My wife said this guy from Ken Branagh's film company had been on the phone

13th June 1997 at 01:00
It'd been a hellish day at school and Alan Smith was not in the mood for this cruel jibe. But it was all true and come September he's leaving teaching, beckoned by a promising literary career. Richard Morris reports

There is no greater aphrodisiac than the aroma of a male author. For some women, that is. That intoxicating mingle of unwashed corduroy trousers, typewriter ink, creative sweat and inexpensive body-splash has weakened the knees of many an aspiring groupie.

This I learn from Lucinda Harris, a 20-something literary anorak who is sipping red wine and swivelling her eyes about at the launch of Big Soft Lads in Dillons bookshop, Northampton, where the air is heady with expletives from writer and self-confessed Lad on the Block, Alan Smith.

Sadly, 50-year-old Smith's gout gets the better of him and he has to rest his leg on an upturned chair in the manager's office before Lucinda can button-hole him on his choice of aftershave.

Weighed down with his publisher's attribute of the greatest writing find since Alan Sillitoe, next day Smith is back in his classroom tilting on a chair, the way schoolboys throughout the ages have, looking very pleased with himself. And so he should. In little less than a year he has seen his hopes of escaping full-time teaching evaporate, reappear and finally become a reality.

He's just back from being bundled around the country in a souped-up black van for his publisher's promotion-busting Literary Lads tour, occasionally screeching to a halt at cultural shrines - such as Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms - so he could read snatches from his book. Now he's facing the end of a 25-year commitment to education and 21-year attachment to Kingsthorpe Upper School in Northampton where he's taught English and been head of communication studies. At the end of term, he'll retire, prematurely.

"I've had enough and this success could not have come at a better time. Anyway, my GP said the gout was caused by eating too much canteen food."

A more profitable career as a full-time writer looms when Alan Smith walks out of the school gates for the last time. His literary agent calls him "a lucky bastard" - and Smith is taking his extraordinary transformation in style. He wrote Big Soft Lads - his first and only novel - six years ago and, having no luck in finding a publisher, understandably viewed it as failure.

"I tried at least 10 publishers and always had the same reply: 'You're a middle-aged school teacher from a small town in the Midlands. Not very commercial. Doesn't quite fit in with our list'."

Dejected, he put the manuscript aside for a couple of years and went off to do a part-time higher degree in English at Leicester University. Three years later, a friend convinced him to publish it himself, which he did for Pounds 1,500.

His pugnacious enthusiasm shifted just over 400 of the 1,000 print run, and he managed to break even on the investment which had been blocking up his garage. That, he thought, was that; at least he could garage his car when he wanted.

"I was cheesed off and felt sorry for myself. My dream was smashed and I had hundreds of books over. I found the whole business a bleak experience."

In true fairytale style, he arrived home one evening after a hellish day at school to be told by his French-born wife Claudie that Big Soft Lads had been read by David Barren, sometime business partner and co-producer in Kenneth Branagh's film company, Fishmonger Films. Now David Barren wanted to buy the film option to his novel.

"I walked in through the door feeling particularly glum and my wife said this guy from Ken Branagh's film company had been on the phone. Terribly funny I told her, musing that life can be so cruel.

"Claudie finally persuaded me to phone the number she'd jotted down and damn me if it wasn't David Barren. He started the process which has gone on ever since, telling me how wonderful I was."

Smith who lives in Earls Barton, Northamptonshire, was invited down to Shepperton Studios the following week where favourable comments boosted his ego - and Pounds 35,000 boosted his bank balance. He took on agent Patrick Walsh at Christopher Little and began his quixotic life as part-time writer, full-time teacher.

"I liked Alan's book the moment I saw it," says Walsh. "I was a little sceptical at first as it was self-published but the film-rights helped. That may sound awfully snobbish but it's probably a reflection on the state of the publishing trade in this country." Nevertheless, he put the novel out to five publishing houses and sold it at auction to Headline for Pounds 25,000.

Smith has also convinced David Barren that he should write the screenplay for the film, something the film producer is keen to let him do but which doesn't always happen. "I loved the book. I found it wonderful. Almost another Shallow Grave, although I don't like to categorise," says Barren who recently worked with Branagh on Hamlet and Frankenstein.

"He's proved himself to me by his book. Ken Branagh has seen the novel and liked it, but at the moment he has not got any direct involvement in the project. It is early days."

Apart from the opening success of getting the film deal, Smith was immediately offered another big break. Jimmy McGovern, creator of Cracker and an ex-teacher himself, has devised a new television series, The Lakes, to be broadcast by the BBC later this year. He wanted a novel to be written, based on the series, and offered Smith the job.

"A mutual friend showed him my book which he liked. I would have loved to have done the novel but I was too busy teaching. After all, I couldn't abandon my pupils - it wouldn't be good would it? The poor little brutes are frightened enough after Easter and when kids are doing exams I feel I couldn't just walk out. They've been through enough as it is."

So what of his sole novel which charts the lives and loves of two blokes Les and Charlie who meet as students at the University of York. Women, booze and football feature heavily in a story full of the casual cruelty that comes with being young and male.

"The book is definitely not autobiographical though I've used some locations I'm familiar with, like York and Northampton," Smith says.

Will he be downhearted if the critics pan it and dismiss his success so far as mere hype?

"I'd be devastated," he admits. "I hope the book won't be seen as a one-off wonder. I think all the praise from people will deflate if it doesn't sell well. Whatever happens from now on, I'll never self-publish again and would advise others not to either. It's too much bloody bother."

Big Soft Lads is published by Headline, price Pounds 9.99

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today