Peter Reynolds

The life and times of Peter Reynolds

Mr Smiley And Me.

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Originally published in The Sunday Times, 20th September 2015

Howard Marks, Britain’s most famous drug dealer, has terminal cancer. Yet Lynn Barber, his first girlfriend at Oxford, found her old flame in fine form — and with no regrets about his shady past.

mr smiley

I found Howard Marks surrounded by vast stashes of drugs, but alas not the fun drugs of yesteryear — these are all the anti-cancer drugs he has to take nowadays. He was diagnosed with inoperable bowel cancer a year ago and it had already reached stage four — and I remember Christopher Hitchens telling me “there is no stage five” — and spread to his liver and lungs. So he is on the way out but cheerfully, gracefully, with no regrets. He accepted his death sentence with the same lack of self-pity that he accepted his 25-year prison sentence in 1988. Though it was rather galling that he’d been going to the doctor complaining of intestinal problems for five years and been repeatedly told he had irritable bowel syndrome.

He lives alone in a one-bedroom flat in Leeds, in a converted warehouse near the canal. The living room is more like an office, with a huge desk along one wall with computers, DVD players and a plasma screen above. This is where he works, and he still works when he is well enough — he is currently writing the introduction to a coffee-table book about Pikes Hotel, Ibiza, where all the stars stayed — they’ve still got Freddie Mercury’s toilet as a sort of shrine. Howard, by contrast, has a commode in the corner. On the walls, there are two Cannabis Culture Awards with photos of him surrounded by cannabis leaves, and a black-and-white portrait that will be the cover of his new book, Mr Smiley. The big terrace outside the window is mainly taken up with a huge garden shed, which I assumed he used for growing cannabis, but no, it contains stacks of files marked E for evidence from his various trials.

It’s strange seeing him again after all these years. I was his first undergraduate girlfriend at Oxford — “rivetingly glamorous”, he wrote in Mr Nice, and certainly a change from all the Woolworths shopgirls he’d been shagging up till then. He was in his first year when I was in my second, and it was generally considered infra dig to go out with a fresher, but he was irresistible. People would point him out in the High — “Do you know our Welsh oik, Howard Marks?” — and cross the road to clap him on the back. It is hard to convey how exotic he seemed among the tweedy undergraduates of those days: first, because he came from a Welsh mining village, Kenfig Hill, and spoke Welsh as his first language. Second, because he dressed like a teddy boy, with crepe-soled shoes and slicked-back hair, and would occasionally break into Elvis Presley impressions. And third, because he was at Balliol, which was the most serious-minded, the most mandarin, of all the Oxford colleges. Others, like Brasenose and Teddy Hall, would accept occasional thickos if they were good at athletics or rowing, Christchurch would take them if they had titles, but Balliol never took thickos at all. So just being there meant that he was formidably intelligent, even if it was sometimes hard to understand what he was saying through his thick Welsh accent.

smiley's people

He remains grateful to Balliol, first for accepting him and then for nursing him through his physics degree (he got a 2:1) despite his complete lack of work. He and his best friend, Julian Peto, met on their first day and still go to every Balliol Gaudy [reunion] together, and Howard is proud of the fact that he has never missed one — they are held every seven years or so, and his prison sentence conveniently fitted in between. “I love it — it’s the Oxford old boys’ club and I enjoy the company of those people very much. Balliol were very good to me — they paid my daughters’ school fees while I was in prison, and that was one of the first debts I repaid when I got some money.”

I only went out with Howard for one term because he was soon snowed under with other girlfriends and ended up marrying one of them, the dazzlingly beautiful Ilze Kadegis. They moved to Brighton after Oxford and I lost touch with them, but, of course, I heard rumours of his burgeoning career as an international drugs smuggler and occasionally saw him at parties when he was supposedly on the run. He was eventually caught and tried at the Old Bailey, but to everyone’s amazement he was acquitted — the happiest day of his life, he says — but he was arrested again in Mallorca in 1988, deported to the States and sentenced to 25 years in Terre Haute prison (though he eventually only served seven). I sent him books, but didn’t see him again till he emerged in 1995, when I interviewed him at his home in Mallorca. Subsequently, I saw him doing a couple of shows based on his autobiography, Mr Nice, but I didn’t really like the pothead atmosphere, and I didn’t go to the recent Kentish Town Forum concert, where he appeared with his friends Rhys Ifans and Super Furry Animals. So this is the first time I’ve seen him for ages. He turned 70 last month, and his once-luxuriant black hair is now a few grey wisps. But he is still very recognisably Howard, with the same cheerful grin, and a mind as sharp as ever — or possibly more so, because for once he is not stoned. And he still has the charm — that gilt-edged, rock-solid asset he has always relied on.

His manager, Daniel Gray, has brought three bottles of wine, so we happily pour wine and light cigarettes, though Howard insists on rolling his own. When I ask for a light, he opens a desk drawer containing at least 20 lighters, including a hob lighter that he uses when his hands are shaking from the chemo. He explains that the chemo goes in two-week cycles and gets worse as it goes on. Often his fingers tremble so much he can’t type and at some points he can’t talk either, though his girlfriend can still understand him. He has three “good” days when he can go out, and another three days when he can work at home but not go out because he can’t wear his tooth implants — “which is not something that makes you feel like socialising”.  His big regret is that he can’t travel abroad any more because he has to be near the hospital at all times.

He had a weird sort of binge a few weeks ago when he took every known remedy for every known cancer all at once, including three weeks’ supply of cannabis oil, and ended up being sectioned. There were rumours he thought he was a chicken, but he can’t remember that — “There’s an awful lot I can’t remember. Apparently I launched into a group of policemen and started hitting them, which is really uncharacteristic behaviour because, as you know, I’m normally a very peaceful character.” Did the policemen know who he was? “I’ve no idea. They didn’t ask for my autograph! So then I was sectioned and went to a lunatic asylum for about two weeks.” Did he meet anyone interesting there? “I met someone I thought was very interesting, but on reflection he was a bit of a headcase.”

His doctors think he’s doing well — his cancer is now “stable” and his tumours have reduced by about 20%. And they’ve asked him to do a reading at their Christmas concert, which seems to show confidence — he plans to do Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales. And he, in turn, is very confident that he is getting the best possible treatment. Leeds is one of the top cancer places anyway, but it helps that he has some formidable backup — his old friend Julian Peto is Cancer Research UK chair of epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Julian’s brother, Sir Richard Peto, is professor of medical statistics and epidemiology at Oxford. Howard’s sister is a fellow of Durham University specialising in health planning, and she comes to his consultations because she knows what questions to ask. “So it’s obviously helpful having those contacts. And being a minor celebrity is also helpful.” Does he think he’s getting better treatment than if he were Joe Bloggs? “Yes — which I’m obviously not happy about.”

Until the diagnosis, he spent most of his time doing shows based on Mr Nice, sometimes two or three a week. He liked to go to all the music festivals — Glastonbury, Bestival, Latitude — because they paid much better than literary festivals, but he didn’t think he was up to camping this year. Couldn’t he demand a hotel? “Well, I could — but I’ve got to be a man of the people, haven’t I?” Anyway, he’s far too ill. The trouble with doing his shows was that members of the audience always wanted to smoke a spliff with him afterwards and tell him their conspiracy theories. “Luckily, because of my postgraduate degree in the history of philosophy of science, I can keep some sort of balance about it.” But why bother? Why was he always so willing to listen to mad stoners rambling on? “Well, they’ve listened to my story, so I felt I had to listen to theirs. And being accessible, you know, is part of my image.” But the problem was they all brought their own home-grown super-strong skunk and he was too polite ever to refuse a spliff, even though “I’d rather have gone home and had a Horlicks, to be honest”. He still enjoys smoking hash, but he says this new skunk is evil.

howard smoking kitchen table

Being forced to stay at home means that he has finally completed the long-awaited follow-up to Mr Nice, which will be published on Thursday. It’s called Mr Smiley and covers the period from l995, when he emerged from prison, to 2000 when (he claims) he finally gave up drugs smuggling for good. But whereas Mr Nice was all high times and jolly japes, Mr Smiley tells a much darker story. He came out of prison to find all his old contacts either dead, retired or turned police informers, and the Mallorca bars he used to frequent were under new ownership. And although he was thrilled to see his wife Judy and their children, Amber, Francesca and Patrick, after all his years inside, he soon realised that he and Judy had grown apart. She had had to accept a plea bargain in order to be released, which meant she could never get a visa to visit him in prison in the States.

He had decided in prison that he was going to stay sober and go straight, but his resolve soon weakened. Writing was all very well, but he missed the excitement of drugs smuggling. So, when he got wind of a possible deal, he threw himself into it again. But the drugs had changed and so had the atmosphere. Nobody wanted the finest Pakistani and Afghani hash that used to be his speciality — they were all growing their own — so he had to move into MDMA or ecstasy, which was controlled, not by old hippies like him, but by big criminal cartels. He believes that much of the Brink’s-Mat gold was laundered through the clubs in Ibiza. So he started importing MDMA, but with very little success and ended up burning his last consignment because it was contaminated. That was 10 days before the new millennium.

It is evident from Mr Smiley that his second go-round as a drugs smuggler was not nearly as much fun as the first. He seems to have spent most of his time alone, holed up in grim flats or rotting chalets waiting for phone calls that never came. He didn’t even make much money because most of his drug deals went wrong. “They all went wrong really, and I ended up disappointing people. It was a sort of trough in my life.” So why did he persist when, by then, he could have made money from writing? “Well, obviously in retrospect, I’d just got hooked on smuggling. I happened to be good at it and I did love it. And the temptation was always just one more deal.”

But he is such a good writer, I wish he had stuck to that. Some of the descriptions in Mr Smiley of the Marbella coast, its seedy bars and empty millionaires’ mansions, are almost worthy of Raymond Chandler. Supposing he’d written a successful novel straight after Oxford, could he have gone straight then or was the lure of criminality too strong? “Well, it turns out that the lure of criminality was too strong.” And as far as he’s concerned, writing is too much hard work for too little money. Mr Nice did very well, sold 1m copies and was made into a film (starring Rhys Ifans), but then he wrote a couple of crime novels, Sympathy for the Devil and The Score, which, despite good reviews, didn’t sell  — “So that was an experiment that didn’t work.” He does care about money much more than an old hippy should. When I asked what he missed about his former millionaire lifestyle, he didn’t hesitate: “The millions!”

howard smoking sign

What was the best of the high times? “You mean the over-the-top stuff? Embarrassingly, my engagement party to Judy. We had a £500-a-week flat in Hans Court [in Knightsbridge] and I had a model train that took joints from one room to another and the only food was foie gras and caviar. Just silly stuff like that — I’m embarrassed to remember it. I was just behaving as a bit of a plonker — as most rich people do, I think.” He believes that money doesn’t make you popular, it makes you despised. “Because of course people eventually ask you for money — ‘I only need 10 grand’ — and you say, ‘All right, here’s 10 grand.’ But then they come again. And fortunes fluctuate, you know — sometimes you don’t have 10 grand. And then they feel you’ve let them down.”

The police were sure, when they arrested him, that he’d got millions stashed away in foreign bank accounts and they tracked most of them down. The rest, he says, went on paying lawyers, so that he was broke when he was finally released. He gave the house in Mallorca to Judy when they split up and she still lives there. It was an acrimonious divorce. She wrote a book in 2006 called Mr Nice and Mrs Marks, saying that he had been a bad husband, bad father and totally narcissistic. I thought she made her point. They still have phone conversations about the children and “sometimes the conversations are quite civilised, but generally it doesn’t take long for her to start complaining again — ‘And you were never there,’ and so on”. Whereas he is still friends with Ilze, his first wife, and also with Rosie, the mother of his first child, Myfanwy.

He made a will when he was diagnosed, leaving everything to his four children. “I also took a DNA test because there was another possible child, by the first girl I ever shagged back in Kenfig Hill. I didn’t meet her till she was 50, but her children used to come to my shows and say they were my grandchildren, and there was always some doubt. I would have included her in my will if she was really my child, but she’s not — I got the DNA results about three months ago.” He’s also had other people claiming to be his children turning up at his shows, but “they’ve always got the dates completely wrong, so they’ve all been ruled out”.

Since 1999 he’s been going out with a teacher called Caroline Brown, although they’ve never lived together. She is the reason he moved to Leeds. They were introduced by Ilze, who was teaching at the same school at the time. Caroline is “totally straight, highly bound up with education”, but she didn’t mind going out with a known drugs smuggler. “She had no interest in crime whatsoever and didn’t want to know. She wouldn’t understand the details anyway, even if I explained them to her.”

Whereas Howard is still a bit too interested in crime. Some of his best friends are criminals. “There’s some travelling gypsy drug dealers I like very much. And Freddie Foreman, I really like him.” Really? Wasn’t he a hitman for the Kray twins who admitted murdering two people? “Yes. You’ve seen The Long Good Friday — that was him. It was more to do with imposing order on complete chaos. Someone has to be the mediator, the organiser.” But Howard — he killed people! “I’m not judgmental. I’ve friends in the army who’ve killed people.”

He also liked some of the criminals he met in Terre Haute. “Especially the Mafia ones. I met far more of them than I ever did outside. And I was also impressed by some of the Colombian cartel runners. As usual, you make far better contacts in prison. And there was one Jamaican guy I liked very much. He’d been very high up in the army, but he overstayed his visa in the US and they put him in prison somewhere — and he burnt the f****** prison down! So then they sent him to Terre Haute. When I came out, I used him as my bodyguard at shows — not because I needed one, but because it’s such a cool look!”

He says his time in prison wasn’t too bad, mainly because he was a foreigner, but also because he heeded the advice his father gave him: take care of those less fortunate than yourself, and there were plenty of them. He helped them write letters and tried to teach them to read. A few years after his release, a black girl came up to him at one of his Mr Nice gigs, and said: “My brother was in prison with you and he talks about you often.” And she took the ring off her finger and said: “That’s from him.” He still wears it.

howard reading at Bestival

When he goes into a party or a crowded room, can he tell who are the criminals? “Usually, yes. They sit with their backs to the wall and size people up.” And does he do that? “No. I studiously avoid it. Because then people might think I was a criminal.” Ah. This is where I always come unstuck with Howard. I forget that he has never regarded himself as a criminal because he did not believe that importing cannabis should be a crime. “And the lack of violence, of course. That has always been important to me. Not only do you not kill anyone, you don’t endanger anyone’s life. They might end up in prison or something, but they are not physically harmed.” But if he believes this, how can he be friends with Freddie Foreman? His moral code is too complicated for me.

Daniel warned me beforehand that Howard tired easily and I promised that I wouldn’t keep him for more than an hour and a half. But when I was due to sign off, Howard asked if I’d like to come out for lunch. Of course. Will The Sunday Times pay? Yes, I told him, crossing my fingers. In that case, he said, we’ll go to the mafia restaurant — they have some very good wines.

I never found out why he called it the mafia restaurant, beyond that it was Italian, but, my God, it had some very good wines. A bit too good, I realised, when I caught a glimpse of the price list — Château Mouton Rothschild (£750), Château Lafite (£1,100). “Stop it, Howard!” I cried when I saw his finger hovering over the Brunello di Montalcino Biondi Santi, at £175. Oh, all right, he said, we’ll have the cheap version (£66) and the Rapitala Gran Cru (£36) to start. He ordered scallops and sea bass and I got irritated because he ate so slowly, but Daniel said afterwards that it was wonderful to see Howard eating a proper meal for the first time in months. The bill came to an intoxicating £267.

Over lunch, Howard gave me good advice on how to make my smartphone and laptop secure, recommending a messaging service, Telegram, which would auto-destruct any message I sent. But why bother? “Maybe you don’t have to, but I have to, for the sake of other people out there. I want to keep my connections with the criminal world, or some of them.” Why? “Because they’re funny.” And, I suppose, because he still nurtures the hope, the dream, of pulling off the world’s biggest deal. When I asked whether that consignment he burnt in the Mexican desert l0 days before the new millennium was really his last ever deal, he said firmly: “Absolutely, yes.” But then added: “Of course, if I’d come across a deal I thought I could get away with, maybe I would have done it… And maybe I’d do it now.”

I’m glad he’s incorrigible. I’m glad he has no regrets. But I’m also glad that he’s written a follow-up to Mr Nice. I always thought that book was dangerously seductive, and I used to worry about my daughters reading it when they were teenagers and thinking it would be fun to go out with a drugs smuggler. Mr Smiley certainly knocks that idea on the head. It has few laughs, no glamour, no romance — instead, a grimly realistic but beautifully written account of what a life of crime actually entails. I very much hope he makes it to the launch party — and that nobody offers him another deal.

“I Had Been Part Of Her Rampage”

Howard Marks recalls his fling with Lynn Barber, pictured at Oxford, and their first interview

 

young lyn barber

Once upon a time they called me the largest dope smuggler in the world, the man who controlled a fifth of the world’s hashish and marijuana traffic — probably something of an exaggeration. But who was I now? Probably no more, in the cold light of day, than a half-remembered name from the tabloids, a name from the past; and after so much time inside, I had begun to lose sight of the confident, self-assured person I had been.

My immediate problems in those first months were mainly financial. Though there had been reports in the press since my release that I had stashed away millions in eastern European banks, I was in reality stone broke. All my Spanish accounts had been used up on legal fees, and the dozen other accounts I had kept for a rainy day in Switzerland, Sicily, Hong Kong and Thailand had all been tracked down by the DEA and local drug agencies during my incarceration and sequestered.

When an offer came through to me from the publicist Max Clifford to sell my story to the News of the World for £10,000, this helped in the short term; but though I had no objection to doing business with Clifford, whom I had always found pleasant enough in previous encounters, this sort of money was not going to last long. I also had debts to Balliol College, who had lent me money while inside to finance my daughters’ school fees. Selling more stories to other papers for a few hundred pounds helped me scrape by for another few weeks, along with writing some book reviews. When a friend from the old days, Lynn Barber, approached me to do an interview I wanted to charge her, but knew I wouldn’t get away with it.

As Lynn was one of the few people I had known before I went into dealing and smuggling — she had briefly been a girlfriend of mine — I hoped she might be useful in finding employment in the journalistic world, and I spent a lot of time trying to remember our past together as a way of getting back into her good books. But all that was coming back to me were the basic outlines: how we had met at the Kemp cafe, a student hangout, when Lynn had been the girlfriend of a leading student actor, Richard Durden-Smith.

After he left her for another starring student actor, Maria Aitken, Lynn, by her own account, had gone on the rampage, and I had been part of her rampage. To be fair, it had been the Sixties, and we had been stoned all the time, and a lot of girls were on the rampage. Lynn’s theory that you should have sex first to see if you were compatible must have paid off, as she’d met her husband, David Cardiff, while she was doing the rounds of the male campus, and they had been happily married for 30 years. During this time she had built up a reputation for well-observed psychological insights on her interviewees, finding out their less well-defended weak spots and hitting the mark; so I dreaded reading her piece about me, but most of it, thankfully, turned out to be harmless reminiscence and I felt I had been let off lightly.

© Howard Marks. Extracted from Mr Smiley: My Last Pill and Testament, to be published on September 24 (Pan Macmillan £18.99). To buy it for £16.99 (inc p&p), call 0845 271 2135 or visit thesundaytimes.co.uk/bookshop

 

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Written by Peter Reynolds

September 30, 2015 at 12:43 pm

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