Howard Marks unrepentant

Howard Marks was on fine form in an x-rated discussion about his life as a professional drug smuggler at the Harrogate Crime Festival on Friday night.

66-year-old criminal icon Howard Marks, who at the peak of his game had 43 aliases, 89 phone numbers and 25 businesses across the world, gave an open and honest interview about his past and the state of the drug laws at a Friday night in Harrogate that felt more like the headline music act at Glastonbury than a literary festival talk. He appeared topped with a shock of grey hair, sporting a bright orange t-shirt emblazoned with his own younger face, accessorised with a smart jacket. Talking to broadcaster Mark Lawson, his subjects ranged from his criminal past to seeing himself played on film (by Rhys Ifans) and his move into crime fiction with Sympathy for the Devil. He drew by far the biggest crowd of the Festival so far, notably including shaggy-haired young men who were absent from the other more mainstream events.

Marks explained that his move into fiction was due to the legal implications of making money from his previous crime (via book sales): "With fiction I can talk about all the crimes I’ve done as long as I pretend they were done by someone else." He based the book's heroine on a female prison warder he fancied while incarcerated, but blew his chances with by smiling at her without his false teeth.

Lawson quickly noted that Marks had a (fairly charming) habit of losing his string of thought on more than one occasion, and asked if this was down to a life of smoking marijuana. "No," replied Marks with a husky cackle, "I'm a f**king old man!"

When it came to those crimes, he was full of soundbites, some shocking (to some, at least), many funny. Referring to Marks’ bestselling autobiography Mr Nice, Marks was asked if he thought books glamorised crime. His blunt reply? “It is glamorous. When I read the headlines, that I was the most wanted man in the world, I f**king loved it.” And while he also said that writing the book – for which he received a £100,000 advance – was "a genuine attempt to give up crime", when asked what he would have done had he not written it, Marks replied: "I'd have brought in the biggest load of dope this country had ever seen." The audience laughed; some gasped; all were gripped.

The former trafficker was notoriously handed a 25-year sentence for trafficking marijuana, to be served in Indiana, but was let out after seven years. Marks recalled that while he was in prison, he read all the classic novels he’d pretended to read while studying for undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at Oxford – thinking about what career he would have gone into if he had avoided a life of crime, he answered simply: “If I hadn’t have been a drug dealer I would have gone into nuclear physics.”

Despite agreeing that he deserved to go to jail (because he knew the risks), Marks spoke fondly of his time as a drug baron, saying: “If one of my kids wanted to be the world’s biggest dope dealer, I’d be like, ‘OK, fair enough’.” He called for dismantling prohibition, saying police spend far too much time trying to catch out young people smoking pot. When asked if he still smokes, Marks quipped: “I smoke less now...but it’s stronger. I laugh more, I write better and I enjoy music more when I smoke. I enjoy the things I enjoy more.”

Most of all, this garrulous, unique guest was a balm for those who are full of regret and, for that matter, a lesson for those who would underestimate his intelligence. When all was said and done, Marks said, "I can do nothing but be thankful for a very blessed and meaningful life."