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Taking the Drawing Room Through Customs: Selected Stories 1972-2002

Written by Boyd Tonkin for The Independent on no date provided

A VITAL soccer final took place on 30 June 2002. No, not Brazil versus Germany: this was the official decider for the planet’s wooden spoon. High in their Himalayan Buddhist kingdom, the national team of Bhutan (ranked 202nd by Fifa) trounced Montserrat (203rd) 4-0. According to a story by E A Markham inspired by this bizarre match, 'in Montserrat they were saying that the team had lost not because the Bhutanese opposition had out-played them but that it had outprayed them'. A few years earlier, cataclysmic eruptions from the 42-square-mile Caribbean island’s active volcano had scattered the 11,000 population, wrecking their homes and land. Sometimes you have to pray, or laugh, or (even better) write.

For any author who hails from a small, poor place, wits become weapons. Add forced migration to the mix, and culture (especially the written word) remains about the only way to preserve the cherished history of self and society. So here comes the nimble-footed, si1ver-tongued Markham - poet, critic and fiction writer, born on Montserrat in 1939, resident in Britain since the Fifties - to redeem his island’s honour with a virtuoso double strike.

A Rough Climate, his latest volume of poems, appears on the shortlist of this year’s T S Eliot Prize (awarded next Monday). Meanwhile, 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.

In poetry and prose alike, Markham plunders his own migrant’s progress. He reaches from his present as a creative-writing professor in Sheffield (relatives love that swanky title) through his career as itinerant teacher (especially in Papua New Guinea) and his London youth in the rag trade, back to a charmed childhood as the gifted son of a proud island family. When the British governor wrote to his legendary grandma and signed off 'your humble servant', the Markhams assumed he meant exactly that. It’s instructive, as well as amusing, to learn that coming to suspicious postwar England brought downward mobility for a well-bred Caribbean lad.

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.

A lovely, lyrical ode composed 'to test the idea of Montserrat' counts the poet’s blessings and concludes that 'this flush of kindness restores our faith in magic'. Markham’s readers may feel much the same. On this splendid form, forget a rematch with Bhutan: he could lead Montserrat to literary glory against Brazil.

This is a review of Taking the Drawing Room Through Customs: Selected Stories 1972-2002

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