E. A. Markham is best known as a poet and editor who has championed experimental over realist art and who has a somewhat wry, oblique relationship to such usual topics of Caribbean criticism as dialect and race. There is always something surprising about what he has done and is; the expected categories and facts seldom fit.
He was born in Montserrat, where talk of African survivals seemed exotically Jamaican. Montserrat, Marking Time reminds us, was originally colonized by the Irish, their only colony - the colony of the colonized. Taken to England in 1956 by a mother who intended to settle and be British, it was a long time before he started being part of the black British scene. His relationship to it, as seen in Marking Time, is complicated. He has a more direct concern with the problems of women, their position, and their rights in society. He even wrote a number of poems using the persona of a woman, a Welsh feminist at that! He was an editor of Ambit and Artrage, owns a house in France, and for a time he quixotically was a VOS volunteer in Papua New Guinea, where he kept stumbling into absurd situations and kept being mistaken for an African or African-American. He rebelliously wrote his final report, as media coordinator, in verse; as a result of which he was offered a renewal of his VOS contract at a high salary by the World Bank, which he refused. The story is told in his A Papua New Guinea Sojourn: More Pleasures of Exile (1998).
Marking Time is his first novel and it shows many of the characteristics of his previous work. There is a continuity to Markham as a writer; at times all of Markham seems interchangeable. A raconteur with a rambling, fanciful mind who enjoys telling amusing stories against himself, who has a poet’s instinct for using a pun to shift the subject and go in another direction, Markham can both delight and bore. At his best you want to quote him, but his writing can seem interminable.
Marking Time is a punning title which alludes to the four main layers of the novel. There is Pewter Stapelton, a teacher of creative writing like Markham, who is marking scripts and planning courses for the next semester. Early in the novel we are subjected to the usual indecisions and justifications that are part of examination babble in the British university system, including explaining to the second marker why this deserved a point more or less than might be apparent. Then there is marking time in the sense of wasting it, and here Pewter is chasing Lee, a married woman with whom he has earlier had an affair and whose husband dies about halfway through the book. Pewter desires her company as well as wanting her more fully but knows it is too soon to move on her again, so there is a feeling of time passing, of waiting, without much happening. There is also another West Indian, Carrington, a dramatist whom Pewter both admires and thinks a fraud and whose life includes many details of Markham’s own. Pewter is editing a selection of Carrington’s plays.
Marking Time also marks time in recalling the past, especially Pewter’s past and his relationships to Lee, Balham, Carrington, and his childhood on 'St. Caesare' [sic] (an invented island which appears in many of Markham’s works - a pun on Aimé Césaire). As the main characters are aspects of Markham’s life and imaginings, the novel might also be thought to pun on 'Markham Time.'
If Carrington is Pewter’s double, a suave, popular West Indian who effortlessly rises above regional and racial stereotypes, Balham is an amusing version of a West Indian who enjoys paradoxes and absurdities that play with racial stereotypes. Pewter once tried to keep Balham from pouncing on some foreign woman and found himself on a long, all-night walk in silence through London, which resulted in their breaking into a house guarded by a dog so Balham could exchange some nuts in a tin in a kitchen. This was meant to show the white woman who lived there that she was not safe, while puzzling her when she discovers that the nuts are different from those she remembered. She cannot be certain that there had been a break-in.
If Balham seems formed in opposition to white England, he also seems forged in opposition to black and immigrant expectations. He poses for a London transport poster jumping over a ticket turnstile. He then gives a lecture to a black audience, saying that rather than strengthening white prejudices against blacks who supposedly avoid paying subway fares, he is critiquing such prejudices, since he is obviously a well-off adult who would not do such a thing, and thus humiliating those who think all blacks break the law. Rather than selling out to the system, Balham claims to be outwitting it. It was he who suggested the poster in the first place.
What has this to do with the examining of term papers in creative writing or Pewter’s chase of Lee? Exactly, that is the point. Pewter keeps revising lists of things to do, which never get done. Rather than plot-driven, the novel feels like an infinite series of parenthesis in which what happens, happens offstage. Lee’s husband dies on an aid-mission in the Sudan or someplace; places are mentioned but there are no details of what happened so he might as well have been kidnapped by Bermuda Triangle fundamentalists. She goes off to see her family, and Pewter remains alone as the first part of the novel ends with the papers still unmarked, no sex, but some relationships seemingly established.
In the second part Pewter is pondering whether to take over the editorship of a black arts journal (run by Lee who is white and wants to retire), talks about his family in England, and recalls his West Indian days and the expectations of the family in migrating to England. Such family memories are said to be a protest against those who assume West Indians had no worthwhile life before migration. Pewter remarks that the education given West Indians was wasted in the lives and jobs they would have in England where having studied Latin was of no use; both the British and West Indians continue to have mistaken notions of each other. Some of Pewter’s family was in England long before the mass migration started.
Meanwhile, Balham has become a polytechnical college lecturer (in post-colonial literature and arts administration) and is starting to appear a parody of Markham. The second part ends with the pamphlet winning a literary prize.
Part three continues with the subject of marking papers and results in a recollection when Pewter and Balham were in Berlin and the south of France. Pewter - or is it Markham? - suddenly lets slip that Balham is himself.
Marking Time is a mixture of autobiography, self-parody, and fantasy projected on to fictional characters with some gestures towards a narrative. Recognizable facts of Markham’s life appear throughout the book, and many people will recognize allusions to themselves. At the heart of the novel are such questions as: Is the life we live what we left the West Indies for? Is this the Europe we expected? Is this the life I should be having? The book ends with Pewter at the airport leaving for he knows-not-where. Writing his life has been marking time and in this house of mirrors he has marked it. He reverts to being a wanderer. The novel is amusing, but the narrative so indirect and fragmented that this reader often felt he also was marking time.
Many of the problems others and I have had in coming to terms with Markham’s writings are the ways he keeps disguising himself and his opinions. Considering that his poetry is normally straight to the point without the metaphors, intertextuality, and ornamentations usually expected of verse, he is illusive, hard to pin down. Many of his writings have appeared with small presses, in pamphlets, and in chapbooks; and his plays, while produced, have not been published. Then there are the many personae, including using other names on his publications with the result that there might be several of his works published in the same magazine under different names and one of the disguises will usually have adopted a persona. Several of these voices have taken on lives of their own, appearing in many of Markham’s publications as if they were real people.