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This article is taken from PN Review 68, Volume 15 Number 6, July - August 1989.

The Empty Telephone Boys Grevel Lindop

Like adversity, literary fashion makes strange bedfellows. Here is Peter Ackroyd, London-born and Cambridge-educated, veteran of Yale, the Spectator and the Times, successful upper-middle-brow novelist, his volume of poems plum-coloured, hardbacked and classically-lettered, with watermarked endpapers and the acknowledgements at the back (true oneupmanship, that). And here is Ian McMillan, from Barnsley, Yorks, ex-tennis-ball-packer, itinerant performer at schools, clubs and creative writing circles, who cherishes (according to his blurb) the ambition of becoming "a stand-up comic", his paperback volume an aggressive clash of yellow, black and white with sepia thunder-clouds, acknowledgement to the Arts Council at the front and not an endpaper or a watermark in sight.

Sociology and book-design would lead us to expect a contrast: gritty Northern realism, perhaps, from McMillan, with social concern and pithy observations somewhat in the vein of U.A. Fanthorpe, or meditations on a dead sheep in the tradition of Ted Hughes. Ackroyd, we might suppose, could well be a paid-up, fountain-pen-toting member of The Soft White Pillowcase Boys, as McMillan calls them - college-quadrangle, coffee-and-sherry softies playing the poet and sprinkling their conversation with preciously premeditated similes:

"Coming up the motorway, the fog..."
The Head of Department smiled.
"... was like a soft white pillowcase..."

In fact, though the flavours of these two books differ, it is the similarities that are really striking. Defining those similarities is going to be difficult, but to start with a crude but convenient label, ...

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