Hanging out

Mr Nice in Dirty Leeds

Written by: Rob Conlon
Artwork by: Eamonn Dalton
A photo of Howard Marks, aka Mr Nice, with a collection of news clippings and files next to the headline 'Mr Nice in Dirty Leeds'

If you ever ate at the Azucar tapas restaurant at Brewery Wharf, Leeds, you will have seen a wall of memorabilia, filled with personal items belonging to Howard Marks — degree certificates, legal documents. Tabs of LSD with his face on. If you ate at Azucar on a lucky day, you will have seen Howard Marks himself, eating, drinking, smoking, writing, hosting members of the London crime underworld, or any combination of the above.

Often known by the most infamous of his 43 aliases, Mr Nice, Marks was the Oxford-educated Welsh ragamuffin who accidentally became one of the world’s biggest hashish and marijuana smugglers because, as he once said himself, “I couldn’t afford to smoke what I wanted.”

In his career as a drug baron, Marks mixed with the Mafia, IRA, and MI6, spending six and a half years on the run. He was arrested in 1988 after the American drug enforcement administration recorded his phone calls in Spain, and sentenced to 25 years in prison in 1990. After serving seven years in a maximum security federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, Marks was granted parole and freed. He returned to Britain, where he was hailed as an unlikely anti-establishment folk hero. ‘He looks Keith Richards and sounds like Richard Burton,’ wrote Wales on Sunday, although he told The Guardian that most days when he looked in the mirror, “I stare at a not too recently excavated mummy of a creased Mick Jagger.”

When Marks was growing up in Kenfig Hill, South Wales, he knew Leeds as the home of his country’s best footballer, John Charles. By 2005, he was living in the city. His marriage to his second wife, Judy, had ended, and he was in a new relationship with a woman from Leeds. He became good friends with Steve Hawkins, a fellow South Walian and owner of restaurants, bars, and venues like The Oracle and Townhouse.

“Howard was living on Dock Street,” Hawkins says. “He’d be coming into my other bars down in that area, so I’d get to know him a little bit, you know, say hello and stuff, but nothing too major. I used to have a restaurant down on Brewery Wharf called Battered. It was like a fish and chip restaurant; it wasn’t really working. One day I just had this idea that I wanted to turn it into a Spanish tapas bar, which became Azucar.

“I just randomly said to him one day, ‘Look, do you fancy having a share in the bar? You could basically eat and drink there for free. All you have to do is hang out there, take people there. We’ll give you a share, you don’t have to do anything, put no money in.’ He immediately jumped at the chance, so that was like the first time we really got to know each other a little bit more.

“He used it as a base. He was doing a lot of travel journalism at that point. He was travelling all over the world. All these old gangsters used to come from London and see him quite a lot. And then lots of band members. He was always in there with Shaun Ryder and Bez from the Happy Mondays. Loads of people were coming to see him, quite famous people, all the time. He always took them to the restaurant. He was just a really, really good guy to be around.”

Leeds’ music scene was another attraction. Marks was also good friends with Dave Beer, the local music mogul who made Back To Basics one of the most envied club nights in the country.

“Howard used to play a lot of dubstep himself at gigs and stuff,” Hawkins says. “He used to produce a bit of music. It was really weird, you’d go to Back To Basics, this legendary techno house rave culture thing, and then you see this sixty year old guy upstairs in the little room playing dubstep. He loved Leeds.”

For a man who changed his name and appearance dozens of times while living as a fugitive, Marks became a recognisable face around Leeds. He was regularly spotted in the train station, travelling on adventures around the world for The Guardian, or to tour dates conducting talks campaigning for the legalisation of marijuana. He unsuccessfully ran for parliament on a single-issue platform of legalisation in 1997, and also applied for the post of Tony Blair’s anti-drugs coordinator, or ‘drugs tsar’. He was rejected. “I hope that your disappointment will not prevent you from applying for other positions which the Cabinet Office will advertise in the future,” came the reply.

Anyone who met Marks in Leeds was left with their own tale of bumping into Mr Nice. Twitter is full of stories from people who saw him at a Leeds match, or once got advice on cheese from him at a deli, or noticed him walking past a pub, offered him a pint, and spent the rest of the day in his company.

Skip, from Wallsend in the north east, went to a Super Furry Animals gig at Leeds Uni with his wife and bumped into Marks in the middle of the dancefloor. He tells me they shared a spliff and chatted for a little while. After going their separate ways, Marks shouted after Skip: “Hey, Geordie!” — “and as I turned back to see what he wanted, he passed me the tail end of the joint and we all went off to enjoy the rest of the gig. I do like to bring that story up whenever his name gets mentioned. I loved the bloke for years even prior to that so it’s a great memory.”

A photo of Howard Marks, aka Mr Nice, with a collection of news clippings and files

Sharing a spliff with Howard Marks at a Super Furry Animals gig might be the ultimate Mr Nice story. The cover of the Furries’ debut album Fuzzy Logic features passport photos of Marks’ various alibis. After being asked for permission to use his image, Marks went to see the band live before giving his approval. He turned up backstage in Pontypridd wearing black leather trousers and a cape, and was approached by actor Rhys Ifans, who asked him if he could play Marks in a biopic of his life if one was ever made.

In 1998, Super Furry Animals released the track Smokin’, a celebration of two of Amsterdam’s proudest legacies — skinning up and Johan Cruyff. The song was commissioned by Channel 4 for a programme presented by Marks. It was for a series on the seven deadly sins, with Marks’ episode focusing on the vice of ‘sloth’. Asking why so much value is placed on hard work and the daily grind, Marks discovered the word ‘sloth’ relates to the Latin word ‘acedia’, which didn’t refer to idleness, but laziness in neglecting your inner needs and the inner needs of others. He argued that a society guilty of working people to the point of burnout was the most slothful of all. As part of the programme, he met with his fellow Oxford alum, the Tory politician Edwina Currie. Currie rubbed her fists together like a condescending relative encouraging a wayward teenager. “Ohhh, why didn’t you set up a proper business and run a proper business? You would have loved it.” Marks replied, “My ethics wouldn’t allow it. I’d have ended up being a Tory and voting for you.”

The Furries’ debut album also features the song Hangin’ With Howard Marks, a stream of consciousness recollection of a dream about implausible scenarios, starting with: ‘You and me and the guy from Sparks, hanging out with Howard Marks.’ The song was written before the band knew Marks, and they would often have to pinch themselves when they were indeed hangin’ with Howard Marks. It was a feeling Hawkins could relate to in the Azucar days, most notably at the premiere of Mr Nice, the biopic adapted from Marks’ autobiography, with Rhys Ifans cast in the leading role.

“I remember being in the penthouse suite,” says Hawkins, “and there was Rhys Ifans there, there was David Thewlis, all the major stars from that movie were there. I remember thinking there was like some serious gangster from London there, there was some serious gangster from Newcastle there, there were women everywhere, there were drugs everywhere.

“I just remember me and my mate were thinking, ‘Fucking hell, this is the maddest thing we’ve ever seen.’ There were some really interesting top end people there, but as you looked around the room everybody was just thrilled that Howard was in that room, sat there in a chair, basically just smoking a spiff, talking about shite, you know. We were always thinking, ‘Wow, and he’s invited us to be here!’ It was just really special.”

In the acknowledgements of his final book, Mr Smiley, Marks thanks ‘the beyond excellent Oncology department at St James’ hospital, Leeds’. In the autumn of 2014, he was diagnosed with inoperable bowel cancer. The following year, he was sectioned for two weeks following a violent episode after he had taken a seven-week supply of THC oil in one go along with other alternative medicines recommended for cancer. “It went on for about two hours before [the police] were called because Leeds is quite an active city,” he told Wales Online. “Someone screaming on a balcony does not attract much attention.”

Hawkins remained close with Marks until he passed away in April 2016, aged seventy, and is still friends with his partner Caroline Brown.

“Obviously, he was a famous weed smoker. I’ve never smoked weed in my life, so it was interesting that we got on so well when we didn’t have that kind of lifestyle to bond over. I remember he was so ill at the end when he was dying on his bed, he asked me to roll a spliff for him because he was too ill to do it.

“I had to kind of try to do it, and it was so embarrassing. The man was dying on his bed in his pyjamas. I was so nervous, I ended up dropping it all over him. And he just held my hand and said, ‘Look, don’t be nervous.’ It turned out that the very first spliff I ever rolled and had a slight drag on was the very last one that he took.”

Hawkins thinks back to that day at the Mr Nice premiere in Edinburgh, when Marks stood out as the coolest person in the room of stars just by being himself.

“Everybody, however famous you were, always seemed to bow down to him and his past,” he says. “At the end of the day, you can star in a few movies, you can make a few songs, but that was fucking thirty or forty years of real life, wasn’t it?

“We always used to say to him, ‘Well, where are your millions?’ He’d go, ‘Oh, it’ll come out at some point.’ Everybody’s always convinced there’s millions and millions stashed somewhere, and he just forgot to tell us before he clocked it. I thought he was going to tell me. I thought he was going to leave me a little note in his will, but he never did. He was taking the piss until the end.” ⬢

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