When E.A. Markham writes a story about the Other World Cup (Montserrat loses 4-0 to Bhutan - the volcanic eruption has destroyed all the football pitches in Montserrat) and a few months later is actually invited to a literature festival in Bhutan, this chimes in with his fiction. In 1972, his alter ego, Pewter Stapleton, invented the island of St Caesare (next door to Montserrat, but more independent-minded) as part of an elaborate scam to enjoy the rich perks of a UN conference. Since then, the island has been pencilled in on a couple of maps; and a handful of people claim to have been there.
Nothing is straightforward in Markham’s fictive world. His stories constantly deny conventional expectations and make us rethink both how we interpret experience and what we expect of fiction.
Conventional narrative could never convey the complexities of the recurrent and entertaining cast of mainly Caribbean characters as they make sense of their remembered and reinvented lives. Digression becomes an art form both in Pewter Stapleton’s narration and in their stories. It is the rich web of words they weave that leads Markham to his image of the drawing room as a repository of the talk of family and friends as perhaps the most valuable possession taken by Caribbean people through Customs.
This collection brings together new and uncollected stories and selections from E.A. Markham’s two previous collections, Something Unusual (1984) and Ten Stories (1992). Each of the stories has its own crafted completeness, whether in the observant humour of "The Pig Was Mine", the bleakness of "Skeletons", the audacious mythologizing of "A Short History of St. Cesaire", or the absurdist magical realism of "Digging." They confirm him as one of the most original users of the short story form in both British and Caribbean fiction.
Boyd Tonkin writes in The Independent:
'Taking the Drawing Room Through Customs collects 33 droll and charming stories written over the past two decades. Many of them feature Markham’s celebrated alter ego 'Pewter Stapleton': a double who cunningly permits his creator to transform biographical experience into properly detached art...
'Markham’s deadpan wit and self-protective irony never desert him. He’s never less than funny, and never less than moving. The English-speaking Caribbean has bred some wonderful wanderers from his generation, but none (certainly not Walcott or Naipaul) can boast a literary voice as wryly companionable as this. Read the poetry and prose back-to-back, and you’ll feel you have made a friend: learned, intimate, sometimes angry at injustice, delighted by his wayward family amazed by how far this clan has come but always sensitive to 'that vague threat in the air' posed by racial bigotry illness or misfortune.'
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E.A. (Archie) Markham died unexpectedly in Paris on 23rd March, Easter day. Born in Montserrat in 1939, E.A. Markham worked in the theatre, in the media and as a literary editor.