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PN Review 276
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This item is taken from PN Review 111, Volume 23 Number 1, September - October 1996.

The past may be too much with us. Just how much, and how necessary it can be for going forward, becomes clear when suddenly it is lost - or thoroughly mislaid. What was that address?

On 15 June the Corn Exchange from which PN Review and Carcanet Press have been edited for a quarter of a century sustained severe bomb damage. No one seems clear, even now, how severe that damage is. Like other buildings in the heart of Manchester ours was sealed off. Writing now, a month and a half after that Saturday, we - like our neighbours in this and nearby buildings - have been given only the briefest access to our premises. In a half hour's supervised visit, wearing hard hats and sturdy shoes and wading through rubble and a century's pigeon-droppings that plopped down when the ceilings collapsed, we appraised the damage and recovered a bagful of records. Though in due course we will recover other materials, much is lost: contributors' submissions, records, review books, the main stock of back issues of the magazine, and our only complete run of PN Review and Poetry Nation.

Although PNR 110 appeared very nearly on time, and a week after the blast we were beginning to deal with editorial and production matters once more, the events inevitably affect our programme and plans. We have lavished less attention than we intended on the first issue of PN Review in its altered design. Some correspondents, contributors and would-be contributors will wait in vain for a reply from us: their letters and submissions lie buried. Rain falls through the broken roof and blows in where windows and outer wall were. Pigeons who used to look in at us now nest among the papers and look out.

We'd planned changes in the magazine, but nothing quite so radical as this. It will be months before PNR settles again into its stride. The expressions of support and goodwill we have received have done much to confirm us in our resolve to continue. But to have to start as it were from scratch after 25 years is not a welcome challenge.

Even now, information about our building reaches us as hearsay and spectacular gossip exchanged between displaced tenants at meetings in the Town Hall and on the police perimeters of the bomb area. The experience is not over - a 'short sharp shock' - but daily 'in progress'. At first we we;'e led to believe that we would soon return to our offices, patch them up and get on with business. Then we resigned ourselves to a month's absence. Tenant factions formed: the gang of traders from the market hall (percussion and brass), the shopkeepers whose premises opened into the street (woodwind), and the office holders (strings). The meetings divided, and the landlords or their agents 'conducted'. Distrust increased meeting by meeting - not atonality but cacophony.

Has there in fact been looting? Are there rats ('enormous rats') marauding the lower floors? Has asbestos been found? What is delaying proper access? Is the Hanging Ditch façade falling away from the building? Will it be demolished? Will we be permitted in this week, next month, next year? It's a universally sour exile: we have learned that most small businesses are more than just a way of earning a living: each one is an evolved culture, and something like love is felt by the people who have built up a little business for that unresponsive thing they've made. And there is love for a pleasant, shabby, welcoming old structure into which each day they (we, too) went to make, or sell, or barter. As a result the sense of loss and grief is real. Not knowing when, or whether, the patient will recover is a particular anxiety. Not being able to gather up one's belongings is another. There is, too, anger at the perpetrators, and anger that the dislocation is so soon forgotten. This is not Canary Wharf - nor Belfast; just the English provinces, and the North West at that.

After a couple of weeks of waiting, of gathering true and false information, most of us began reluctantly to realise that the Corn Exchange was over. A chapter had closed in brutal uncertainty. The quest for permanent accommodation began.

And this is perhaps the most troubling step: projecting a future, starting again with so much that once provided the dynamic of growth and change out of reach in the ruins.

The city is full of empty offices. At first one searches for a suite that replicates in some way the feel, the embrace, of the old building. One has already forgotten the faults in the old place - of access, of plumbing, of fabric. It resolves itself in memory, even short-term, into an idyllic situation, and no property answers to the improved dream.

The suites and spaces one visits - cubes of light and cubes of shadow - are echoey and empty. With a blank stare we jot down rents and terms, then on to the next emptiness. No view. No windows. Too dear. Too far from the centre. No access. Always a downside surfaces, as in a poisoned pond. A week, two weeks of this, and the superb conservative wisdom of Lampedusa's Prince is confirmed: 'You must change to stay the same.'

One morning one goes out tight-lipped and resolute. It's only stone and mortar after all, it's only a place to work that one seeks. Forget the detail of what's sealed away and think into another kind of space.

Apart from feelings that attach to a building and its people, there is the wider fabric of any venture of this sort: writers, readers, subscribers and supporters - the Arts Council, the City Council, one's proprietor, the Rylands Library, the Department of English at the University, the students who work with us, our competitors (Bloodaxe in particular, who took up a collection on our behalf), and our well-wishers. That is the unrendable fabric, the true ground of an enterprise such as this. Both PN Review and Carcanet owe their survival and their will to survive to them.

This item is taken from PN Review 111, Volume 23 Number 1, September - October 1996.

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