Howard Marks was a bold, brash, wonderfully problematic hero – these days he’d be no-platformed by students
On the occasion of Howard Marks’ death, it’s curious to recall that once upon a time, he was a folk hero. Younger readers who scan the numerous fond obituaries for the Welsh vagabond will doubtless be searching – for it is the mood of our age – for shards of Marks’ life that were ‘problematic’. I’ll save you people a Google search and a morning of hand-wringing: the whole lot was problematic. All of it.
The drug smuggling, his wranglings with the IRA and MI5, his interpersonal relationships while in the midst of running a global narcotics enterprise. Heck, the fact he read physics at Oxford. So many rich pickings here, ripe for posthumous outrage. It’s a wonder we were allowed to love Howard Marks at all.
But for a time in the 1990’s, spilling over generously into the following decades, Marks held a place in a considerable swathe of the nation’s hearts. There was a point – although it’s difficult to remember sometimes – where nuance, discrepancy and downright skullduggery were tolerated in our public-facing figures.
We might not have wanted a drug dealer living in our own street creating havoc, but at the same time, Howard Marks’ roughshod potboiler of a biography Mr Nice lived on the bookshelves of every student and bachelor.
Howard Marks’ sage words of advice from a self-admittedly flawed man festooned dog-eared copies of our beloved monthly treat Loaded magazine. He was invited to discuss his exploits, his honking errors and his prison experiences on TV and at literary festivals. He was handsome, twinkly-eyed, erudite, sweet and naughty.
All the boys wanted to smoke with him and the girls wanted to shag him. He even – gasp – spoke at universities, where students would gather to listen then cogitate over his, possibly wonky, ideas on drug reform.
We did not yell “no platform” at Marks or demand a safe space away from him, because he offered a unique take on space laden with huge dangers. It was possible, we thought, not to condone these dangers, while at the same time wanting to hear more.
We live in different times. I do not condone cocaine smuggler Michaella McCollum’s choices in 2013 which led her to her festering for three years in a Peruvian jail, but I found her interview with RTE last week compelling. It is worth noting the social media backlash against McCollumn for daring to show her face publicly – wearing lipstick, no less – to offer an explanation about how an everyday 19-year-old woman from Dungannon can go to Ibiza on holiday and end up in Lima carrying 11kg of Class A drugs.
To my mind, McCollum’s interview should be played five times per week right through May to Year 11 schoolchildren dreaming of their first singles holiday abroad. Instead RTE spent last week defending their choice to give McCollum airtime.
McCollum, it seemed, needed to look sorrier, more broken and more desperate for our forgiveness. She did, incidentally, look all of these things, but it wasn’t enough. How dare she sit on a chair and talk without falling apart entirely?
But we did not demand that Howard Marks spend the nineties looking contrite for the narcotics empire he ran from Palma de Majorca a decade before. Personally, what piqued my interest much more was the way Marks moved to Majorca with an intention to go straight, but despite living in sunny climes, in relative luxury, could not resist getting up to his eyeballs in crime again.
To me this said more about the mind patterns of career criminals than a thousand hours of earnest anthropological study. There’s a wonderful, comedy moment in the 2010 film Mr Nice where Rhys Ifans, playing Marks, declares Palma’s blissful winding streets, endless sunshine, good wine and snoozy ambience so bloody boring he has almost no choice but to become an international drug trafficker again.
Marks, in his criminal ‘heyday’, was trapped in a doomed cycle of his own making. Crime paid. It was exciting and it was glamorous. A little bit like being Robin Hood or even James Bond. Until the moment it wasn’t, when he lost everything and spent seven long years in a Federal Correction Complex.
To understand why so many of the British public loved Howard Marks is to uncover something incongruent and ball-kickingly ‘problematic’ about the way we choose our heroes. It is not generally for the person’s saintliness. Or their blemish-free diaries.
Howard Marks won affection as he lived a big, brash, blame-filled life, and, importantly, was never, ever boring. His tales were strewn with innocent victims, but who cared, because he was a stonkingly good raconteur.
We shall not see the likes of Howard Marks again. Well, we will. We’ll just make sure they have no platform to talk to us.