Pictures from the Rylands Library ‘Living Stone’: Remembering Carcanet’s Corn Exchange

stella halkyard

Laid down in layers like strata, generation upon generation, Edwin Morgan creates a pillar of ‘living stone’ (Robert Herrick) in his verbivocalvisual poem ‘Archives’. In a year that marks both the centenary of his birth and the fiftieth anniversary of his publisher, this particular picture from the Rylands excavates one such layer of Carcanet’s history in ‘wet Manchester’ (Morgan).

Once a product of mercantile might, Manchester’s Corn Exchange had, by the time it became Carcanet’s home, relaxed into a disheveled elegance. Its subterranean caverns in the basement, deserted by day, transformed after dark into nightclubs where generations of music-loving Mancunians flocked. The Roxy Room at Pips was the place to be in 1979 and later at Konspiracy bands like 808 State cut their teeth. Up a level on the ground floor, a pearly gloom filtered down through a crown of glass into the Market Hall, which buzzed with

activity. Barricaded into makeshift kiosks by trestle tables buckling under the weight of second hand vinyl, books, clothes, jewellery and junk, market traders sold their wares. The higher echelons of the building were inhabited by the office holders, which from the early 1970s included Carcanet.

Visitors swept up wrought-iron staircases and along green-tiled, mahogany-lined corridors, or were carried in caged lifts, operated by ancient, liveried attendants. Originally the Press occupied a suite of three, modest interconnecting rooms on the second floor where a frosted glass panel in the door of Michael Schmidt’s office (similar to a tubercular window) proclaimed the words: PN Review!

Through time Carcanet moved into the grandest of chambers on the Olympian Fourth Floor overlooking the Cathedral. Then in June 1996 a Ford Cargo truck loaded with semtex exploded in a street nearby

in a terrorist attack. The Press’s offices, and the rest of the Corn Exchange, were shattered in the blast.

Holes, like the missing ‘o’, ‘e’ and ‘t’s in Morgan’s poem, threatened the fabric of poetry’s universe. But the silk-woven structure of Carcanet is made of stuff sterner than steel. Within days it had set up shop elsewhere, nomadically shifting around the city until it found a semi-permanent home in Conovan Court that same year. And despite everything the poetry kept coming, as they lured ‘… words like flocks of birds/To settle bookwards, readerwards/ And oh – why not – eternitywards!’ (Morgan).

But what of Carcanet’s archive? On the day of the bomb the accrual pending transfer miraculously ‘survived intact’ (Michael Schmidt) boxed-up securely in buckram. Now preserved in the Rylands it lives to tell the tale, generation upon generation.

‛Archives’ by Edwin Morgan, © Carcanet and the Morgan Estate.