Olaf Tyaransen celebrates the illustrious life of Howard Marks

One of the most notorious drug dealers of the modern era, in almost every way, Howard Marks went against stereotype. He was a highly intelligent, erudite and charming man, who enjoyed life to the full – while running rings around law enforcement agencies for years.

A day after Howard Marks passed away at his home in Brigend, Wales, this tweet was posted on his @OfficialMrNice account: “In the early hours of 10th April 2016, Howard Marks died peacefully in his sleep surrounded by his four loving children. Goodnight, Mr Nice.

Drug dealers generally get very bad press, and are rarely ever mourned outside their immediate circle of family, friends and criminal associates. But Howard wasn’t your typical drug dealer.

When the notorious former cannabis smuggler turned author and performer lost his battle with bowel cancer, the newspaper obituaries were mostly grudgingly admiring – and even borderline affectionate. The Washington Post’s headline read, ‘Howard Marks, British drug smuggler and countercultural scofflaw, dies at 70’.

While he certainly had his critics and adversaries, most notably in the American Drug Enforcement Agency, Howard was undeniably a hugely popular man. He wasn’t known as ‘Mr Nice’ for nothing.

Amongst numerous tweets and statements from musicians, actors, writers and celebrities, glowing tributes also came in from the likes of Virgin-founder Sir Richard Branson, Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens, artist Tracey Emin, Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh, and DJs Zoe Ball and Fatboy Slim.

Howard had been feeling ill for quite some time, but his doctors had assured him that he was merely suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome. By the time his cancer was discovered, it was too late.

When the news that he was terminally ill first broke in January 2015, the English actor Keith Allen commented, “Howard should get an OBE for keeping Britain stoned in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and a knighthood for what he’s done since he came out of prison. He is one of the cleverest, nicest and most charming old rogues I have ever had the pleasure of spending time with.

“He is a Welsh national institution and a national hero and will long be cherished as such. On second thoughts, he should probably turn down the knighthood.”

TONNES OF MARIJUANA

All of this high praise was for a man who made tens of millions of pounds from dealing marijuana. Tonnes of the stuff. It’s been said that there are really only two types of drug smugglers: those who need forklifts and those that don’t. At the height of his criminal career, during which he controlled an estimated 10% of the world’s cannabis supply (laundering the profits through 25 front companies), Howard was most definitely in the former camp.

For my own part, although deeply saddened, I was thankful that I’d at least been able to say a proper goodbye to him. In November of last year, during the inaugural Metropolis Festival at the RDS in Dublin, I did a public interview with Howard, which was filmed for the forthcoming feature-length documentary The Real Mr Nice.

Backstage in the green room, we had a chance to reminisce. He had lost weight and his trademark Keith Richards hairstyle had been reduced to a greying crop, but otherwise his spirits were good and he was as charming and self-deprecating as ever. He explained that he saw cancer “as a way of living rather than a way of dying.”

We’d first met in Dublin way back in 1996 when he was promoting his just-published autobiography, Mr Nice, with a reading at Whelan’s, in Wexford Street. A firm and lasting friendship was formed when we took magic mushrooms together.

Howard later described our encounter in his Book of Dope Stories: “I took the stage at Whelan’s and, after a few minutes, lost my voice and suffered the worst coughing fit of my life. Someone took pity on me and led me off the stage. His name was Olaf Tyaransen, and he had a soft West of Ireland accent. I’ve met many people that boast Irish names and ancestry and who burst into a pathetically phoney accent after a sip of stout. But, until then, I’d not heard a true Irish brogue being delivered by anyone with a name so clearly foreign.

“The mushrooms were still playing havoc with my thought processes. Olaf accepted my offer of a handful. Was he one of the original Dublin Vikings passing through one of my previous lives? No. He was a reporter for Hot Press and had actually written the scary article I’d read on the flight.”

Soon afterwards, we both appeared on The Late Late Show (Howard was the main guest, while the producers planted myself and my Hot Press colleague Stuart Clark in the audience). It was quite an eventful evening. An outraged Mary Harney told host Gay Byrne, “I don’t think he’s nice, I think he’s Mr Evil!”

Howard admitted live on TV that he always carried drugs on his person. A viewer made a complaint to the Gardaí, and they sent a squad car out to RTÉ. Backstage afterwards, having been warned by Late Late producer Cillian Fennell, he had to hastily ditch a Nepalese temple ball into a wastepaper basket. The bemused cops didn’t really do anything and soon took off without even questioning him. Once they’d departed, the hashish was discretely retrieved.

Howard was just 18 months out of prison at the time. Having been extradited from Spain in 1988, he had been sentenced to 25 years in Indiana’s Terre Haute Penitentiary, one of the toughest death row prisons in America.

During his trial in West Palm Beach, Florida, the court heard how Howard and his associates had smuggled thousands of tonnes of marijuana and hashish into the US and Canada through a sophisticated criminal organisation that had operated since 1970, reaching into Ireland, Britain, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Singapore, Australia, West Germany, the Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan and Hong Kong.

He was released after serving just seven years, when it emerged that, such was their hunger to incarcerate him, some DEA evidence had been falsified.

His arrest and trial had made worldwide headlines, and he had already been the subject of a couple of biographies. When he wrote Mr Nice, he expected it to be solely of interest to old hippies and stoners. Instead it went on to become an international bestseller, shifting well over a million copies in many languages.

In retrospect, the book’s success was hardly surprising. By any standards, he had led an amazingly interesting life. Born in 1945, he was raised in the small Welsh coal-mining town of Kenfig Hill, where he spoke only Welsh for the first five years of his life. His father was a merchant sailor and his mother a teacher.

A fiercely intelligent and charming individual, in 1964 he became the first boy from Garw grammar school to win a place at Oxford University. He won a scholarship to the prestigious Balliol College, which is where he first began smoking hashish. As with many users, he soon turned to dealing small amounts to fellow students to support his habit. Bill Clinton was studying there around this time and it’s entirely possible that the infamous joint he supposedly never inhaled was indirectly supplied by Howard.

One of his best friends at Oxford was Joshua Macmillian, the grandson of former British PM Harold Macmillan, who died of a heroin overdose. It was as a direct result of this tragedy that Howard made the decision to never engage in the trafficking of hard drugs.

Despite his hedonistic tendencies, he graduated from Balliol with a degree in nuclear physics. He could have prospered as an academic, and indeed worked as a teacher for a time after leaving university, but the straight life just wasn’t for him. Instead he quickly turned his considerable talents to international drug smuggling – operating for many years under 43 different aliases (his favourite was a British passport in the name ‘Donald Nice’).

His early smuggling career went relatively smoothly until 1973, when he was arrested in Amsterdam and accused of international trafficking. Having told customs investigators that he had been asked to infiltrate IRA smuggling operations on behalf of British intelligence, he was duly extradited to Britain. There was a tiny grain of truth in his claim: one of his Balliol contemporaries, Hamilton McMillan, was in MI6 and had previously asked Howard to use his entrée into the criminal underworld on their behalf. He was never a grass, but it was a handy excuse made even more plausible by his proven association with rogue IRA man Jim McCann. In the UK, he was held in Brixton prison before being granted bail of £20,000. It was a huge sum at the time, but he could easily afford to pay it. He could also easily afford to lose it: he immediately skipped bail and went on the lam.

CHARGED WITH RACKETEERING

The next few years were spent as a fugitive, leading to much media speculation as to what had happened to him (he became something of a folk hero during this time). Theories ranged from mafia abduction to IRA assassination to being spirited away by MI6.

Actually, following a period of several months living incognito in a Winnebago in Italy, what he was doing was continuing to smuggle cannabis, as he slipped in and out of the UK using a variety of different passports and disguises. Always fond of the high life, he was also quite partial to taking the Concorde to New York. There was often a rock ‘n’ roll element to his smuggling methods. Many of his loads of Moroccan and Lebanese hashish were airfreighted to America in the sound equipment of unwitting English bands such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

He later explained, “I just did it through the roadies, the bands didn’t know and they were earning enough money anyway. I wasn’t going to cut them in… I’d order special speaker cabinets with hidden compartments. Then I realised we didn’t need to use real bands so I just began making the names up and doing it that way.”

Howard was a regular visitor to Ireland around this time. Other shipments from India and Pakistan passed through Shannon Airport with the aid of Jim McCann’s IRA connections. His biggest single load during this period was 30 tonnes of Thai grass, worth about €100million, which he successfully shifted from Thailand to Canada.

“I was a fugitive for six-and-a-half years and I smuggled as much cannabis as I could,” he later recalled. “I felt that this was my destiny, this was my karma. I suppose I felt like a prizefighter. One day one’s going to get knocked out on the canvas. You have to carry on until you’re beaten.”

He was eventually rearrested in 1980 – “Oxford mastermind in a £20 million drugs ring” was one headline – and spent two years in jail awaiting trial. He was acquitted by a British court when he managed to convince the jury that he was acting as an agent for MI6. This time he claimed that he was working with the Mexican government to infiltrate drug cartels.

His story was so blatantly outrageous that at one point his own lawyer reportedly struggled to contain his laughter. His charm in the witness box also helped – one of the female jurors was spotted doodling a love heart. Amazingly, he somehow got away with it and, upon his release, immediately moved with his wife and children to Majorca.

His luck finally ran out in 1988 when, following a lengthy international operation spearheaded by DEA agent Craig Lovato (who was apparently obsessed with capturing him), he and his then-wife Judy were arrested at their Palma home.

Howard had been betrayed by Tony Moynihan, the 3rd Lord Moynihan, with whom he’d had dealings in the Philippines. Moynihan owned a string of massage parlours that were effectively brothels. Having found himself in trouble with the law, he had recorded a series of incriminating conversations with Howard, in exchange for immunity for himself. Although he attempted to fight the extradition, the authorities had his wife and three young children as leverage. Howard was taken in chains to America, charged with racketeering in a West Palm Beach court, and sentenced to 25 years.

His charm and intellect – and, of course, his international notoriety – helped him survive Terre Haute. At his parole hearing, it was noted that he had taught many fellow inmates how to read and, as an occasionally successful jailhouse lawyer, had even helped some get released. Even the guards liked the wily Welshman, reportedly nicknaming him ‘Narco Polo’. He was granted parole for “exemplary behaviour” and released in 1995.

Already famous from his criminal career, he became a bona fide celebrity following the release of Mr Nice – which was later turned into an acclaimed movie starring Rhys Ifans, and was the subject of his long-running one-man show. In 1997 he became a campaigner for drug law reform and unsuccessfully stood for Parliament on the single-issue ticket of cannabis legalisation.

A true renaissance man, he made his living from writing, DJ-ing, spoken word performances and acting; he had memorable turns in films such as Human Traffic, Dirty Sanchez and I Know You Know. He also occasionally appeared on stage with bands such as Alabama 3 and Super Furry Animals. The latter band put his photo on the cover of their debut album.

After Mr Nice he wrote six further books – including 2015’s follow-up autobiography Mr Smiley: My Last Pill and Testament. In that book, he revealed that he had turned his hand to smuggling ecstasy immediately after his release from prison. Unfortunately, the smuggling game had changed and most of his operations were unsuccessful. He wound up having to torch his biggest load in a New Mexico desert when he realised the pills were dangerously contaminated.

He was also a Loaded columnist for many years. When he died, the magazine’s editor James Brown tweeted, “Lovely, entertaining, inspiring man. Like our Loaded mag Dad. A true rogue & great writer. We all adored him. RIP HM.

SHARING A SPLIFF

Despite his celebrity status and public notoriety, I’ll mainly remember Howard as a really wise and true friend. We stayed in touch after that initial meeting in Dublin in 1996. The following year myself and UCC law lecturer Tim Murphy stood in the Irish general election as candidates for the Cannabis Legalisation Party at the same time as Howard was running in the UK election.

Tim and I flew over to stay with him in London and share information and discuss strategies. None of us was ultimately elected, but he was a really great ally.

That same year, Howard applied for the job of Tony Blair’s “drugs tsar”. He received the reply: “Dear Mr Marks, Thank you for this application for the post. The selection team have carefully considered it along with the other applications, and I am sorry to inform you that we were unable to include you in the candidates invited for interview. I hope that your disappointment will not prevent you from applying for other positions we may advertise in the future.”

When his daughter Francesca (affectionately known as ‘Golly’) moved to Dublin to study at Trinity College, Howard asked me to look after her and keep her out of trouble. Which, frankly, proved to be completely impossible!

We usually met once or twice a year from then on. In locations as diverse as Galway, Stradbally, London, Amsterdam and Ibiza, I enjoyed many subsequent adventures – and misadventures – in the company of this eminently charming man.

Always generous to a fault, Howard did me many more favours than I ever did him. He knew just about everybody worth knowing; if I needed an introduction to somebody I wanted to interview, he’d always happily make a phone call or send an email on my behalf.

He included my work in his bestselling anthology, The Howard Marks Book of Dope Stories, and wrote the foreword to my own autobiography, The Story of O, in 2000. Having already given me a great cover blurb (“Olaf could charm the truth out of Satan. He should work for the DEA… it’s a blessing they’d never let him in”), he agreed to fly to Dublin in November 2010 to launch my interview collection, Selected Recordings: 2000 – 2010. Unfortunately, his flight from the UK was cancelled because of the big freeze.

Howard also once namechecked me in one of my all-time favourite books. One night in the late Nineties, when he was over in Dublin to do another reading, we were sharing a spliff in his room at The Shelbourne.

I spotted a rather unwieldy looking manuscript on the table. Howard explained that he had been asked by Canongate to write an introduction to Robert Sabbag’s classic 1976 book about cocaine smuggling, Snowblind, but the publishers hadn’t been able to give him an original copy. “It’s a real pain in the arse carrying this bloody thing around everywhere,” he complained.

When I told him that I had an old Picador paperback edition at home, he begged me to get it. So I hopped in a taxi and went home and fetched it for him. When the new edition eventually appeared, the first paragraph of his introduction explained that Snowblind had been hard to find but “eventually, Olaf Tyaransen of Dublin’s Hot Press temporarily parted with his copy.” I was obviously delighted to get a mention in one of the books that had originally influenced me to become a journalist.

Before our Metropolis interview in 2015, we were chatting in the green room when the then Minister with responsibility for drug strategy Aodhan O Riordain came over to say hello and pay his respects. Afterwards he tweeted a photo of us all with the words, “Great chatting with @OfficialMrNice at #metrofestival.” It was a far cry from Mary Harney’s “Mr Evil” comment all those years earlier.

During our public interview, I asked Howard if he had any regrets. Although he knew the end was near, he quite cheerfully replied, “No, no regrets. I don’t think you can regret anything if you feel okay. I feel happy and okay now, so I can’t possibly regret anything that brought me to this position.”

Afterwards, as we said what we both knew would most likely be our final farewell, he signed my copy of Mr Smiley: “To Olaf - With love, fond memories and great expectations – Howard, Dublin, November 8th, 2015.” I told him that I’d treasure the book forever. He laughed and said, “Hey, feel free to flog it if you’ll get a few quid.”

Howard Marks was truly one of a kind and it was an absolute pleasure and privilege to have known the man. I’m really going to miss him, but I’ll always have Nice memories.

 

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