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E A Markham: Marking Time

Pewter Stapleton, like his creator, is a university teacher in Sheffield, a playwright and poet and an immigrant from the Caribbean. Markham is from Montserrat while Stapleton is from the fictitious island of St. Caesare. St. Caesare may or may not be Montserrat. It shares some characteristics with Montserrat, namely an active volcano and settlement by Irish immigrants but has some differences, in that it seems to have both English and French as its languages. As there are other references to Montserrat in this novel, we must assume that it is a proxy for Montserrat but is not Montserrat under another name. The story is told by Stapleton in stream-of-consciousness style. The title is a play on words. He is both marking time, i.e. trying to organise himself and his schedule to do all the things he wants to but also, at both the beginning and the end of the novel, and at various points during the novel, he is marking the work of his creative writing students. This is something he struggles with, not just because of the dubious quality of their submissions but because, as he points out, he is a very slow reader compared to his colleagues.

However, much of the novel is concerned with the other sense of the title. Stapleton needs to organise his time and he cannot at the beginning of the book and cannot really by the end. He makes numerous lists of all the things he has to do and then remakes them later on but somehow rarely gets round to them. These include not just the marking (though that is part of it) but writing another play, editing a book of plays by Carrington, getting in touch with Lee, his girlfriend, going to France (possibly with Lee) where he has a cottage and setting up a course on West Indian literature, as well as a host of more trivial task, ranging from going to the laundrette to renewing his London Library subscription. Suffice to say that he discusses many of these throughout the book but somehow never manages to complete them (though, by the end, he is on the way to starting a couple of them).

There are several friends to make comparisons but three in particular. Firstly, there is his very much neglected girlfriend, Lee. She edits a Black Arts magazine (and produces the latest issue during the course of the book) and she is also a translator. They do occasionally manage to see each other but it is sporadic (her word) and leaves Lee less than happy with the situation. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, there is Carrington (who is from Montserrat). Carrington is a very successful and very prolific playwright. He has written numerous plays on a whole variety of topics. Indeed, he seems to be almost able to be given a topic at breakfast and to have written a play on it by lunchtime. For example, Stapleton was going to go to New Guinea for a World Bank project. Carrington heard about it and wrote a play about it, though Stapleton, in the end, never went. It is Carrington’s plays that Stapleton is editing or, at least, a short selection of them. Stapleton (and even Carrington himself) feels that he could be the equal of Carrington as a playwright but just never gets around to writing them, even occasionally having ideas which Carrington goes on to use. Carrington is also teaching, at the University of Ulster, and Stapleton visits Carrington and his wife there and is envious of Carrington’s higher intellectual level in his teaching. Thirdly, there is Balham, whom Stapleton sometimes calls Lord Balham, who specialises in being an expert on race issues. Stapleton mocks Balham, both to his face and in his monologue, but is also somewhat envious of him.

Markham has written a very funny novel as Stapleton struggles with getting his life in order but, at the same time, he strikes a serious note, in his discussions of/thoughts on race relations, Caribbean literature, the life of an immigrant and the life of an academic. Balham is very much a comic character – his diatribe on how he was used as a model for fare dodgers on London Transport is an example – and Markham makes Stapleton a comic character, too. While not great literature, it is certainly a very enjoyable book.

Publishing history

First published 1999 by Peepal Tree, Leeds