Marks and sparks

Howard Marks arriving for the Mr Nice UK Premiere, at Cineworld Cinemas, 63-65 Haymarket, London.
Howard Marks arriving for the Mr Nice UK Premiere, at Cineworld Cinemas, 63-65 Haymarket, London.

SOON after talking to the Sheffield Telegraph, Howard Marks was due to set off to Istanbul - on his first visit which seemed rather surprising for a one-time international drugs smuggler.

This is the man who during the mid 1980s had 43 aliases, 89 phone lines, and 25 companies - bars, recording studios, offshore banks - which were operating around the world as money-laundering vehicles for his core activity.

He began his dope dealing while at Oxford University, moving large quantities of hashish into Europe and America in the equipment of touring rock bands, and his academic career was left behind.

At the height of his career, he was smuggling consignments of up to 30 tons from Pakistan and Thailand to America and Canada and had contact with organisations as diverse as the CIA, MI6, the IRA, and the Mafia.

But eventually America’s Drug Enforcement Agency caught up with him and he was sentenced to 25 years in the United States Federal Penitentiary at Terre Haute, Indiana.

He was released on parole in April 1995 after serving seven years of his sentence.

Since then he has been dining out on the experience. In 1996 he released his best-selling autobiography, Mr Nice, which was adapted into a movie last year starring fellow Welshman Rhys Ifans.

In the meantime he developed a live show and his breezy tales of life as a marijuana smuggler and his views on drug use and legalisation proved a hit with audiences and critics alike.

He’s at Sheffield University on Saturday. How different will the show be to the one that has been this way before? “The format is the same although it depends on the facilities at each venue,” he explains. “If there’s no projector they just have to put up with me. I have a skeleton script but I don’t follow it slavishly. Some of it is pure adlib and, of course, I have no control over the Q & A content.

“I’ve been doing it since 1996 and the shows grew out of book readings. Avalon, who manage a lot of stand-up comedians, felt there was scope to expand it into a show. So I worked for them for a couple of years but they started getting worried about the smoking.” The upshot was that he moved the administration in-house.

“I do less and less of it these days, just when there’s a demand for it,” he says, pausing for a bout of smoker’s cough.

Although his main residence is in Spain he is talking on the phone from Kenfig Hill in Wales, the pit village where he grew up. “I’m actually in the house where I was born,” he reports. “My sister owns it now and I have access, but it’s a very different environment from the one I grew up in.”

And so to his trip to Istanbul, somewhere he thinks he may have changed planes once before (and anyone who has seen Midnight Express will know of the perils of that), but this is part holiday and part research trip for his writing.

He has just had his first piece of fiction published, a crime thriller, Sympathy for the Devil.

“I always wanted to write fiction,” he says. “As a lad I read a lot of standard popular stuff like Edgar Wallace, Leslie Charteris and Raymond Chandler. In prison I read a lot of more highbrow stuff like Dostoyevsky.”

His first novel is set in Wales but otherwise he says it’s written from the perspective of someone who is the opposite of him - female and law-abiding. He reckoned if he was going to move away from non-fiction - “there was a limit to how many autobiographies I could get away with” - he thought he might as well make it as challenging as possible.

And now he’s sending his heroine, Detective Sergeant Catrin Price, off to Turkey for the next book.

Howard Marks: Mr Nice is at The Foundry, University of Sheffield Students Union, on Saturday.