Jonathan May-Confessions of a Shop Assistant (Sphere, 1974) When Christopher Wood switched publisher for his popular Timothy Lea "Confessions" series, Sphere hired Laurence James to carry on with the series with a new main character, under the guise of Jonathan May. I am not sure, but this may well be the first in the Jonathan May series; there is no reference to earlier volumes and the short final chapter sets up the premise for the next book in the series, ...Travel Courier.
Shop Assistant begins with May hitch-hiking from Birmingham to London, where he has a job interview at a department store and shares a flat with a young lady. The plot follows his erotic adventures in different departments of the store, such as Pets, Toys, Lingerie and so forth. His family is mentioned, but only two are briefly featured: his brother and sister. The book ends with May accidentally skateboarding naked down the catwalk during the stor's annual lingerie show. I thought that the book started off well, with JM being picked up by a young lady in a sports car and the lingerie show climax was okay, but, for me, the story sagged rather. I don't know if Laurence James had written much humour fiction before, but at times he seemed to be trying too hard to get laughs. Laurence James also has the habit of including references to other authors by naming characters after them and there were probably other references that I missed. It is inevitable that the Jonathan May series will be compared with that of Timothy Lea. I have read 5 or 6 of the Lea series but this was my first May, so it would be unfair of me to be too critical of it, especially as I suspect it was the opening volume of the series. Based on what I did read, however, I did miss the "chirpyness" of the Lea character and his interaction with his family, particularly brother-in-law, Sid. Somehow, I didn't really warm to the Jonathan May character in this book, but I will certainly try out at least one more book to see how the series developed; humour is a notoriously difficult genre to write in successfully. I generally like Laurence James' books, but was a little disappointed with this one.
Ive not read this one, but survived most of Confessions From The Olympics - it wasn't exactly The Witches. Have to say the Shop Assistant cover is among my favourites from the series.
It's so nice to be discussing the arts again.
From the first, I set myself against "literature"; the story was the thing, and no amount of style could persuade me to select a story that lacked genuine, unadulterated horror. For those who wanted something high-brow there was plenty.
Laurence James probably isn't the first name that springs to mind when writing softcore smut-comedy writing is concerned, and this Shop Assistant was a real curate's egg: a decent opening and closing but it did drag in the middle. I can usually polish off a Timothy Lea in a couple of days, but this one took around ten days. There was something about the character that I didn't really like. Timothy Lea strikes me as a "cheeky chappie" but Jonathan May seemed a little unpleasant at times. However, as I said, this, I think, was the first in the series, so I will certainly get another to see if they get better, only you don't sound as if Olympics impressed you too much, Dem, which doesn't really inspire me to expect that the series will improve very much :-).
Post by franklinmarsh on Feb 19, 2014 12:27:57 GMT
I need to call on Pulps again for confirmation, but was some of Shop Assistant vaguely autobigraphical? Did Jonathan live in Hither Green? I believe Laurence James did work as a Shop Assistant for a while. (In Harrods?)Agreed that he couldn't quite muster Christopher Wood's cheeky persona (much of the humour deriving from JM telling unfunny jokes). I think the best JM I read was the most unlikely - Confessions Of A Housewife. (Yes, Housewife).
Hi Franklin, Yes, JM does move into a flat in Hither Green in Shop Assistant, sharing with Angostura Wells, an obvious reference to fellow author Angus Wells. One other character is named Harknett, another reference to an author, in this case Terry Harknett. There were probably others that I completely missed. I don't know if LJ's wife was named Elizabeth, but there were several mentions of an Elizabeth James. Yes, JM does tell quite a few middlingly funny jokes, but the text doesn't flow nearly as well as in the Lea series. I did like the naked skateboarding finale, but felt that more could have been made of it. The start, with JM being picked up by a woman with a case of deadly bacteria samples on the back seat was, I thought, pretty good, but, for me, it sagged after that. I would be interested to find out if LJ did indeed base some of Shop Assistant on experiences of working in a department store.
Afternoon, gentlemen. Indeed, Liz James was the Mrs, and Hither Green was where he lived when training as a teacher, which is where he met John Harvey. He worked as a shop assistant in Foyles, which is where he used to serve Sid James with all the week's crime novels as they came in on Friday. Apparently, he took the job thinking it would only last a book or two - Anthony Cheetham took 'Confessions' with him when he started Futura,and Sphere, where LJ had already written, thought they would get it back as Futura would fold. Jonathon May came from an in-joke - Jonathon May but Chris Wood. In truth, it became a strain quickly as he ended up doing fourteen (?) and in later ones asks for jokes from the readers, which was a genuine attempt to get cheap material! Mind you, it did give them an interactive feel that was quite nice. The last straw was when he was best man at a wedding and the bride's mother prodded him in the back and told him to 'say something funny'. I think he was glad to see that last of them and get on to The Witches...
Hi Pulphack. Thank you very much for the very interesting information. My main experience of LJ has been with his westerns and Witches books, so I was surprised to say the least to find out he was the author of the Jonathan May series. There is a dark, somewhat twisted humour in some of his westerns, but I can imagine that it is a difficult task to sustain successfully humour over a book length, particularly as people have such individual tastes when it comes to humour; what one person will find funny will just turn off someone else. Did LJ write any more humour books other than the Jonathan May series do you happen to know? At the end of Shop Assistant, JM has the flat to himself as Angostura Wells has gone to Australia, so perhaps that flat in Hither Green becomes his base of operations for the series? I had no idea that Sid James was into crime books; perhaps he passed racing tips to LJ on those fridays as I know Sid was a serious gambler :-).
So LJ wrote the first couple of Jonathan Mays in the expectation that Futura would fold and Christopher Wood would come back to Sphere? That's interesting...I suppose if that had happened the JM series would have been wound up and Timothy Lea reinstated. Despite my reservations about Shop Assistant, the series must have sold reasonably well as there were quite a few Jonathan Mays written.
I've got six or seven of the May's, and there seems to be very little continuity to them other than Liz James being around, and some references to past volumes. LJ also wrote a historical 'confessions' type series - Journal Of A Rake, etc - which I've never even seen. I think they were also intended to be funny, but that was about it for LJ and comedy, as he liked putting humour in drama, but found it wearing over a whole book. I know he also liked serving Sid James as it was around this time that LJ's friends nicknamed him 'Sid', which is what he was called up til he died.
The whole Sphere/Futura thing is something I know about by inference - both LJ and an editor I used to work for in the 90's who was at Sphere back then used to hint that Futura was believed to be underfunded and would collapse, bringing back writers and titles. Under those circumstances, LJ - who had just been doing the Simon Rack series - thought it would be a paying gig to fill in for a year. Then got stuck with it... In truth, I believe he thought that even if the Lea books didn't come back to Sphere, then there wasn't room enough for two series on the shelves. Oops... in truth, I am amazed at home many of those series - the Rosie Dixon, Oliver Grapes, et al - the market could sustain back then! This is how desperate and starved people were for dirty books pre-internet, pre-VCR, and if they didn't know where the local backstreet dirty bookshop was! I mean, I like the May books because I knew LJ and so get all the jokes about people he knew - but I can't for the life of me see how they sustained such a shelf-life for those who didn't get those gags!
I had heard of the "Journal" series by Tom Goan but had no idea that LJ was its author. I've looked around for one to sample but they seem to be very scarce and command prices that I just couldn't justify paying when one appears infrequently.
Perhaps the lack of continuity in the JM series is partially explained by LJ believing that Futura would collapse and his series would be dropped in favour of the Lea series. Reading just the one JM book so far, I can well imagine that LJ did, as you say, feel it a strain to keep up the humour over a full-length book.
Yes, it is amazing to look back to 40 years ago when the Confessions series plus their spin-offs were at their zenith, and how the market was able to sustain them all. The Oliver Grape series was, perhaps, the least successful as it ran to just 3 volumes, though I must say that I enjoyed the 2 books in that series I have so far read. I would not be surprised given the typical cover of a Confessions book that not a few were picked up by teenage boys, but as you say, adult material was very much more difficult to obtain back then than it is now. I live close to a fairly large town, but there was no adult bookshop there where you could find it, and these smutty humour novels were probably the next best thing and much easier to get your hands on.
I have bought a handful of these novels - one Lea, one May, one Dixon, one Wood and four Jonothan White. Frankly I have only read one of John Harvey's J White, Double Bed. I thought this pretty funny, but it must have been exhausting to write one clever pun after the other. And of course the constant in-jokes. One of the characters is called Nigel Taylor-Jones, Managing Editor of Rocket Books. There even is a joke/reference to Jonathan May. I guess it is more funny if you knew who these guys are. I wonder that editorial didn't mind.
LJ and his collegues always did that, how often Terry Harknett, Angus Wells and the rest died a bloody death in their respective westerns. This stuff is very tame, compared to todays porn, but it was so much better written then half of Virgins "erotic" line. Not to mention mercifully short. I can't see this working at 300+ pages.
Frankly I like the covers. For all their prudishness in the execution at least these models were real people, not the aseptic Stepford woman and men of today. I think customers could relate to them.
Hi Andy. I had not heard of the Jonothan White series before you mentioned it, so that is another one that I shall have to sample :-).
I think you are right, Andy; these books just wouldn't work at much longer page lengths. Humour is one of the most difficult genres in which to successfully work in full-length form. Even masters such as P.G. Wodehouse generally kept their humour novels fairly short. The Confessions series and their spin-offs and rivals, for me, seem to have a kind of innocence about them. There is a lot of innuendo, dreadful punnery and double-entendres, plus a determination to be not so explicit as to really shock. Euphamisms are regularly employed to describe the romantic encounters of Timmy Lea and his rivals, and the number of times they are interrupted while in the act just leaves you with a feeling that they are very unlucky. What I also like about these books is that they are very much of their time and are crammed full of cultural references to the then contemporaneous mid 70s.
Dead right about the covers, Mr Decker - erotica now is a dour, humourless thing for the most part. I remember Black Lace's guidelines in the mid-nineties were adamant about being serious as readers didn't like to think you were mocking. It's become a production line task - the writing and the act itself - in these worlds. It amazed me how many people argues online and in print about how 50 Shades wasn't 'correct' s&m cos she got the knots wrong, or something like that. Mrs PH read them and got it right - Danielle Steel with more sex - so who cares about what thickness of strap was on the ball gag?? I was then going to say that much as the 70's Brit stuff is derided for sniggering at sex and showing how repressed we were, it was an accurate reflection of the times after all, when I realised that actually the same is true of erotica now and that the media pushes sex as so serious and important it's been stripped of the fun. And without that, where are you?
Well, it has taken me a year, but at last I have taken the plunge and ordered a further volume from the May Confessions series: Confessions from the Beat. I'm not sure where it comes in the series chronology, but I bought it on the basis that it was cheap :-). Anyway, after it has arrived and has been read I will let you know what I think.