E. A. Markham: Poet, dramatist and writer who resisted any tendency to define his work as either Caribbean or British

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:36

The poet, fiction writer, theatre director, editor and creative-writing teacher E.A. Markham was born in the Caribbean but migrated to the UK as a teenager. Britain was to be his home for most of his life, but he was a perennial traveller and also lived in France, Germany and Papua New Guinea for extended periods.

Born in Harris, Montserrat in 1939, Edward Archibald Markham attended the island's only grammar school, before moving to the UK in 1956. He studied English and Philosophy at what was then St David's College, Lampeter, and subsequently worked on 17th-century drama at the Universities of East Anglia and London. Theatre was his first love, and he had a play performed while he was still a student in Lampeter. Later he was to be part of various semi-professional troupes in London.

After lecturing at Kilburn Polytechnic for two years in the late 1960s, Archie Markham founded the Caribbean Theatre Workshop with the aim of exploring "non-naturalistic" theatrical forms. The Workshop toured the eastern Caribbean in 1970 and 1971, performing plays in St Vincent and Montserrat and holding events elsewhere. Back in Europe, Markham turned his talents in a different direction, building houses with a French co-operative movement from 1972 to 1974. He subsequently held creative writing fellowships at Hull College of Further Education (1978-79), in Brent (the C. Day Lewis Fellowship, 1979-80) and Ipswich (1986), and at the University of Ulster (1988-91). From 1983 to 1985, he worked as a media co-ordinator in Papua New Guinea, an experience he would later revisit in his travel book A Papua New Guinea sojourn (1997). After returning to Britain from New Guinea, he edited the magazine Artrage from 1985 to 1987.

Although Markham's earliest writing was as a dramatist, he first achieved national recognition in Britain as a poet and it is as a poet that he will mainly be remembered, though he also produced significant fiction and edited two major anthologies of Caribbean writing, Hinterland: Caribbean poetry from the West Indies and Britain (1989) and The Penguin Book of Caribbean Short Stories (1996). His short-story collections include Something Unusual (1986) and Taking the Drawing Room through Customs (2002).

Archie was always uniquely his own man and yet in some ways his career was not untypical of a generation of Caribbean-born poets who came of age during the late colonial period, steeped in the idioms of English literature and culture, but with an equal capacity to inhabit other voices. He prefaced a selection of his own poetry in Hinterland with a brief autobiographical note entitled "Many Voices. Many Lives", a phrase which might well serve as an epitaph on his life and work.

Like Derek Walcott, with whom he shared a memorable public conversation at a Sorbonne conference on Walcott's work two years ago, his knowledge of European culture put many of his British contemporaries to shame. At the same time, and again like Walcott, his writing refused to be shackled by his colonial education. He transformed and subverted this, even as he drew on it.

His early poetry defied the stereotypes that British commentators often imposed on Caribbean-born poets of his generation, and he particularly resisted any tendency to categorise him as either a Caribbean or a British poet. This resistance to easy definitions found its way into his assumption of poetic personae that reflected his sense of multiple selves. First among these was Paul St Vincent. He created Paul in the 1970s, in response to English critics who felt that he should be sounding more "Caribbean" and less "mainstream". Putting his classical education to one side, he rented a room in Battersea and, using Paul's name as a pseudonym, began to write about inner-city experiences in a form of Caribbean Creole.

Then, in an attempt to combat the sexism that he felt characterised much Caribbean writing, he invented another persona, the Seventies Welsh feminist Sally Goodman, who, he said, made him aware of his own chauvinism. Archie's capacity to inhabit different personae was the mark of a modest, outgoing man, who was always keen to challenge any possible preconceptions and biases in his make-up. It was also a product of his sense of being a "chameleon": in an early poem entitled "Proteus", he wrote, "The quick-change artist/ rules the world." Later, both Paul and Sally would be absorbed into his main Markham persona, a composite figure, who was now able to dispense with the pseudonym Paul St Vincent and publish his alter egos' poems as his own.

In later years, he taught at the University of Newcastle before becoming Professor of Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University, where he directed the biennial Hallam Literature Festival. His experiences at Sheffield Hallam gave rise to his campus novel, Marking Time (1999), which grew out of his disaffection with recent British examples of the genre. When he told his students what he thought was wrong with the campus novel and they suggested that he should write one, he rose to the challenge. The result was a wide-ranging comic work, centred on a creative-writing tutor caught in a world of bureaucrats and overworked academics, desperately trying to balance competing pressures. Interspersed with this were memories of the tutor's childhood on the Caribbean island of St Cesare, a fictional surrogate for Montserrat.

In the same year, 1999, Sheffield Hallam published A Festschrift for E.A. Markham in honour of his 60th birthday; and after his "retirement" in 2005, the University conferred the title of Professor Emeritus on him. Predictably, he remained as active as ever. Keen to live in a metropolis, but finding London expensive and increasingly less congenial, he moved to Paris. At the time of his death, his memoir of life in the 1950s, Against the Grain, was in press for publication by Peepal Tree Press, Leeds.

Archie Markham's collections of verse include Human Rites: selected poems 1970-1982 (1984), which brought together the best of several earlier small-press books, Living in Disguise (1986), Towards the End of a Century (1989), Letter from Ulster & the Hugo Poems (1993) and Misapprehensions (1995). In 1997 he was awarded the Certificate of Honour by the government of Montserrat. In 2003 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

He will be remembered as much for his warmth, conviviality and kindness as for his seminal place in Caribbean-British writing, both as a practitioner and as an inspiration to others.

John Thieme

Edward Archibald Markham, poet and writer: born Harris, Montserrat 1 October 1939; Lecturer, English Department, Sheffield Hallam University 1991-97, Professor of Creative Writing 1997-2005 (Emeritus); FRSL 2003; died Paris 23 March 2008.

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