Howard Marks’ two-Wales model

Jonathan Brooks-Jones on a chronicle of scams, acquittals, and debauchery launched in Swansea tonight

Howard Marks, the Welshman once called “the most sophisticated drugs baron of all time” will launch his new book Two Dragons at the Grand Theatre in Swansea tonight. It recounts the journey Marks took to discover his ancestry, which in turn led him to re-connect with his Welsh roots. A chance conversation with a fellow prisoner, Tee Bone, a gangster serving time for murder persuaded Marks to embark on his investigation.

It seems that smuggling and the life of an outlaw runs in the family for Marks. In his quest he uncovered distant ties to William Owen (1717-1747), a famous Welsh smuggler whose “chronicle of scams, acquittals, and debauchery would put any modern-day smuggler or playboy to shame.” Here again Marks’ own life echoes that of his ancestor, as his career since coming out of prison has been built on the success of his own memoirs from his time as a smuggler Mr Nice, subsequently made into a major film starring Rhys Ifans.

Marks believes that his father’s family were part of Jesse James’s gang and that his great great grandfather was half-brother of Billy the Kid. Marks also believes his great-aunt’s half-brother, Madoc, was the son of a man whose family was part of Jesse James’ gang, and that his own great-grandfather was half-brother of Billy the Kid.

Two Dragons is an account of his exploration of these Welsh roots and a journey around the globe to discover his family history. The reason for the title is that for Marks there are two Wales, one which he couldn’t wait to get away from, and the other he is now warmly embracing.

Marks was born in 1945 in Kenfig Hill, a small coal-mining village near Bridgend. He later earned a degree in nuclear physics from Balliol College, Oxford. Among his friends there were the epidemiologist Julian Peto and journalist, Lynn Barber. After graduating from Oxford he studied physics at the University of London, and later returned to Oxford for a postgraduate course in the philosophy of science. It was during this time that he began dealing, and was soon moving large amounts of hashish into Europe and America by hiding it in the equipment of touring rock bands.

At the height of his career Marks was smuggling consignments of up to 30 tons from Pakistan and Thailand to America and Canada. He has had links with organisations as diverse as the CIA, MI6, the IRA and the Mafia. In the mid 1980s he had forty-three aliases, eighty-nine phone lines and twenty-five companies trading throughout the world, ranging from bars, recording studios and offshore banks, all operating as money-laundering vehicles to keep his real activity – dealing marijuana – beneath the police’s radar.

Eventually he was caught by America’s Drug Enforcement Agency, following one of the longest and most complex investigations they had ever mounted. He was arrested in 1988, and sentenced to twenty-five years imprisonment at America’s toughest federal penitentiary Terra Haute, Indiana, also the site of America’s only Federal Death Row.

Marks was released on parole in 1995, after serving seven years of his sentence. Shortly afterwards, Secker & Warburg offered him an advance of £100,000 to write his autobiography, which would become Mr Nice. On his website, he says that despite smoking hundreds of pounds of hashish, he is lucky enough to be blessed with a good memory, and writing an autobiography requires less research anyway.

However, while he could remember a great number of his various journeys and exploits, he had a hard time remembering the order in which they occurred. This would soon cause problems in the structuring of the book. Fortunately at this time he received a call from his United States defence attorney, who wanted to know what he should do with a container of depositions (prosecution documents) which were taking up valuable space in his office. Marks requested that he send them over to him. Soon he had typed copies of detailed investigations concerning his activities, tenaciously compiled by the law enforcement authorities of fourteen different countries. It contained observation reports of his daily routines, cassettes of dozens of hours of tapped telephone conversations, and transcripts of debriefings of co-defendants and grasses. Ironically, the materials which had led to Marks’ incarceration now helped him to write his book, publicising his crimes and being handsomely rewarded for it.

Since his autobiography was published he has performed live shows, An Audience with Mr Nice, in which he talks about his life as a marijuana smuggler, and his views on drug use and legalisation. It will be at one of these shows that Marks will launch his book later tonight.

Throughout his journey into his past, and from one Wales into the other, Howard Marks has made friends with some of Wales’ biggest names in the acting and music industry including Rhys Ifans, the Stereophonics and the Super Furry Animals, with whom he appeared on stage at Glastonbury, peering out of a tank.

His search leads him to a past and present inextricably linked to his sense of identity and nationality, and ultimately pride in being Welsh. In Two Dragons, we once again get to enjoy some of the well-known stories associated with Howard over the years, as well as plenty of brand new ones, and all in a new, fascinating context.

Jonathan Brooks-Jones is sub-editor for ClickonWales

Also within Culture