Howard Marks

Mr Nice prepares for CQAF 2010 with a chat about Nick Clegg, DEA phone taps and breaking into crime fiction

Anyone who has picked up a copy of the iconic crime memoir Mr Nice and read the back cover blurb will be aware that Howard Marks was one of the world's most audacious marijuana smugglers of the 1980s, a master of disguise and occasional MI6 spy who later spent seven years incarcerated in Indiana's feared Terra Haute Penitentiary after an unprecedented international man hunt led by the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Yet Marks was no thug life gangster type. Those who have read the book will also be aware that Marks – a working class boy originally from Glamorganshire in Wales – was accepted to read Physics and, later, Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford in the 1960s, and that during his time in Terre Haute, he availed of the Sixth Amendment, read up on US criminal law and made a ‘hustle’ from helping his fellow inmates appeal their convictions, with some considerable success.

Aside from being a thoroughly nice, not to mention daring and charismatic man, Marks is also an innately gifted one. His memoirs, Mr Nice and the subsequent Señor Nice, in which Marks traces his family tree all the way to South America, have attracted readers in their droves, ostensibly for their outrageous content.

But on re-reading the former before our interview, it strikes me (again) that Marks's prose is remarkably controlled and compelling, seemingly effortless. Did he take to the task of writing as easily as… well, everything else he’s put his mind to?

‘At first we considered using a ghost writer, because I had no experience in writing prose other than philosophy essays or something like that,’ recalls Marks down the line, his deep Welsh brogue comforting and familiar. ‘But I had taught English grammar in the prison for several years – they give you a job in prison – and that probably helped me not to make any grammatical mistakes.

‘So I wrote a sample chapter to see if we should get a ghost writer or not. Vintage Books liked that sample, which turned out to be the first chapter of the book, in fact, and said "Go on, write the book yourself", which was great, you know, because you’ve got to pay about 40% for a ghost writer these days.’

Howard Marks 2

Marks has also edited an anthology of drug literature entitled Dope Stories, and is currently searching for new work by established and unknown authors on the subject of travel – both sensory and physical – for a compendium provisionally entitled Tripping, due to be published in the near future.

Visitors to Marks’s website can download songs that Marks contributed to in one way or another (he was a keen piano player and singer as a young man), purchase newly created strains of cannabis seeds (legally) via the Mr Nice Seed Bank, and contribute to a petition to legalise cannabis in the UK.

Aside from that, and rather astonishingly, users can also download actual DEA phone tap recordings of Marks talking with his associates in code at the height of his criminal career.

‘As they do in courts [in the UK, in America] they have to give you all the evidence against you,’ explains Marks of his 1990 prosecution trail. ‘It’s only a very small selection [available on the website]. I got a bag full of them. They were tapping my phone for years! I stuck them on the website. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to do that, but f**k ‘em,’ he chuckles.

Fans will be intrigued to learn that Marks is now turning his hand to writing fiction. ‘I have a book coming out in less than a year now called Sympathy for the Devil. It’s based in Wales and it’s about drugs, so not a massive departure. But there’s a limit to how many autobiographies and anthologies one can write.

‘The main character of the story is a female police officer, because I was trying to find someone the exact opposite of me, so it would have to be a female and it would have to be a cop. I did enlist the help of crime fiction writers and series editors and studied it. It wasn’t something that came naturally.’

At the beginning of his career as a cannabis smuggler in the 1980s, Marks visited Ireland on an almost daily basis to oversee the importation of tonnes of marijuana from Pakistan to London via Shannon airport. At this time he worked closely with notorious gun smuggler and IRA member Jim ‘The Shamrock Pimpernel‘ McCann, from Belfast, who allegedly went on to bomb a British Army Base in Germany and was last seen – according to the Sunday Business Post – in Argentina.

Marks, however, has always (rightly) prided himself on being, in the words of the Guardian film critic Bernard Rose, a ‘decent sort of drug dealer; one who never dealt with guns, violence or more damaging substances‘.

A biopic of Marks’ exploits in Ireland and elsewhere is set for release later this year, also entitled Mr Nice and starring fellow Welshman and former hedonist Rhys Ifans, when the story of the man who formerly had 43 aliases (Mr Nice being one of them), 89 phone lines and who owned 25 'companies' comes to the big screen.

Since his release from prison in 1995, Marks has visited Ireland on many occasions as a raconteur (he also has family here from his marriage to ex-wife Judy), recounting the highs and lows of a career that took him all over the world and earned him many friends, and millions of pounds, along the way.

He will next appear in Belfast as part of the 11th Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, a gig that sold out in record time. But he'll be taking it easy when he gets here. He admits that he's 'getting on a bit', and that more than one night on the booze is not as easy task.

These days, Howard Marks is happy to sit back, spliff up and write. Or watch the tele. As a keen campaigner for the legalisation of marijuana, he watched the first ever televised prime ministerial debate in the UK and thought that Nick Clegg came out on top.

'I've looked at their policies. [The Lib Dems] are at least prepared to look into things a bit more. The rest just bumble a load of nonsense. Not that it needs looking into. People have been smoking cannabis for 10,000 years. The effects are well known – because you're stoned!'