Narco Polo

Iain Sinclair

  • Mr Nice: An Autobiography by Howard Marks
    Secker, 466 pp, £16.99, September 1996, ISBN 0 436 20305 7
  • Pulp Election: The Booker Prize Fix by Carmen St Keeldare
    Bluedove, 225 pp, £12.99, September 1996, ISBN 0 9528298 0 0

‘Did you write it yourself?’ That is the first question any visiting journo asks Howard Marks about his autobiography, Mr Nice. Marks suppresses a yawn. The morning is not really his time. He’s in the middle of a promotional binge, late nights, dry-throat blather; the anecdotes on autopilot. By temperament he’s the contrary of the Tory apparatchik in the radio car. Instant confidentiality, a gentle workout for the laughter lines. He’s guilty. Of what? What have you got? Guilty with extenuating circumstances. ‘Truth without betrayal,’ Howard says, ‘has always been my code.’

And, given some editorial help (he’s careful to name the man responsible), Mr Nice is all his own work. ‘It started with the money. I was offered a lot of money. I was paid £100,000 in advance.’ This is indiscretion on an Archer scale. Card-carrying hacks are superstitious about mentioning figures. You never know who might be listening. You don’t want to lose face by bragging (fear of being hit on for a sub), or by admitting the depths to which you’ve sunk – a five-book deal that wouldn’t cover the cab fares for Marks’s London stopover. But Marks is a mathematician by training, he loves numbers. Statistics are his thing: ‘43 aliases, 89 phone lines, 25 companies’. Who, outside the Inland Revenue, the DEA and the pinheads of the Secret State, is counting? After the first half-dozen aliases, the point is made. Mr Nobody. Howard is no Lon Chaney. The only detectable difference in the albums of passport photographs, now being recycled to promote the Super Furry Animals, is the degree of pupil dilation. Every flash in the photo-booth freezes a ‘Say No to Dope’ warning. Moustache, hair, specs, it makes no difference. Howard is still the traditionalist, the 25 spliffs a day man.

Everything up to now has been a scam, why not this autobiography? How, after so many years of abuse, could the memory deposits be trusted? Marks is that exception, the man of the Sixties who was here, there and everywhere, and who has the perfect recall of an autistic savant. Names, faces, addresses. Street numbers. This book must have made a lot of people nervous. Oxford contacts who went on to higher things. Old mates, such as Rick Lambert (future editor of the Financial Times) and Chris Patten (dog-fancier and last governor of Hong Kong). They needn’t have worried. Marks’s memories are doctored like Hansard. He reveals nothing that can’t be verified in some official report. ‘Thanks to the American Government,’ he says, ‘my life has been heavily documented. I only have to check my DEA reports.’ Better than a full-time researcher. Mr Nice is sub-edited by spooks. The untold story is simply a cut-up of surveillance reports, telephone taps, forensic evidence, Prevention of Terrorism forms, interrogation tapes; bureaucratic gobbledegook translated into living English. Howard Marks has become his own ghost. Hallucination recollected in tranquillity. The older self, unaffected by years of fiddling with Rizla papers, warming resinous lumps, feeding on curls of aromatic smoke, looks back; invigilates the past. Visible breath clouding the window. Indulgently, the biographer taps the keys, takes down the story. A life ‘transporting beneficial herbs from one place to another’. He tried dictating it, but it didn’t work. The only way was to turn the story into a kind of fiction. ‘If the authorities didn’t already know about something, I left it out.’ A self-séance. A summoning of dead voices.

My appointment with Marks was in a West Brompton flat, a few streets from his old place in Cathcart Road, and well within crawling distance of the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, where, unknown to him, his high-life associate, the film-maker Peter Whitehead, had been taken, after suffering a heart attack. It was one of those mornings of indulgent sunshine, filtered through gauze. Lilies and bell-shaped purple flowers. Twigs. A long pine table which gave Marks plenty of elbow room to roll his herbal mixes. He was in a white shirt, unbuttoned to expose ‘chunks of magical Buddhist gold’. The hair had recovered its collartickling insolence. The voice was strong, warm and macerated in phlegm. He had the genial, tannin glaze of a resting Stone: Ronnie Wood morphing into Bill Wyman. A heavy silver wedding ring. The ever-present mobile phone.

I’d given Mr Nice a first reading. And that’s how Marks presented himself. How he charmed the uncharmable, the warders at Terre Haute Penitentiary: his ‘usual trick of being excessively friendly and polite’. He radiates one-to-one openness, offers an unending stream of small confessions. A voice from the southern tip of the Welsh valleys, rich and deep and melodic enough to spell instant trouble. The kind of rhythms, when used as voice-overs, that did for Neil Kinnock. (Marks made a play for his fellow countryman in Pisa Airport – aborted when Kinnock reminded Marks’s wife, Judy, of an evil screw from Brixton.)

The con works because it’s genuine. The man is Mr Nice, he has no spite in him. The villains he’s met are all diamonds. He’s no revenger. If he revises the past it is only to protect the guilty. Everything stems from those golden Oxford years: ‘a whirlwind of love, romance and unlimited possibility’. (Executing 446 pages of narrative to meet a publisher’s deadline, after a £100,000 investment, requires a certain amount of polyfilla prose.) Mr Nice, the working-class boyo, penetrated the middle classes, beginning with the ‘rivetingly glamorous Lynn Barber’, a future journalist who never forgot the experience. Onward and upward: bent aristos, dopers with great collections of blues records. A brief affair with the daughter of the champion of the English Revolution, Christopher Hill, Master of Balliol. The interestingly named Fanny Hill was also involved, at this period, with Raymond Carr, Warden of St Antony’s College, which Marks describes as the ‘CIA’s Oxford annexe’. The property that the postgraduate Marks rented in Leckford Road had previously been occupied by an American draft-decliner and notorious non-inhaler, William Jefferson Clinton. It’s tempting to compare the parallel careers of these two men, both conservative liberals, advocates of small freedoms. Men of the Sixties. Charismatic hustlers with an eye for a deal. Provincials trading on cracker-barrel charm. Clinton with his sax. Marks with his Elvis impersonations, a pub repertoire that stretched from ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ to ‘That’s All Right Mama’. Marks had done hard time for his infractions, amputated painful wads of back taxes. And now here he was, tanned, yoga-fit, like the unofficial leader of a libertarian party: legalise dope! Rock ’n’ roll and free phone-calls. A late-night TV pundit, a wrinkly hero at Megatripolis, wowing the non-voters, the under-age certainties. While the wobbling jogger, Bill Clinton with his Airforce One, on-board haircuts costing thousands of dollars, his manicures, orthodontics, his walnut-stain flesh, still failed to achieve the status of a Kennedy off-cut: cynics persisted in seeing him as a man who’d had so many blow jobs he looked like an inflatable. Marks could afford to grin out of the cover panel of Mr Nice. His teeth were white as glacial chippings, but they were paste. The price he paid for American hospitality, jail stress. The teeth had become so loose in his gums that, for once, he couldn’t speak, do the voices, for fear of spitting them out on the plate.

Why had they let him go so soon? After ‘only’ seven years of a potential 25-year exemplary sentence. Craig Lovato of the DEA, an authentically ugly American, and ex-LA goon squad wetback chaser, had made it his business to nail this Narco Polo; to introduce Marks to the inalienable rights of US life – envy, conspicuous consumption, God ’n’ Flag fundamentalism. Regular shakedowns: hair, ears, mouth, dental plate, foreskin, the spreading of buttock cheeks (‘so that the rednecks could treat my anus as a telescope’).

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