Drugs

Saying Goodbye to Notorious Drug Smuggler and Best-Selling Author Howard Marks

And so, another great name from British pop culture slips into the great federal correction complex in the sky.

by Gavin Haynes
Apr 11 2016, 5:50pm

Howard Marks in 2015. Photo by James Cummings

And so, another great name from British pop culture slips into the great federal correction complex in the sky. Farewell, Howard Marks. You were the subject of Jeremy from Peep Show's favorite book of all time. You were the patron saint of British blazing. A nation turned its reddened eyes to you at festival side-tent after festival side-tent. And like Tricky, you always managed to strike up a spliff on stage and no one told you to knock it off. How does that even work?

For a guy so complicit in his own myth-making, it's hard to separate the man from all the anecdotes about hanging out on Filipino drug islands with exiled aristocrats, or losing wads of hundred dollar bills down airplane toilets—and it would be foolish to try. The myths are his contribution to our culture. Living large, and then telling it larger, is what Marks did. He was a kind of proxy for male fantasy, an unrivaled Boy's Own tale for the late teens, James Bond if his shaken-not-stirred had been a Camberwell Carrot.

Here, then, is a little bit of humanizing fact about Howard Marks, combined with the larger-than-life stuff and some unusual or off-radar facts about him, to create a portrait of the man known as Mr. Nice.

HE ACTUALLY *WAS* NICE

He was, basically, a decent bloke, by all accounts. "He was one of the cleverest, nicest, and most charming old rogues I have ever had the pleasure of spending time with," said actor Keith Allen.

"Whenever he saw you, he'd always asked after your family," one acquaintance noted.

CONTRARY TO MOST PEOPLE'S EXPERIENCE, HE ALWAYS MAINTAINED THAT MARIJUANA WAS A GREAT STUDY AID

At Oxford, Marks fell in with a set called "The Establishment" that included a future Financial Times editor, Rick Lambert, and the last governor of Hong Kong, Tory grandee and BBC chair Chris Patten. Even among the very best, he excelled. His only lecture, on the differences in space-time perceptions between Newton and Leibniz, apparently went down very well, and he toyed with the idea of dipping further into academia.

Of course, marijuana had to take some of the credit. "A common difficulty encountered by those beginning to study philosophy is that whatever is read appears totally convincing at the time of reading," he later pondered. "Smoking marijuana forced me to stop, examine, scrutinize, and criticize each step before proceeding. It assisted me not only in pinpointing weaknesses of certain philosophical theories, but also in articulating alternative philosophical viewpoints."

HE NEVER TOUCHED HARDER TACK

His image as a prophet of spliff-and-spliff-alone came in part from particularly nasty experiences with harder drugs during his student days. He impaled his foot on a spike after a bit too much acid, which is good enough reason to not be all that keen on acid.

However, it was the overdose of his friend Joshua—the grandson of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan—that closed the gateway to anything but the gateway drug. "My memory is really just of Joshua Macmillan's body being carried down the stairs," said Marks. "It is a very shocking experience and I'd always been frightened of heroin before that, and that kind of sealed the issue as far as I was concerned."

Some of Marks's smuggling disguises

HE MADE YOU NOSTALGIC FOR THE GLORY DAYS OF MONEY LAUNDERING

There's something exhilarating about the physical quantities of cash Marks describes. "When I was growing up, I wondered what it would be like to win the pools," he once remarked. "The prize money was something like £75,000 [$107,000]. Later, I had much more than that, with cardboard boxes of cash under my bed. There would be boxes of cash that I wouldn't know what to do with."

The largest sum he every dealt in was a £70 million [$100 million] smuggle job from Thailand to Canada. Of course, as he admitted, like the golden age of air travel, money laundering was also a lot easier back then: "You could literally fly into Switzerland or Hong Kong, which is what I did mostly, with a suitcase full of money. They'd say, 'What's in the case?' I'd say, 'Money.' Then they'd have a quick look, close the case and ask you to proceed."

LIKE ALL SENSIBLE PEOPLE, HE WAS ANTI-SKUNK

While he reckoned he spent £50,000 [$71,000] on smoking weed across his lifetime, later developments in growing technologies left Marks cold. "There appears to be correlation between some kids smoking skunk and psychosis," he told the Sun last year. "I've had worried parents writing to me about their concerns about their children smoking skunk, and then noticing a massive change in them."

Marks recalled having to hang out with fans after his live shows, and, being too polite to refuse any joint he was handed, almost whitey-ing when "I really would have been happier in bed with a cup of Horlicks." For the record, of all the Chateau Lafites and Dom Perignons of marijuana he had sampled, natural Nepalese was the most appealing.

Whereas in Pakistan or Morocco, he'd explain, the sap was bled, in Nepal, they waited until the pollen was plucked off naturally. "And I suppose the soil comes into it, as with wine."

HE APPLIED TO BE TONY BLAIR'S DRUGS TSAR

Whatever happened to the golden age of tsars? Somehow, the idea of equating the Faberge eggs and serf-slaves of the Russian monarchy with mid-ranking Whitehall bureaucrats seems to have discreetly fallen out of the political playbook. Why?

HE ALSO STOOD FOR PARLIAMENT ON FREEING THE 'ERB

Four times. He certainly welcomed the prescriptions to take away the nausea of his chemo, but, he observed, "Personally, I never wanted to have to wait until I had cancer before I could legally smoke."

NOT LONG AFTER BEING REJECTED AS DRUGS TSAR, HE HAD THE 'ONE LAST BLAG' OF HEIST FILM LORE

After emerging from US prison in 1995, Marks mainly calmed down, until, by the late-90s, the thrill of the chase caught up with him again. Unfortunately for him, the game had changed utterly in a decade. No one was interested in his high-end Afghani hash any more—the scene had moved towards hydroponics. So Marks decided to get with the times and flog ecstasy instead—which he found terrifying: the big narco-gangs were rapacious businesses, not cheery, rubber-faced hippies. He eventually ended up with a contaminated batch of MDMA and burnt it, retiring once and for all, ten days before the new millennium.

HE WAS POSSIBLY A DIRECT DESCENDANT OF CAPTAIN MORGAN

The pirate and leading rum salesman.

CAVIAR OMELETTES AND TAKING THE CONCORDE TO CANNES WAS FAR REMOVED FROM OWNING A TAPAS BAR IN LEEDS

But that was where he ultimately ended up. In good times and bad, he'd always overspent. He gave up the rights to the 2006 film of his book Mr. Nice "pretty much for free." The royalties from the book were, he confessed, useful, but highly erratic. Besides odd-jobbing journalism and his stage show, by 2009, Marks had relocated to Leeds, where he lived in a one-bed flat by a canal. He was there in part because of his girlfriend, Caroline Brown, a local teacher. But a key source of going-straight income was his tapas bar Azucar. "As soon as I walked through the door I was greeted by Andy the manager, he made me instantly relaxed and recommended some amazing dishes," said Laura-Ellen from Birmingham, on Tripadvisor.

THE STRESS OF HIS CANCER TREATMENT LED TO A BREAKDOWN

According to the Sunday Times interviewer Lynn Barber, who was also his first girlfriend at Oxford, Marks had a manic episode earlier this year, where he'd "taken every folk remedy including three weeks' supply of cannabis oil." There were rumors he thought he was a chicken, that he'd launched into a group of policemen. He ended up being briefly sectioned.

YET THE ICING ON HIS LIFE WAS LEARNING TO CRY

There's some tragedy in the revelation that, for all the bravado, it seems that Marks's charm was strong enough to override his more profound emotional needs. He claimed not to have cried throughout his adult life—a deeper seam of sadness he only hinted at. "In prison I cried deep in myself, but I had to be the tough guy, I couldn't let any vulnerability show... It's impossible to regret any part of my life when I feel happy and I am happy now, so I don't have any regrets and have not had any for a long time."

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