Who was E.A. (Archie) Markham the man, the writer, the scholar? Is it true that he had many disguises and identities? Was he an ambiguous, elusive thinker, a trickster, a close guarder of his personal life as some have said? Or, was he an accessible, out-spoken, prolific and identifiable, spokesperson for a disaster-ridden Montserrat, a distinguished son of the Caribbean, as some have said glowingly of him? Can answers to those questions be found in his autobiographical work, Against the Grain?
Well, if you are strongly convinced of his elusive, enigmatic persona, then his autobiographical Against the Grain probably won't convince you otherwise. Even though (and this was a first for me) it contains studious chapter endnotes--as if to provide veracity and openness--you may leave the book feeling as convinced as ever that he is hard to pin down. Rather than serving the purpose of creating a look of openness and veracity, the endnotes may appear scholarly and dense, even amusing, to the person seeking to know the man.
So what can you expect from the book?
Markham's story focuses (mainly but not exclusively) on the 1950s--a period of significant change for him and the period during which many of the themes and events for his later writing begin to form and take place. It is the period when he leaves Montserrat and moves to England with his mother and one sibling. In many ways, his story is typical of the immigrant / writer experience, but it is also uniquely characterized by his roles in aiding, organizing relief, and relating Montserrat's history and its experiences with natural disasters. His story is both personal and political, both apparently intended for documenting his family history and his personal writer's journey, as well as for documenting a broader condition of the Caribbean immigrant at a certain point in time.
Let me say the worst first...
I read around on Markham before and after I read Against the Grain, and I found the most apt description of his writing in this Bruce King review of Marking Time:
Markham can both delight and bore. At his best you want to quote him, but his writing can seem interminable.
I found the book dreary and struggled to finish it (putting it down and forgetting about it for periods at a time), but I found him remarkably illuminating, and I quote him liberally in my review.
The young boy with his grandmother in Montserrat
I was close to my grandmother; I felt ridiculously privileged. I wasn't allowed by her carers to see her the last week before she died; and that's why, perhaps, I have so obsessively, through the years, set out to revisit those times.
If there is an over-whelming sentiment in the book, it is of trying to recover loss. One gets that feeling from how he writes about his grandmother and of her role as his primary caregiver. As a child he was awed by her ability to control even though she had a handicap, which kept her in her room for most of the years he spent with her. He describes her as a woman who was not modest of her status: upper class, the owner of a 12-room house on a hill, which had survived two hurricanes. His idyllic early life spent with her in the huge home, and his abrupt separation from her seem to have shaped his later transient, dissatisfied attitude towards homes he lived in and owned.
The young working immigrant in England
So all this 'factory' culture seemed to me an adventure, infinitely preferable to being marooned on a small island in the Eastern Caribbean, waiting for something to happen . . . you were determined to present your West Indies to the world.
The words describe much of the sense of exploration and expectation many immigrants have spoken of. He isn't deterred by the anti-foreign sentiment prevalent in the "Keep England white" signs in parts of London during the period when he begins to work and make decisions about his future (1956 and onward). His experiences with prejudice seem to have prompted the major questions which influenced his thoughts about writing at the time, one major question being, "how do you write about racism?"
As he explores that particular question in the book, he allows himself to make accusations of the British system, especially the system's ethnicizing of identifications such as "Caribbean / West Indian" into a generalized "black."
(Walter Rodney--still on my mind--spoke of the same condition. He observed that once outside of Africa, Africans lost the identification "African" and were given the degrading identification "black.")
One of the "grains" against which Markham sets out to write is the condition given to him and others like him in England--a generic, limiting condition of blackness. He can be understood as a writer who reclaims and celebrates his Montserrat-born, European-lived unique identification.
Irreconcilable maybe?: Markham as distant son
On his journey to find the ruins of his grandmother's house in 1997, Markham is struck by the sight of a breadfruit tree on its side, damaged, virtually split in two, but straining to recover, bearing fruit. His companion on the journey (Obeahman) comments: "If the tree doesn't leave its root, why should you leave your root?" And it's reasonable to assume that despite his recognition as one of Montserrat's most famous sons, and despite his efforts to place Montserrat on the map in a positive way, his distance from the country may have been a troubling, irreconcilable fact / issue. Near the end of Against the Grain he wonders, "If the house in Harris' [his grandmother's house] were to be reclaimed wasn't writing about it very much second best to going back and pruning the fruit-trees?"
Another "grain" against which Markham writes can be understood as the condition of being a spokesperson from a distance, and of trying (improbably) to go back to physically reclaim an intangible loss by searching for a house. At the end of the book, he may have attempted to lessen the sting of the futility of his quest with the acknowledgment that "there are so many houses owned by the family, in so many places, it would be churlish to complain about the loss (or lack) of home."
In prose that is eloquent, pragmatic, reflective, and guided by theme, relationship to place and people, rather than by chronology, Markham relates the major grains against which he goes during a period of significant psychological and physical movement in his life (1950s). The book is a quiet herald to survival of the trauma resulting from such movement--personal survival, familial survival, and by extension (I dare add) the survival of a certain characteristic of Montserrat. It is an intimately close and ironically distant story about recovering loss.
Against the Grain: A 1950s Memoir, by E.A. Markham (Peepal Tree Press, 2008, 192pp).