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Pin Farm, Oxford - Carcanet's first home Etymologies and Origins (1967)

Shakespeare calls holidays 'captain jewels in a carcanet'. A carcanet (pronounced KAR-ka-nett) is a 'jewelled necklace' with an etymological skeleton in its cupboard. Its ancestor is the Old French carcan, 'a slave's halter', more appropriate than a gorget as an emblem for a publishing house.

Carcanet was a literary magazine, founded in 1962. Michael Hind, a member of the original editorial board, recalls how the idea was to 'collect together and publish as a periodical poetry, short fiction, and "intelligent criticism of all the arts"; there were to be both student and senior members contributions.' The intention was to link Oxford and Cambridge.

The first issue, Michael Hind writes, appeared in 1962, with a plain white cover with a drawing of a gorget -- blue on white. There were thirty two pages of text -- all poetry and short fiction. No price was shown on the cover of this or the subsequent issue. He adds, The editors for the first issue, in Oxford and Cambridge were respectively Richard Emeny and John Halliday. The Cambridge editor of the second issue was Mike Duffett. I was a member of the Oxford editorial committee, along with two others. Senior members were Neville Coghill for Oxford and Kingsley Amis for Cambridge. The first issue was rather serious in tone, although a lighter touch came from a then tutor in English at Merton, Tony Nuttall, in the form of comic cartoon "elucidations" on the magazine title. No "big names" appeared in the first two issues, although C.A. Trypanis, beginning then to be more widely known, has an appealing short poem on Delos. Some contributors claimed much space: Peter Mansfield (1942-2008) filled nine pages with poetry and prose in a lyric-ecstatic mode in the second issue.

The magazine Carcanet had fallen on hard times by October 1967 when Michael Schmidt, a newly arrived undergraduate at Wadham College, Oxford, took it over. Times got harder still. In 1969 as a swansong the magazine produced a few pamphlets: poetry by new writers from Britain, India and the United States, and a book of translations. The reviews were encouraging. In 1970-1971 Carcanet Press became Ltd. The swansong continues, the bird having upped sticks and left Matthew Arnold's (and Robert Graves's) South Hinksey, Oxford, for Thomas de Quincey's Manchester.

'Continue to build' is what independent literary houses must do. They build readership and backlist, but also authority and their own legitimacy. We make books available and, in an age of disposables, keep them available. As the balance of publishing shifts to front list, Carcanet, radical in disposition, keeps books in print for as long as possible. This kind of husbandry has more in common with forestry than with fast food.

Carcanet enjoys Arts Council support and can range more widely than commercial publishers dare to do. Its list includes, alongside new writers from all over the world, major authors from the twentieth and earlier centuries, figures about whom readers and writers need to know if they are to get a hold on the Modern and its aftermaths. Our commitments involve the mammoth Ford Madox Ford, Robert Graves and Hugh MacDiarmid projects.

We have forged strong Anglo-European and Anglo-Commonwealth links. Our focal interest is in literature in English -- all the Englishes now spoken and written. In 1999 the Press acquired Oxford University's fine poetry list. OxfordPoets now emanate from Manchester. Latterly we have forged close links with Glasgow, where Carcanet has an editorial office in the School of English and Scottish Literature and Language.

Since the age of the venerable Bede, translation has been crucial to the growth of our literature. Carcanet is naturally active here, producing award-winning translations of the classics and of new work from around the world.

Dedicated to discovery, appraisal and reappraisal, Carcanet is a unique survivor in the precarious world of literary imprints. Our editorial continuity has generated a list of deep coherence and innovation, not only among the authors rediscovered but also among the new authors we publish.

In an age teased by post-Modern relativism and post-millennial uncertainty, where literary value sometimes plays second fiddle to the demon profit and that other demon of ephemeral political imperatives, Carcanet takes its bearing from Modernism. It bases its activities on the best practice of the last century, during which great lists were forged -- some of which did not survive as independents into the changing twenty-first century.


Carcanet was conceived at Pin Farm, South Hinksey, Oxford, in 1969 by Peter Jones, Gareth Reeves and Michael Schmidt, and Grevel Lindop was instrumental in suggesting the FyfieldBooks series. In 1971, when Michael Schmidt was appointed Gulbenkian Writing Fellow at the University of Manchester, it moved to 266 Councillor Lane, Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire, and in 1975 it came of age, taking a tiny suite of offices in the Corn Exchange, Manchester. It moved up in that building, improving suites, until July 1996 when an IRA bomb blew the Press first to temporary offices in Manchester House, Princess Street, and then across the river to Blackfriars Street, Salford, where it stayed in a kind of exile for six years, before moving back into the centre of Manchester. It now resides in Cross Street, between where Mrs Gaskell's husband's Unitarian Chapel used to stand, and the little graveyard of St Anne's Church where Thomas de Quincey's forebears are buried, and in whose font Thomas de Quincey was himself christened.


Carcanet became a Limited Company in Oxford in 1969. It had several shareholders and was always in need of capital. In 1983 Robert Gavron (now Lord Gavron) acquired 100% of the company and has remained its guarantor and, with the Arts Council, its supporter since that time. The Board of Directors includes The Lady Gavron (Chairman), Andrew Biswell, Cato Marks, Dr Robyn Marsack, Sue Roberts, Christine Steel (Finance Director), Andrew Stokes, Michael Schmidt FRSL (Editorial and Managing Director), Nicholas Spice and Mark Thwaite. Alison Boyle of the Arts Council often attends.

The Corn Exchange Dome after the bomb The Manchester Bomb (1996)

2 July 1996: Today the manager of the Corn Exchange gave notice that we could visit our bombed offices. At 2:00 Joyce and I, with hard hats and two large boxes, climbed a wrecked four flights, down concertinaed corridors, and entered our office. The doors have been blown out, with their frames; the main walls totter at a touch. The glass, green-tile and oak that made the place look like a Victorian swimming bath are splintery scramble. Dust and dry pigeon shit where the ceilings have come down make breathing hard. I can't appraise the damage. A beam has crushed my PC keyboard; the books are wet and stained. We take one item of sentimental value for each of our colleagues, a hard disc with the accounts. Then we're told to leave immediately: health and safety have declared it unsafe again. (Dear Diary, BBC Radio 4)

On the day of our bomb, Ella Fitzgerald died. It was 15 June 1996, a Saturday that unmade Carcanet, along with the comfortable, en pantoufles old Manchester it inhabited. Since then, like an oak recovering from a lightning stroke, Carcanet has taken a different shape. So has its city.

Alison Brackenbury
Carcanet: a Pigeon's Eye View

From my thick sill I saw the books.
The books were black. The books were green.
I saw the window burst by blast.
I flew in where the books had been.

Then, as I dozed, I saw the books.
The books were green. The books were black.
I saw the pages arch, then preen,
Whirr up like wings. The books flew back.

It was several months before we were given access to our offices once more, and then it was only to evacuate the contents which weather had done its worst to destroy. We signed papers to bequeath whatever we could not extract in those three or four hours to the demolition people. We had employed removal men and they trudged up and down the scaffolding (access from within was no longer possible) carrying what they could. The archival books and records, which were retainable, still, when accessed, drizzle dust and tiny fragments of tile and glass. We left behind piles of submissions that the rain had turned to papier-mache. For months after the bomb irate poets would complain about not having had an editorial decision on work which history itself had judged with a certain finality.

Gillian Clarke
The Bomb

I imagine a poem of love from the publisher's desk
Afloat like a bright balloon against the wire.

Frank Kermode, marking Carcanet's thirtieth birthday, recalled the bomb, and said: 'Carcanet rose from the wreckage and resumed its indispensable work. If it had not done so there was small chance of anybody else doing it.'

The Staff

MICHAEL SCHMIDT OBE FRSL (Editorial and Managing Director) studied at Harvard and Oxford. A founder of Carcanet and PN Review, he is Professor of Poetry at the University of Glasgow, Writer in Residence at St John's College, Cambridge, and author of novels, poetry collections, books of translation, literary criticism and literary history.

CHRISTINE STEEL (Finance Director) joined Carcanet in summer 2008.

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