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

Written by Natasha Marshall for Sheffield Telegraph on no date provided

GIVEN that E A Markham is a professor of creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University and a critically acclaimed poet, playwright, novelist and theatre director, you might imagine the first thing to see upon arrival at his flat in the city would be books. You’re not wrong. In fact you’re not wrong all the way up the stairs, onto the landing and into the living room. His home feels half travel lodge, half library, but that’s not surprising considering the amount he reads (usually four books at a time) and the amount he travels.

Archie, spry as ever, has taught creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University for 12 years.
He works at an astonishing pace - lecturing at the V&A one weekend, flat-hunting in Paris on another, back to Sheffield for the book launch whilst finalising a jaunt to Bhutan and Nepal.

'You see fact follows fiction,' he says. 'It’s always been that way.'

Sitting at the huge desk presiding over the room and sipping at white wine, he elaborates. It is a true story. It is the one that begins in fiction when Archie writes about the other World Cup, 2002, where Montserrat loses 4-0 away to Bhutan.

'A few months after the story’s publication, I walked into the school office whereupon Margaret informed me that the British Council had been on the phone and I was being invited to speak at the Bhutan Literature festival.'

However, when Archie investigated the call from the council he discovered the offer originally came from Nepal. The invitation was to speak in Kathmandu; a crossed wire produced Bhutan. Still, a fortuitous error because he is now set to fly out to visit both.

The stories in his new collection, Taking the Drawing Room through Customs, confirm Archie as one of the most original users of the short story form in British and Caribbean fiction.
Montserrat, and Archie’s large, cultivated extended family continue to provide him with much material for his fiction and poetry.

The family home was nicknamed locally as Government House and as a child Archie spent hour upon hour entertaining himself in his grandmother’s drawing room, reading to himself and avoiding reading the bible to her.

In the title, Taking the Drawing Room through Customs, it is the rich web of words woven by Archie Markham’s characters that lead him to the image of the drawing room as a repository for the talk of family and friends as perhaps the most valuable possession taken by Caribbean people through Customs.

Markham’s stories are never straightforward, they constantly deny conventional expectations and make us rethink how we interpret experience and what we expect from fiction. It is a good fat book, over 300 pages, though Archie confesses he left out more than he put in. 'The next collection will contain some of the work I’ve omitted this time. Yes I’m a megalomaniac,' he says. 'Of course, obsessed with writing, I’m obsessed with everything, yet I am distinctly appalled by my lack of impact.'
This hasn’t stopped Markham (although he finds it depressing) continually re-establishing the ground rules of his work to challenge the stereotype of 'other.'

To illustrate, he reads aloud a passage from a story in the collection, ‘Miss Joyce and Bobcat’, whilst I scan the turrets of books in the room to discover Cricket Scoring and Umpiring sitting on top of Eminem Angry Blonde in the pile closest to the door.

'Miss Joyce came out on the verandah and sniffed the air and wrinkled up her nose. ‘Bobcat.’ Here she shouted at the man in the garden, trying to make herself heard above the sound of the machine. ‘Bobcat, you brute. Who paying you to desecrate me so?’
'Bobcat, the brute, aware of Miss Joyce, continued his desecration of Miss Joyce’s lawn, digging a hole with an impressive-looking machine.'

He explains how every single one of the seven editors who looked over the text questioned the word 'aware.' 'They all thought it ought to be ‘unaware’ not appreciating Bobcat’s sense of finesse. To read ‘unaware’ denies the character’s own self-awareness of the existence of his own internal life.' Markham felt, no doubt, a similar frustration at the RSC’s rejection of an early play on the basis that actually, although brilliantly written, perhaps the black family in the story wouldn’t really discuss the riots in Notting Hill quite the way they do.

Yet that’s entirely how it did happen. In 1956 Markham, aged 16, left his family birthplace Montserrat in the Caribbean with his mother and sister to join his two elder brothers, Norman and Joe.
After a three-week sea voyage where only Archie and one other passenger made it to the dining room every evening, they arrived in England. 'Initially we were all disappointed to discover the class system here collapsing and to be recognised by our race, not our social standing. 'I refused to go to school and chose instead to luxuriate in the British slackness of the time. I worked in factories making ladies’ accessories and packing Brillo pads. I even made a pop record in ‘57 or ‘58 called Yellow Dog Blues.'

Of course Archie made a triumphant return to education, studying philosophy and English at the University of Wales and 17th century comedy at the universities of East Anglia and London. He spent two years as a media coordinator in Papua New Guinea and has worked in the theatre, the media, as a university lecturer and as a literary editor. It’s apparent that Markham is interested in being defined as a writer but concludes: 'It doesn’t really bother me, but I do find writing an elegant way to contribute to the body of ways that explore what it is to be alive.'

So from a childhood dominated by reading does he feel as though he has upheld the family tradition?
'Yes, I think so, I knew it wouldn’t matter in life what I did, so long as I didn’t let the side down.' I think he’s safe.

EA Markham has been nominated for the TS Eliot Prize, one of Britain’s most prestigious poetry awards, for A Rough Climate, published in March. Though one section of the book deals with the aftermath of a volcano in Montserrat, much of the collection is informed by Markham’s work and life in Britain and Europe. What helps to give the book its wide resonance is the writer’s exploration of subtler forms of 'rough climate'. Others on the shortlist include some of Britain and Ireland’s best-known poets such as Simon Armitage, Geoffrey Hill and Paul Muldoon.

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

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