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Clement's Corner: Crazy Lamby Days

...Lamby could very well have been a professional dancer. At the annual fund-raising concerts at the local Railway Institute he was always called on to do his Snake Dance. His painted, oiled, almost naked and surprisingly supple body would go through the extraordinary contortions of a writhing python...

Owen Clement recalls a unique, almost unbelievable, character who brightened up the social scene in a railway town in Bengal.

For more of Owen's tales please click on Clement's Corner in the menu on this page.

Most people accused Lamby Davis of being silly, peculiar, decidedly odd, weird and, especially, crazy. I have always believed that he was just nothing more than eccentric.

Living in a small town like ours full of small town people, with small town interests and attitudes, drove him, in my opinion, to quirky and often bizarre behaviour.

Residents of our town, like small communities everywhere, intimately come to know and accept individuals like Lamby and all their fellow residents for what they were. They laughed at, deride, or even ridiculed them and their antics - outsiders however, did so at their peril.

His given name was Lawrence but he was nicknamed Lamby by a family friend when he was a half-grown boy because of his lanky build and Lamby, he became ever after. You often saw him striding along, his head thrust forward, his beak-like nose leading the way, with his long loose-limbed gait and his long arms flapping beside him; you would say that he resembled a large long-legged heron or stork. To complete his comical appearance, of which he was fully aware, he always wore his Panama hat perched on the back of his head, and whether dressed casually or formally, he always wore white canvas tennis shoes. The only other shoes I ever saw him wear were black patent-leather dancing pumps.

Whenever guests were invited to his home for dinner he would invariably invade his wife’s costume box, she was the wardrobe mistress of the local theatrical group, before making his appearance. He acted out that character for the whole of the evening.

In his office, he was a clerk on the railway, he was never without a row of well-sharpened coloured pencils in his shirt pocket. He would use these when writing unofficially to his colleagues. If he wrote to a Mr Brown, for example, he would address the letter “Dear Mr-“, out would come the brown pencil and he would neatly draw a brown line. He would do likewise if he wrote to Mr Green or Mr Black.

Caricatures and cartoons frequently appeared in his letters replacing the relevant words. One can imagine the reader puzzling over certain ones and either having to find help from others to decipher their meanings, or treat the letter as a pictorial game. His equally off-beat letters to family and friends made intriguing and hilarious reading. Each letter ended with an episode of the bizarre, absurd and fantastical adventures of equally weird and out-of-this-world characters. His fellow correspondents were delighted to share his stories with their friends. I cannot imagine these letters ever being disposed of. I sincerely hope that one of his descendents who may have inherited his inimitable genes has them carefully stored away and brings them out at odd times to share with others, I know I would.

Lamby could very well have been a professional dancer. At the annual fund-raising concerts at the local Railway Institute he was always called on to do his Snake Dance. His painted, oiled, almost naked and surprisingly supple body would go through the extraordinary contortions of a writhing python. The dance, both repellent and beautiful, was easily the most anticipated item of those evenings. Needless to say, at the Friday night dances, he was never short of partners. He and his regular partner, my mother, won many competitions.

The only time women did refuse to dance with him was when he was drunk. Sadly, this became more frequently the case after his daughter declared that she wanted nothing to more do with him after what he had done.

Whether it was it in a moment of craziness due to his drunken state or through his weird sense of the absurd, it is hard for me to say, he took out a full page advertisement in Calcutta’s The Statesman newspaper advertising the marriage of Princess Olga, his daughter, and Prince Oliver De‘Souza, her pending groom. The reception, he wrote, would take place, from memory, in the grounds of the officer’s club. The lavishly illustrated advertisement written in a florid hand continued with many fanciful details, all of them in a grandiose manner and of course quite untrue. It was, in his mind, an elaborate joke, a bit of fun, which the people of our town found very amusing. His daughter, her husband to be and his family however, were extremely embarrassed and furious that he would lampoon his own daughter’s wedding in such a way.

Lamby sadly had finally gone too far. Never again would we see his coloured pencils in his top pocket or his ungainly birdlike figure purposefully striding along. Also sadly, the annual concerts, with his graceful Snake Dance no longer took place. Without Lamby’s contribution, the other acts, feeling the climax of the evening was missing, pulled out. The town’s hierarchy were forced regrettably to cancel all future concerts.

Lamby lived a lifetime ago in a railway town in Bengal that has since changed out of all recognition. I doubt that many today would remember that unique almost unbelievable character. Although he may have been considered crazy by some, I never saw him that way. To me he was a fascinating one-off of which the world has far too few of these days.

© Clement 2006


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