auto-hypnosis’ of Chesney is brought to an end and her returns to his diffident and charming (and hopeless at golf) self.  So, according to the OM, a golfer must enjoy the game, do his best, but not get above himself.  All good public school rules.  In fact the public school ethos pervades every story in this book.

So why would The heart of a goof appeal to a modern reader?  It must be the wit and humour in the language; the juxtaposition of the sublime and the ridiculous; the use of high flown or quaintly unexpected language to describe a banal or ridiculous situation.

‘Poor old Ponto, who had recently handed in his portfolio after holding office for ten years as the Willoughby’s family dog . .‘

This is seen already in the Preface to the book.  Wodehouse claims to see good golfing ethics in ancient writers (Publius Syrius, Diogenes).  Even Chaucer’s, ‘therefore behoveth him a ful long spoone’ is interpreted in golfing terms (I assume ‘a spoon’ is another word for a club): ‘(though of course’ writes Wodehouse, ‘with the modern rubber-cored ball an iron would have got the same distance.)’  Or Shakespeare’s Falstaff, ‘Four rogues in buckram let drive at me’.  Tongue in cheek, Wodehouse insists that critics of his books should declare at the foot of their reviews, what their personal handicaps are if they presume to review his golf books at all.  Wodehouse is able to satirise and poke fun at all golfing obsessions by using the Oldest Member as his narrator.  It is therefore not Wodehouse who presents the satire but the elder who lives, and has always lived for golf.

This collection of stories is light-hearted, spirited and fun.  The modern reader can get past the classist assumptions because everyone and everything, just about, is ridiculed – in the nicest possible way, of course!  It is a type of humour to which the English, and the English language, seem particularly suited.  Published in 1926, when a generation of WW1 survivors, trying to put their war experiences behind them, wanted only levity and fun, these stories must have had great appeal.  An appeal which survives today for readers who appreciate witty and accomplished use of language and a large helping of good natured ridicule.

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