The Claustrophobic Cosmos of Sandy Stone

It is the greatest misfortune and the spookiest coincidence that Sandy Stone vanished on the same day his brilliant manager, Barry Humphries, died. Although Sandy had died half a century ago — in his bed in April 1971 — his ghost continued to reappear, not to haunt us but to remind us of a parochial, partisan, prejudiced age yet one which was otherwise gentler, simpler and overwhlemingly suburban.

Alexander Horace Stone (always Sandy) was so venerable that it was unclear if he was a veteran of the First or the Second World War. We first met him in print in 1958 portrayed in  a short story, “Sandy’s Big Week”, in a student magazine, Prometheus, first written in 1956.  He was said to be very like a Camberwell neighbour of the Humphries’, a Mr Whittle, and not unlike the family’s Uncle Lewis.

We first heard Sandy in a recording, Wild Life in Suburbia  — that  cracked, halting, croaky, almost falsetto voice so like that of an old man Barry once met on Bondi Beach. That  recording is said to have changed the nation’s psyche. Many Australians could never again park the vehicle or drop a curried egg sandwich on a burgundy axminster wall-to-wall without being reminded of Sandy and their claustrophobic cosmos.

The bedrock of Sandy’s life was Kia Ora (Maori for Good Health), 36 Gallipoli Crescent, Glen Iris. To Sandy and Beryl, it was their anchor, their refuge, their ‘home’ – where they had lived for decades;  where Sandy died and to which he would return.

We first saw this thin, sandy-haired, white-faced (but for his rosy, finely capillaried cheeks) septuagenerarian  in 1959  in slippers and one of those brownish wide-checked fifties dressing gowns (in fact Barry had lent Sandy his own)  in ‘Days of the Week’ among some fifteen sketches from Rock ‘n’ Reel Revue. Sandy reported a visit to the cinema:

“Well not much that  I can say about Tuesday, except it was a very nice night’s entertainment. We’re not one for the pictures as a rule. When we go we like to see a good, bright show. After all, there’s enough unhappiness in the world…..”

But by 1971 and A Load of Old Stuffe, Sandy was dead. A live stage life of a mere twelve years. 

Subsequent appearances featured Sandy as a ghost – sitting in a chair  wearing the same striped pajamas and dressing gown, usually with  a hot-water bottle in his lap. He became a sort of flannelette-and-slippered guardian angel keeping an unpeeled, almost affectionate, eye on the undeserving Beryl in her widowhood.

Although he was not one to haunt, Sandy’s resurrection had shades of Barry’s prophesy to David Leser in an interview for the Australian Women’s Weekly in 2001: “So I think the last part of one’s life is a journey back. It has a sort of symmetry …. I think Australia would be quite a place really [to die]…..I will be a ghost, because I have a very strong … kind of psychic dopplegänger which will survive. And it will haunt probably the house my father built in Camberwell … I feel sorry for the very nice Ukranians who live there. They should enjoy it while they can.”

From his first appearance Sandy always had ‘a bit of strife parking the vehicle’ sometimes  several times in the same monologue.  As Clive James  put it in a brilliant London Review of Books essay, “Approximately in the Vicinity of Barry Humphries” (1983), “The events in [Sandy’s] life don’t leave him at a loss for words. The words are at a loss for events.”

Compared with  the high-kicking Edna and the gesticulating, expectorating Sir Les, Sandy is positively catatonic.  And so the writing assumes greater significance. See the Sandy transcripts collected in A Nice Night’s Entertainment (1982) and The Life and Death of Sandy Stone (1991). They entranced Barry’s friend, the Poet Laureate, John Betjeman. These monologues are like poetry. As Clive wrote “…. the main reason for Sandy’s satisfying density of texture is that Humphries is not taking revenge on him. Humphries, for once feeling more complicity than contempt, is at his most poetic with Sandy because he is at his least satirical.”

Sandy’s pauses were worthy of Beckett. Critics acclaimed  a ‘darkness reminiscent of Philip Larkin’,  ‘Ezra Pound with the lights out’,  a pervading ‘Checkovian melancholy’. Barry more prosaically described Sandy as “Melbourne talking in its sleep.” Clive saw Sandy as “ linguistically a magpie …..a magpie in slow motion. Edna attacks, Sandy retreats. He is consequently better qualified than she as an emblem and paradigm of Australian English.”

There is the delectable, innocent banality of the Stones al fresco as they mind the children of neighbours:

“Beryl had cut some delicious sandwiches. Egg and lettuce. Peanut butter. Marmite and walnut. Cheese and apricot jam. And lots of bread and butter and hundreds and thousands — and one of her own specialties — a chocolate and banana log. She’d only baked it that morning and the kiddies were most intrigued. Beryl said if they promised to behave themselves at Wattle Park they could lick the beaters.

“We packed some of Beryl’s home-made ginger beer and a Thermos for ourselves but unfortunately Beryl forgot to put the greaseproof paper round the cork appertaining to the calamine lotion bottle we used for the milk with the resultant consequence that by the time we got off the bus the milk had soaked right through the sandwiches and half-way up the log.”

Here he is again – in the Blamey Ward of  the Repat after an ‘op’:

“There’s a tennis club right next to the Repat outside my window and I can hear them playing right up until the light goes and the couples laughing when there’s nothing particularly funny and the sprinkler on the spare court and the couples saying thank you to the kiddies when a ball lobs over the fence and I can hear them shut the cyclone gate and the cicadas and the different cars going off into the distance.”

As he whistles those nouns through his teeth (no, dentures) — cicadas, cars and distance —  the sses go on forever…. at least all the way up along Gallipoli Crescent  to the Jeffries’ place.

As decent and avuncular as he seemed – Julian Jebb saw him as “a nonentity of dignity, a bore of integrity” –  but Sandy’s casual  racism, so redolent of his post-war contemporaries, is as distressing as Barry meant it to be. Sandy relates the dilemma of Yarrandale Golf Club pro, Alan Hotchkiss. “Dave Cohen who owns Miss Gretta Gowns of Caulfield, Camberwell and Clayton”, had asked Alan “ if he could pull a few strings and get him into the golf club”. Sandy and Beryl remembered  Dave and his wife when “they came over before the War without a razoo and they couldn’t hardly speak the King’s English – not that they tried very hard … [but] it’s a free country and what’s the old saying? ‘If you shake your  family tree one’s bound to fall out’. And there’s no gainsaying they’ve produced some wonderful people: scientists, musicians, giving money to hospitals and that type of thing. Still he put Alan Hotchkiss in a beggar of a position.”

One of his most potent monologues was ‘Land of the Living’ in 1971. It was to be  Sandy’s last live broadcast. With Milo in hand, in his striped pajamas, he sits up in his  double bed with its pink candlestick cover. He was reading his letters to Beryl who has gone on a Women’s  Weekly World Discovery Tour.

In his tranquilising way Sandy shares with  Beryl – and us – in excruciating detail the ritual of his domestic life: the potted plants, budgerigars, suppositories, Harpic, cups of castor sugar, Pick-a-Box’s Bob and Dolly Dyer, thrift, common sense, busybodies, friends, neighbours (Gweneth Longmire’s loin of lamb) and the bank manager. Lists of long-forgotten brands and labels, all woven into a pattern of 1950s suburban domesticity.

But Sandy grows tired and the details become blurred and confused and then the stage goes black…..Sandy is dead. Beryl was apparently furious. His demise ruined Scandinavia for her. A neighbour takes over and finishes the letter to Beryl. Well, someone has to feed the budgie, cut the lawn and defrost the Silent Knight.

In Back with a Vengeance, after Les’s death and Beryl’s move to the retirement home (“The entire bewildered community is much larger than you might think.”),  the Papasopouloses moved in. What had been the spare room was to become the nursery. “I’m glad there will be a kiddie in Kia Ora at last.” In that sketch Les said that he and Beryl had not been able to have children. But he did once mention that in 1930 they had lost a four-year-old daughter and Beryl had a breakdown. Perhaps it was too painful to repeat?

Sandy lamented any change. The last line of one of his sketches left his audience silent, “They were better days if you ask me. We had the best of it.” Kia Ora would be  demolished to make way for  a supermarket called Ashworld and much later it too was to be demolished to make way for  townhouses. That was progress.

Sandy was already a poignant figure but there is added pathos in his marriage. It is expressed with all the subtlety that Edna’s calamitous conjugation with Norm lacked (even without his dicky prostate). In truth, Beryl and Sandy’s love was unequal. Here  Sandy’s reminisces on their courtship:

“I let my hand slide along the grass till my little finger was just touching Beryl’s and she didn’t move it and we stayed for why seems like donkey’s years till it got dark and I could feel me old ticker golf ninety to the dozen and I knew it was the real thing. Then Beryl  jumped up laughing …. and I could still feel the burning of her little finger, and I looked and saw my hand was touching the blessed Thermos. I didn’t mess around much after that.”

And then in “Sandy Claus”, a classic account of a mid-sixties Christmas, (“watching the Queen’s speech and the bushfire warnings”) where, while  Sandy goes to much trouble to find a beautiful bowls box of Tasmanian hardwood for his wife, Beryl buys Sandy “a box of initialled Pyramid hankies which were much appreciated. Unfortunately, as it eventuates, there’s been a run on my particular initial but she was lucky enough to procure the nearest one to it. Beryl’s quite right when she says I’m very hard to buy for.” 

Then on his death he comes back to share his obsequies with us: “Needless to say there wasn’t much of a turn-up at the funeral.” Even then some of those mourners found themselves at the wrong funeral. Beryl, not particularly distraught at her loss,  “got a few quotes on me first – she put out tenders” (Sandy wondered if she had Scotch blood)  “but in the end she settled for a very reasonable little firm …. Nice vehicle too….. burgundy, power steering……”

The peerless Clive James considers Sandy’s recurring closing line, ‘So, Beryl and I went to bed’:  “On stage, his eyeballs slowly pop and then roll slightly upwards after that line, telling you all you need to know about the hectic love-life of Sandy and Beryl.” She was so often ‘fagged’ after entertaining the Nettletons, Hotchkisses and Clissolds and what with the washing up and “Beryl rarely feeling 100 per cent, although, as Sandy is always as quick as he can be to point out, there is nothing organically wrong”.

So distressing  was Beryl’s indifference to Sandy that this writer admits to be being shamelessly amused by the kitchen episode where Beryl attempted to extract a crumpet from the live toaster, with the resultant consequence: “How a toaster that can’t pop a crumpet can throw a grown woman across the room…”

The final  exit of Sandy is a little like the death of Norm Everage. Edna was, of course, absent. By the time she reached his bedside, there was but “a dent on his pillow”. Norm had donated all his organs and been globally recycled.

All that remains of Sandy, apart from those superb, soporific  monologues, is his striped pajama top, which stands preserved with matching bottoms and that dressing gown, on display in the Melbourne Arts Centre, only miles, yet eons away from what was Kia Ora.

Vale Sandy.

9 thoughts on “The Claustrophobic Cosmos of Sandy Stone

  • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

    Thank you for “Sandy,” especially poignant when you are old and can recognise friends, acquaintances, and probably yourself in those monologues.

  • Robert McMahon says:

    What a beautiful tribute. For all the overt crassness of Edna and Les, Sandy Stone was brilliant for its quiet dignity and pathos. I remember the first time seeing it live in Canberra and being almost moved to tears. Sandwiched between the high hilarity of his other characters, it was so very poignant.

  • peter prenavon says:

    Being introduced to a character only to find out they are gone, led me to wonder at my feelings. Here i was respectfully mourning my loss and having a laugh with sandy. Yet knowing that “progress” today is tearing down people not buildings. Melbourne has both Arts Centre and Comedy Festival one out of two isn’t bad.

  • craigbrendan156 says:

    I was mesmerised by Sandy Stone on stage, when I went to “An Evening’s Intercourse” with Barry Humphries in the 80s. Then, I was a man in my 20s, very involved in directing theatre. What struck me most powerfully, even more than the moving banality of the script, or the astonishing timing of delivery, was that through Humphries’ stillness, costuming, lighting and makeup, Sandy seemed uncannily transparent. I have never forgotten the experience, often drawn inspiration for my own directing and staging of theatre. As a performance of “character”, Sandy is almost unmatched. Perhaps Ian McKellan’s Estragon. Humphries was in rare air as writer-director-creator-publicist. We waste the word ‘genius’.

  • mrsfarley2001 says:

    Do you mean “candlewick” bedspread? I’ve never, before now, heard of a “candlestick” one.

  • Mark McGinness says:

    I do mean ‘candlewick’ bedspread. Thank you for this. I hope the Ed. can correct it for the print edition.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Sandy is a heartbreak. What was that about a life lived ‘in quiet desperation’?

    Those bedspreads were everywhere in the 50’s and 60’s, in every respectable person’s bedroom, something to aspire to, for we’d never managed to get them. I’d see them in the parental homes of some of the girls I worked with, nice girls from nice families with what was called decor, meaning lace curtains and doylies under sitting china Spaniels. The candlewick bedspreads in the double bedroom had a special smell, slightly dusty when rubbed, overlaid with hints of Midnight in Paris scent. The contraceptive ‘rubbers’ secretly kept in the cabriole bedside table on the father’s side (oh yes, we peeked, oh you are awful.)

    • Patricia Wiltshire says:

      We had candlewick dressing gowns to go with the bedspreads, Elizabeth. As for ‘peeking’, it was part of our sex education and included medical books and banned books.

  • Patricia Wiltshire says:

    Thank you, Mark McGinness, for resurrecting Sandy Stone and reminding me that it was his Ghost of Times Past, and not Dickens’s, that inspired me to write, in an e-mail to Barry on 5th February 2007:
    ‘”I enjoyed the show and was in an excellent position (right under your nose in the front row) to see just how carefully observed and felt your Sandy Stone character is.”
    I had enjoyed a backstage visit at the end of that show, athough we had not seen each other since ‘days of yore’ when Barry played Estragon in ‘Waiting for Godot’ way back in the late 50’s.

    Yours was indeed a fitting tribute to the unique intelligence and abundant talent of the great Barry Humphries.

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