If you can sell poetry, you can survive a bomb

Manchester's Carcanet Press is fighting on, reports Decca Aitkenhead

Decca Aitkenhead
Saturday 24 August 1996 23:02 BST

Everyone has played the old game: if you had just 20 minutes in your house before it blew up, what would you save? Last June, Michael Schmidt got the chance to find out. Only it wasn't his home, but his poetry publishing house - offices crammed with almost 30 years of original manuscripts, contracts, contacts and files. And it had already blown up.

Carcanet, one of the country's leading poetry houses, with names like Allen Curnow, Ian Crichton Smith and Les Murray, was among hundreds of businesses ripped apart by an IRA bomb on a sunny Saturday June morning in Manchester.

For a while, it looked as though Mr Schmidt's life's work might have come to an abrupt end. His office, high in the old Corn Exchange building, still gapes open to the rain, bookshelves visible through the scaffolding. But from cluttered premises on the other side of town, he and his staff are trying to put back together 30 years of poetry publishing - with little more than goodwill and charm to draw on.

"Every day for weeks, I was remembering more and more records - irreplaceable things - that were gone. If we had been any other kind of unprofitable business, the easy thing would be to collect the insurance money and close down. But the one thing you finally realise is that, in the end, it's not contracts that matter, it's all the people who value what we are doing."

Desks and books and contracts are, however, no small matter. A week after the bomb, he was allowed back into the office for 20 minutes to salvage the bare necessities for the business, then operating out of his office at Manchester University, and from a member of staff's front room in Altrincham.

"My secretary's computer was sitting out on the window-ledge. That was a bit surreal. We got the financial hard disk, and we rescued one thing of sentimental value for each of the five members of staff. We thought, you see, that it would be the first of many visits." But the building was declared unsafe and nobody was allowed back into the office until just 10 days ago, when Mr Schmidt was permitted to stand at the door while workmen lumped belongings into boxes. "It was just like that scene from Dr Zhivago, when they go back to the house they had loved and it's all covered in ice," he said. "We had glass, dust and a hundred years of pigeon shit."

Staff spent the initial days after the bomb phoning poets, authors, subscribers and the press, appealing to all who had ever been involved with them to resubmit their details. Contracts are crucial - without reference to these, ownership of rights is unknown, and while writers have been helpful in volunteering information, poets are not famed for their administrative sophistication. Fewer than 10 per cent of manuscripts are submitted on disk. Among other material lost was over a month's worth of invoices, valued at about pounds 10,000; gone, also, is the only full set of Carcanet's 1,800 publications, and the complete back-issue set of Poetry Nation Review, a magazine published by Mr Schmidt.

Penny Jones, associate editor of the magazine, has spent weeks recompiling the database. "Authors have sent in copies of all their work, and people have written in with addresses of people they think might be interested in hearing from us. We only find out about orders when people call up to complain that they've not received them.

"But the thing you miss is the community we had there. I miss Bert and Terry and Norman, the old men who operated the lifts and used to give me humbugs. And I miss the view of the cathedral - we used to hear the choir and the bells."

What can never be rebuilt is that curiously old-fashioned and intimate community of small businesses that muddled along together in the picturesque corridors of the Corn Exchange. Carcanet had been there for 21 years. When - indeed whether - the building will reopen is still not known, and the businesses have all dispersed across the city.

Carcanet will move into new permanent offices next month, and Mr Schmidt is currently engaged in a highly personalised approach to refurbishment. If his bespectacled, snuff-sniffing charisma was largely responsible for sustaining a small, provincial publishing house for 30 years, this charm is being tested to the limit. Mr Schmidt's appeals have been rewarded with furniture from the university, the library, the Free Trade Hall and other local institutions, and he was in sparkling spirits, having secured the bookshelves from Waterstones, soon to be closing down.

"Our office is going to be an anthology of Manchester by the time I'm finished," he twinkles, before casting a magpie's eye around the bar we are sitting in. "I must say," he adds, "I'm getting uncommonly attached to that chair over there..."

Such support, he admits, would have been unthinkable for a business engaged in something less personal than poetry.

"We're rather like a hurt dog, I suppose. We do something people generally think ought to be done, and the help has been amazing - the city council, the Lord Mayor's Fund, the media, the Arts Council, they've all been wonderful. Bloodaxe, our main competitors, sent out a petition and raised hundreds of pounds for us. And all our authors feel more committed to us than ever before."

With losses of up to pounds 30,000 to be met, and a new paperback fiction list due out in the autumn, Carcanet's future must remain precarious. But standing on the city's cathedral roof for a closer view of the ruins of his office, Mr Schmidt is resolutely merry.

"The first night I could see the damage from a distance, and that was the only time I actually cried. Keeping going has always been a matter of pride - it always is, with poetry." He turns to the cathedral's canon, and breaks into a broad grin.

"Ah! Now, about our furniture problem. You wouldn't happen to have anything lying about?"

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