Lucy Holden meets Mr Nice – the most sophisticated drugs baron of all time – at his Leeds tapas restaurant Azucar, to discuss yoga and debauchery, being the most wanted man in the world, and why he’s more frightened of easyJet than the Mafia.
Howard Marks says he doesn’t dislike being sober. But it’s quite simple. ‘When I’m free it’s debauchery, and when I’m in prison it’s yoga.’ Yet Marks has spent so many moons in varying states of intoxication I’m not sure saluting the sun from a floor striped with prison-bar silhouette could ever compare. These days, he might still smoke twenty joints a day when he’s writing, but Mr Nice; Marco Polo; prisoner 41526-004, has slowed down. As have Mr Dennis, Mr Marks, Mr Hughes and Albi. He dodders like a heavy Ronnie Wood with half the amount of silverware.
But Marks’ story starts not with Ronnie Wood but with an Elvis Presley haircut. Considered a ‘weak swot’ at school, a fresh-faced Marks sold his soul to mischief, dancing with the devil in an attempt to dispel an image fit for a cherub. Plus he’d realised he was the brightest spark in the room. ‘If you get away with something there’s a tremendous desire to get away with something better,’ he explains. Life became a game with a simple philosophy of pushing boundaries. But where he had been encouraged to push academic boundaries, he later began pushing the boundaries of the law.
‘As soon as I started at Oxford life ceased to be normal,’ he purrs in a semi-hypnotic voice from the Valleys. As with any university experience, Oxford for Marks was the site of many important revelations: LSD gives you the horrors, he was a useless marijuana gardener, and undergraduate girls would sleep with you, especially if they were Lynn Barber and ‘had a lovely attitude to everything.’ Despite what initially seemed like good intentions for a ‘normal’ life, Marks was back for postgraduate study after a brief attempt at a ‘loathsome’ PGCE and a hasty marriage now more on the rocks than a White Russian.
‘I thought the dope dealing stuff was just flash-in-the-pan, you know?’ he appeals gently. I thought it would be legalised and that would be that. I was alright with the academic stuff but eventually smuggling just took over completely, because it is very interesting.’ And very financially interesting too, he agrees. Picking up Pakistani hash from Mayfair, Marks would have distributed it in a week and have a wad of dirty money in his pocket to prove it. He threw himself into the deep end of extravagance harder than Danny Cipriani into the front of a bus; picking up the tabs, handing out free dope and revelling, almost, in the fame and fortune he’d craved since his schooldays. He probably wouldn’t even have minded being castrated by Kelly Brooke. It was persuasive.
But rarely does the mean hand of life give it up that easily. Marks was amused to hear he was the most wanted man in the world, and was forced to slide from notoriety into anonymity quicker than Craig David after the release of ‘What’s Your Flava? ‘I got the fortune and had to be anonymous, and got the fame when I was locked up and skint,’ he smiles wryly.
But reverse a few years. We’re watching Marks slink out of a service station disguised in a long, brunette wig. As the loads he was smuggling began to dramatically increase so, understandably, did the tailing of the authorities, and along with that, Marks’ paranoia. ‘I’d just have to lose the tail before I did anything else,’ he remembers with a shrug of moulding annoyance. ‘It’s quite easy really. I’d just jump on and off tubes, buses, change my clothes, comb my hair differently, put on a pair of glasses.’
Instead of finding the fugitive lifestyle exhausting, Marks found the perpetual culture-shock fuelled his excitement. The hit of a ‘weird’ new country, where he’d often turn up alone and languageless was perhaps more than most drugs could do. It became his ideal. Paranoia only ceased when he was running: so Marks began running as much from his mind as from the authorities.
That’s not to say he wasn’t the tiniest bit relieved when he was caught. All three times. The finality of capture is something that is never afforded the forever-running fugitive stuck on the treadmill of the chase. ‘Arrest is final: you don’t have to worry about what you’re doing tomorrow, so most criminals have a feeling of relieved resignation when they get caught.’ Marks knew it couldn’t last forever; he was just trying to hold off reality like a rebellious schoolboy refusing to leave the playground.
It was Craig Lovato, the cat to Marks’ mouse in their game of chase, who finally carried him back to the USA in his jaws. Marks was to be tried and sentenced to twenty-five years, eventually serving seven, in one of America’s strictest Federal Correctional Complexes, Terre Haute (or Terror Hut, as the prisoners knew it) for his drug smuggling activities between 1970 and 1987. The allegations covered forty pages and Marks’ defence, which claimed they had the wrong man, was obliterated when his brother-in-law, Patrick, as well as another close friend, testified against him in order to have their own sentences lessened. Despite the feeling of betrayal, Marks is uneasy about criticising a decision every captured criminal considers. ‘You wonder whether you should just grass everybody up in order to get out of there, but I couldn’t do it. I would have found it difficult to look either my Dad or my kids in the eyes if I’d done that.’ Seeing the resulting psychological scars in his children though – insecurities and commitment issues and ingrained distrust – Marks wondered whether Patrick was just more of a loving father and husband than he was.
Lovato, a sticky breed of DEA agent (Drugs Enforcement Administration), had made Howard Marks his target. Marks knew it was the way DEA agents were trained: getting obsessed with one man and making it their life’s work to install them behind bars. Lovato wasn’t going to give up. But Marks says he was never worried he’d be gunned down on the run – despite the fact that he had been working, at certain points, simultaneously with the Secret Service, the IRA and the Mafia. He says he’d have been more scared boarding a flight with easyJet.
‘I found the Mafia totally honourable and easy to deal with,’ Marks says smoothly, as if he’s already clocked several revolvers protruding from waistbands in the bar. He believes Hollywood is more responsible for influencing the Mafia, than the Mafia: they only wear crisp tuxedos and slick side-partings because they’ve seen it on screen. ‘They behave like that because they’ve all seen Goodfellas,’ he grins, ‘and if the Secret Service had wanted to kill me, I’d already be dead.’
Behind bars, Marks tried to imagine how he could turn the slow grind of his sentence into a good after-dinner story. Marks’ second wife Judy, though, was probably going to skip the anecdote and the cheese and biscuits. In fact she was probably going to skip the whole meal and just file for divorce. ‘Our characters went in very different directions as a result of our experience with law enforcement and prison and stuff,’ he says with perhaps the most amount of quietly hurt feeling yet. ‘Part of what you try and do in prison is kill every emotional attachment you have as a means of survival. You can’t do it with your kids or your parents, no matter how hard you try, but you can do it with your wife,’ he laughs coyly, shagging locks shaking. Although Marks says he would choose sex over drugs if he had to make the choice, the evidence doesn’t seem to be there. You get the feeling that Marijuana would continue to leer sexily from the shadows until Marks was tempted to give in and rip her bag off.
Marks did, however, maintain sobriety for the whole of his time at Terre Haute: no mean feat inside a jail where you could get you anything you wanted. As Marks moved into the Six Years Inside pose, (specific to a specialist penitentiary yoga known as Time), he began to worry about being too old for life when he was released: ‘too old to dance, too old to fuck.’ Institutionalisation Marks recognised generally took over around the five year mark. ‘You begin to feel useless, and then you take pride in being able to survive in what is actually an extremely easy environment to survive in. Part of being institutionalised is getting used to not dealing with stress. The suicide rate in prison is much lower than outside, except for very young kids.’ Since that particularly terrifying LSD trip at Oxford, though, Marks can’t help thinking of life as a horrifically-inescapable Joycean underworld fit for a novel worse than Finnegans Wake.
His daughters, on the other hand, didn’t think their newly released father was too old for anything. The little pill Marks threw down his throat a week after his release shot his veins full of adrenaline and dilated his pupils with black, purple life. ‘I took my first E with my daughters because I missed the 90s E-generation when I was in prison. When I got out I asked my kids what’d been happening in the music scene since I’d been banged up and they said: “You’ll never understand unless you drop one of these.”’ Suddenly Marks didn’t feel so old. He doesn’t think anybody ever does, they just start to give ‘less and less of a fuck about anything.’
What Marks sees as his second childhood has taught him as much as his enlightening days at Oxford: an Ecstasy comedown is a brilliant time to do the accounts (allowing spread-sheet-satisfaction you will get from no other drug), he likes nothing more than giving people great food, great wine and getting them very stoned, and stand-up comedy is remarkably like trying to cross a border with your clothes hemmed with drugs. Well, when you’ve got stage-fright that is. ‘Even though the downside of carrying drugs across borders is that you could spend the rest of your life in prison, in both situations you’re still capable of looking like a twat in front of a lot of other people,’ he says with droll nostalgia. Looking back at it all now, he just feels incredibly lucky to have had such a wonderful life.
A wonderful life Balliol College believe Marks has had too. Or so says an extraordinary letter inviting him back to Oxford to celebrate their 750th anniversary this month. You are just the kind of person who could inspire Balliol students to go on to achieve great things, the Royal Mail informed a surprised alumnus whose eyebrows were presumably as high as they are now. As for Marks, he had no idea how life was going to turn out then, and he still doesn’t now. ‘My life has always surprised me. But being banged up as a result of losing at a game you decided to play isn’t really a tragedy, is it? Whatever the universe throws at you, you’ve just got to smoke it, you know?’
Howard Marks’ new book The Score is out now.