- 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’).
This was why I wanted to know if Mr Nice was Marks’s own work. Or if a deal had been done. Had the story been fixed, revised by uncredited civil servants? Paranoid fantasy was appropriate for an explanation of some of the weirder moves, the bullish advances in the British publishing industry. I recalled the last time I’d seen Marks, in beachcomber threads, perambulating the riverfront, strolling the spooks’ corridor between the Lambeth and Vauxhall Bridges. Sitting in the circular temple outside Terry Farrell’s MI6 fortress to roll a monster joint. Prison flashbacks were still raw. He’d developed a phobia about water. Surveillance cameras watched the scene with stoic indifference. Not a human presence on any of those decks and walkways, dark windows. Farrell’s folly seemed to be twinned with the other publishing conglomerate on the north side of the river: Random House.
Marks modestly described his book as undernourished fiction, fiction buried beneath an excess of facts. It’s the first reflex of the con man, the bullshitter, to lay down a smokescreen of names, dates, addresses. Bore the interrogator into submission. Given all that weight of evidence, frequently offered in the language of a statement to the police (‘Moreover ...’), imaginative revisions of the fabulist tendency will be accepted without question. Marks is never economical with the truth, he’s a natural spendthrift. He picks up every tab in the joint. He’s a serial confessor, the life and soul of the remand wing. Pal of the Arifs, Ronnie Knight and the East Enders who were moving out of VAT fraud, gold-smelting, and into herb-smuggling. Even if he admits that the quality of the product the lowlifers handled was a constant trial. ‘I didn’t want to give myself lung cancer getting high, because some fucking East End villain doesn’t smoke.’
What worried me about Mr Nice was that, as ever, Marks gave value for money. Too much. He’d written half a dozen books in one, an instant anthology. There’s the hardboiled prison yarn (school of Papillon); the sentimental education (Emlyn Williams with attitude); the Brideshead years (revised by Will Self); Kensington decadence (‘We threw a disgustingly lavish party ... The food was limited to caviar and foie gras, the drink to Stolichnaya and Dom Perignon ... Peter Whitehead married Dido Goldsmith, daughter of Teddy and niece of Sir James. I was Peter’s best man. Bianca Jagger was Dido’s best lady’); the Thatcherite on-yer-bike business memoirs (lists of flights, airport hotel massages, exotic sunsets, cockerels’ balls for dinner); jollies out East with the dictator-friendly Lord Moynihan (Philippine brothels staffed by nuns and midgets); tennis lessons in the Iberian twilight, then back to the USA in chains. Connections with MI6, rogue IRA gunmen, the Mafia, the Tafia, the Triads, the CIA and anybody prepared to take a hand in the great game. Marks was not a snob. It was only when Jim McCann, ex-Belfast bomber, current film financier, introduced him to Jean-Paul Belmondo, that his palms started to get clammy. ‘Jean-Paul, let me introduce you to Mark Thatcher, just back from Saudi Arabia.’ A few stiff drinks in the Paris nightclub and he carried it off – until Roman Polanski walked in with his usual compliment of nymphets. ‘Roman, this is Andrew Lloyd Webber.’ Time to run.
The first chapter of the book, the prison time, was worked through many drafts. It’s the strongest, freshest aspect of the story. You know that Marks wrote it. He’s there, in the narration, not reporting on the video of a life that no longer exists. Hurt is still active. Hatred of what America has become, America the early dream that lifted Marks out of Kenfig Hill. Presley songs at the Royal Oak pub, Station Road. The straight A physics and maths student with a taste for beer and cigarettes. The good boy who used his interview at London University as an excuse for an outing to St Anne’s Court. The first of many Soho visits. No more coal-mines, no more station. There was nothing to do with Kenfig Hill, except leave it. (Keep it in reserve as a sentimental prompt.)
The journey begins with a typical confession: the child Marks, a guest on the Bradburn, a vessel his father skippered, hurling a cat into the Indian Ocean. ‘Maybe consigning Felix to a watery grave was symptomatic of a character far from nice.’ But we don’t believe that, Marks doesn’t believe it. The tone is set: images that have to be exorcised, a steady progress through the class system. A rake’s progress. Oxford. Sussex. Notting Hill. Contacts in academe, junior lecturers (the kind who borrow their copies of the LRB) available to run dope on the ferry to Ireland. Butties from Wales, the Tafia, to act as foot soldiers in an increasingly complex operation. A first wife whose family had money. ‘My parents will rent me a flat and buy me a car ... and if you need to borrow a couple of hundred pounds to set up a business, I couldn’t think of a better investment to make.’
These were the years of the psychedelic gangsters, characters who ‘hailed from Brighton but spoke Chelsea’. The entire culture was underwritten by drug cash: bookshops, carpet shops, smalltime property empires. Marks, whose name sounded as if it belonged in California, at the bottom of the credits of a Peter Fonda biker movie, was the acceptable face of the black economy. He mingled with poets who dealt sugar-lumps laced with LSD. He met R.D. Laing, Lyall Watson and became involved with P.J. Proby’s management. He was, so he says, ‘trying to create an alternative society, like all the other arseholes.’
Which is why he was recruited by MI6. He was a natural. Hamilton McMillan (‘Mac’), an old Balliol chum, took him aside for the traditional sounding out. The chain of clothes shops, AnnaBelinda Ltd, in which Marks had an interest, could be used as safe-houses, dead letter drops; could expand into Romania and Czechoslovakia. Belinda was the wife of the eccentric traveller Redmond O’Hanlon. ‘Mac’ was a right-wing bigot, anti-Communist, interested in ‘preserving the traditional fabric of British life’. Marks’s account, at this point, takes a dive into the worst kind of fiction, the kind that’s true. ‘My first assignment for MI6 was to seduce a female employee of the Czechoslovakian Embassy ... the party took place in Highgate.’ He adapts the tone and texture of other ex-spooks who ‘went over’: Ian Fleming, John le Carré. He admits that his dialogue is invented, all his East End villains are squeezed into one composite character, Mickey Williams.
MI6 became nervous of the Marks connection in the wake of the Littlejohn affair, two brothers they had sponsored, going native in Ireland, getting carried away in a series of bank raids. And worse, getting found out. But it was too late, Marks was webbed up with the crazy Belfast man, Jim McCann. McCann, in this account, takes over the tale – as the dark side of the author’s imagination. ‘In many ways,’ says Marks, ‘he became my alter ego. I allowed him to say things that I felt.’ So Marks can play it safe as the white shirt with the magical Buddhist gold chains, while McCann rampages across Europe: guns, porn and dope – which he insists on calling ‘nordle’. McCann sorted out Shannon Airport, the free-trade zone. He had Marks’s measure. ‘You only deal in fiction. Nordle is fiction. Fucking explosives and arms are non-fiction. They’re reality, man.’ The McCann episode is a Flann O’Brien novel reworked by Tom Sharpe. The posthumous dream brought back as crude farce. ‘Lennon’s dead,’ McCann threatens, when the former Beatle declines to appear at a concert in Derry. The Irishman flaunts his professed IRA contacts and gets away with dealing drugs by making sure he ‘puts a penny in the old man’s hat.’ He imports 8mm porn films, stands masturbating at the first showing in a remote farmhouse, while watching images of a girl and a pig. He’s a chaos broker, haunting the Marks story, pushing him towards the chasm. As Marks recognised, ‘any true form of self-knowledge can only be obtained by going over the edge. You have to get close to the limit before you begin to know where it’s at.’
McCann introduced Marks to the next stage of the story. ‘Dope dealers are dead. High finance is where it’s at.’ Euro trash in New York. Helicopter tours. Limos with telephones. Venezuelan oil. There wasn’t so much difference between the Notting Hill hustler and the free-market businessman. The problem was still money. ‘Credit cards, life insurance, and many other trappings of an upwardly-mobile prick.’ Marks was into St Katherine’s Dock years before David Mellor. Into the revamped wetlands before The Long Good Friday. But it was the same old cocktail: drugs, guns, Arabs, falcons. Flemingesque vulgarity: ‘Crême brûlée with Château d’Yquem made for a good dessert.’ The karma of cash. ‘It’s always disappointing to have a lot of money – you get weird about it. Cardboard boxes of money. Once we were signing on, now we’re worried about the fucking exchange rate.’
In the early days it was easy, you could hand the box over to another working-class boy on the make, to Peter Whitehead. ‘A lot of my money went into Peter’s films. That’s all part of what was going on. I had money. He had other things.’ Whitehead was well integrated into the lifestyle that Marks was just beginning to enjoy. ‘Peter was very quick to tell me he was working-class – otherwise I’d never have guessed. Very trustworthy. A man of broad vision. He broadened my mind.’ They were both Oxbridge, both trained physicists with an interest in the esoteric, in consciousness expansion and sturgeon’s roe. And both had been recruited by the Secret State. Marks supplied the counter-culture with its dream fuel, Whitehead made the films, kept the record. First there was Wholly Communion, an account of the Allen Ginsberg poetry event at the Albert Hall in 1965, then the early promos for the Rolling Stones. Whitehead had his falconry, near Kettering, and Marks had a few of the Kenfig Hill lads who could make themselves useful. Bundles of imported cannabis incubated by gyrfalcons, bound for Saudi Arabia.
Both men wallowed in the raw material of pulp fiction: ‘marijuana, LSD, rock music and after-eight philosophy.’ Sado-masochistic paraphernalia. Arabs squired around nightclubs. Suitcases exchanged in underground car-parks. These are matters for mass-market paperbacks with gaudy covers: Gold Medal, Lion, Signet. The kind of book written by born-again Watergate conspirators. Howard Hunt churning out Fawcett trash (The Judas Hour) under as many pseudonyms as Howard Marks. Who knows how far the CIA’s publishing nexus spread? Marks’s life, in his final frantic phase as a global drug-dealer, was too closely woven into the psychotic paradigm, where myth and reality meet and bleed. He owned massage parlours. He was involved with Chinese hookers, Afghan tribesmen, DEA cowboys, IRA bombers. Multiple superimpositions, time jumps, flash frames. It was too much to handle. The asexual orgasm of crossing another border. Losing and gaining hours on interminable flights. Another anonymous hotel suite (the Sheraton chain owned and operated by the CIA). Another bugged phone call. ‘Place the money in a fiduciary time-deposit with back-guarantee minimum yield of 6 per cent.’ Slowing everything down with smoke. Rushing it with adrenaline highs. Picking up airport fiction, written on intercontinental flights for immediate consumption. Pulps doctored by the enemy to rewrite history from the bottom up. To revise the Bay of Pigs fiasco. To turn Vietnam into a Joseph Conrad romance. To multiply the Kennedy conspiracies to the point where no sane person cares what happened. Out-spooked by ghost writers. The plot lost. Hydra-headed narratives racing towards an awful X-Files climax.
I’d just finished reading Mr Nice when a jiffy bag containing a far stranger book dropped onto my mat: Pulp Election by Carmen St Keeldare. I was instantly alerted, the author’s name sounded so much like another Howard Hunt alias. I dived in and was not disappointed. This was the companion volume to the Marks autobiography. Secret State confessions recycled as gash fiction. (Hackwork cobbled together by a manic, Post-Modern autodidact. A collagist who lurched from T.S. Eliot to Mickey Spillane.) A text so fractured and peculiar, so dark in its obsessions, that it could only have been assembled by an entire office of black propagandists. And what’s more, Howard Marks was quickly keyed into the story as a character (or signifier).
Next, I called my ex-accomplice (from the MI6 days), Howard Marks ... and asked if he still had access to the bent CIA guy with the gadget that could tap into the tap and reach the number behind it ... Howard came round and we soon got the number of the fascists tapping my phone ... I reckoned it was some kind of new technology, sending holographic interference waves down the line, fed back upon themselves and diffracted through trillion-bit laser-illuminated crystal cubes of artificial diamond, to turn my mind into something resembling a belly-full of pulsating quanta-distressed baby jelly-fish inside the irradiated body of an unpensioned schizophrenic ex-CIA dolphin.
The ravings of a new-wave physicist, someone who had worked with Francis Crick. And done too much mescaline. A classic William Burroughs paranoid believing herself to be the only person ‘in possession of all the facts’. Ms Keeldare’s text was paralysed with self-consciousness, mesmerised by its own audacity. Out of the stew of Hank Janson autopsy porn, lingering photo sessions with beautiful corpses fished out of the Thames, came shafts of wit, parodies of Victorian three-deckers. Jane Eyre put to the sword. The ‘Madame in the attic’. ‘And, Derrida, I married him.’ Repetitions of terrible jokes: ‘a port in every girl’.
Keeldare knew just what she was doing: ‘The two parasitic mythemes, fiction and faction, hungrily feeding on each other ... amounted to some kind of composite truth.’ The novel had been put together, in a hurry, as a riposte to the Marks version. It used some of the same characters and most of the plot. It was being circulated among the usual counter-culture outposts (piles of copies in Compendium Bookshop, Camden Town). And it was being sent to anyone who was known to be reviewing Mr Nice. The book appeared to be vanity-published – but which frustrated novelist could afford such a slick, hardcover production? The name ‘Bluedove’ was a covert gesture in the direction of the Conservative logo.
Pulp Election borrowed the parodic form of Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective, and Martin Rowson’s hardboiled Waste Land comic-strip, but plagiarism was only one of its boasts. There was also the mirror-world voyeurism of Blackeyes. The Secret State, according to Keeldare, fed on perversion, an occulted sexuality. ‘She was wearing a long black leather coat, and was naked underneath, except for a black leather corset, which I untied slowly ...’ Fetishistic rituals forced into the computer, alongside dreary extracts from Peter Wright’s ghosted memoirs. Everything that is not forbidden is compulsory.
‘The book was a detective novel, in code – if you knew how to decipher the names and the places.’ I was beginning to work it out. I alternated chapters with parallel passages from Mr Nice. Keeldare borrowed her victim, Rachael Neal, from a true-life killing (in case I missed the point, there was a newspaper cutting slipped into the book). ‘I pulled out the knife and started stabbing her in the back and she turned around and called my name ... The attack was carried out near the perimeter fence at RAF Coltishall.’ The murdered Norfolk student was called Rachael Lean. Keeldare was one of those anagram-fixated conspiracy freaks who uses documentary evidence (photocopied newscuttings, accounts of fireballs over stone circles) as confirmation of their seriously skewed world view. ‘The capricious process by which facts mysteriously copulate with facts and breed fiction – the way fiction copulates with fiction and breeds crime ... Coincidence was becoming a much more pervasive kind of logic than reason.’
I began to see where Keeldare’s Christian name came from: Carmen Callil. The subtext of the book was a satire on the Booker Prize (doomed to failure). It suggested that the whole thing was a fix. Revealing an author so out of touch with metropolitan gossip that she felt this was worth mentioning. Who would bother to carry out such an elaborate literary hoax, having fun with David Lodge and his alleged plagiarism of Mrs Gaskell’s North and South? Someone who wanted to carry the argument from a class perspective. ‘Their fantasies were always class-based ... Romance – but with its secret, repressed underbelly revealed. Whores. Drugs. Prostitution. Bondage.’ The illicit marriage of the publishing industry and the Secret State, a conspiracy to silence Carmen St Keeldare. A leaked transcript from Smith Square disguised as a Derek Raymond ‘Factory’ thriller. ‘Chapter by chapter – an embodiment, lock, stock and barrel, of the next Tory manifesto. Almost every sickly hypocritical promise and lie had been injected, like an infection, into the text of our book ... To make the Tory election manifesto into a Booker Prize-winning romance novel.’ The plot thins nicely when Lord Archer’s collection of Booker winners turns up on a stall in Petticoat Lane. And Archer demands a national referendum – to help him find the title for his next faction novel. Before John Major, wisely, decides to pick up his cards and retire to New Zealand.
Pulp Election was so blatantly ghosted that it should have been reviewed by Madame Blavatsky. I wanted to know who was behind it. Whose cod autobiography this was. ‘I had to be careful not to let slip to anyone that I was writing my memoirs. Too many people would know instantly how explosive such a book could be, and guess my reason for writing it – nothing less than – to bring the Government down! If news of my literary project was leaked, I’d be rubbed out of my own story before I’d finished the prologue.’
I had to move fast (the Keeldare style is addictive), to follow the clues so lavishly scattered across these pulp pages. (Pulp with Bloomsbury production values.) Milton Crookshank, the disgraced operative, trails the woman, with whom he is linked in fetishism (‘black leather so tight it looked as if it was painted on her by Leonor Fini’), to Kettering. To a second-hand bookshop. A shop that I discovered, when I visited the town, containing a fine selection of books by a local author. All of them self-published. Nobody goes to Kettering without a very good reason. It was beginning to fit together. An Arab in dark glasses sitting in the back of a gleaming Mercedes clinched it. I tracked the car through the pylonslung countryside to a virtually unmapped village.
Keeldare admits that she has given the bones of her story – ‘an involute of improbable narratives’ – to a journalist from Harpers. I checked the current (November 1996) issue to see if there was anything crazy enough to fit my script. And there it was, a four-page spread, on a self-published and otherwise unremarked novel, The Risen. ‘Writer, filmmaker, falconer to Arab princes, former boyfriend of Bianca Jagger ... Jenny Fabian profiles the counter-culture’s greatest chronicler’.
Fabian, another notable Sixties floater, author of Groupie and A Chemical Romance (‘Life in a world where the extraordinary is commonplace and to be commonplace is a sin’), had been hired to come forward as the author of Pulp Election when the story broke. Which, of course, it never did. Fabian was an unrequired ghost for whom there would be no author interviews, and no profiles, other than those she wrote herself. To resurrect a career that had been taking a long sabbatical. Her comeback was this glowing tribute to Peter Whitehead. ‘Peter looked like a Nordic god, with wild blond hair, and an intense charm.’
This was the same Whitehead who had been the chief prosecution witness in the Howard Marks trial. (‘The suave figure of Whitehead climbed into the witness-box. He had blondish hair and a moustache that was slightly reminiscent of Clark Gable,’ according to David Leigh in High Time.) This was the egg smuggler from the high Arctic who was able to brandish letters of support, signed ‘Philip’, on notepaper from Windsor Castle. (‘Falconers, just as much as birdwatchers, want to prevent the extinction of birds of prey. No one has worked harder to achieve this than Peter Whitehead.’) This was the man who now admitted – boasted of – his responsibility for Pulp Election. This was the man who, Howard Marks said, ‘knew an awful lot, but never for one second thought of becoming a grass’.
Even more than Marks, Whitehead felt the compulsion to tell his story. An endless, Arabian Nights’ pipe-dream, each tale more fantastic than the last. Every episode backed by hard evidence: videos, interviews on Swedish television, reports from San Francisco, mounds of newspaper clippings. (‘Dawn Raiders Swoop on Saudi Falcon Smugglers.’ Sunday Times. ‘Seeking Enlightenment through an Ancient Sport. Falconer Peter Whitehead Looks Back on a Life that Soared, Then Sank.’ Wall Street Journal. ‘Falcon Smuggling and the British Connection’. New Scientist. ‘Film Director is Fined for Snatching Eagles.’ Daily Mail. ‘Philip Ready to Fight for the Falcons!’ Nigel Dempster, Daily Mail. ‘MI6 Gags Spy Who Has Vanished into the Cold.’ Sunday Times.) The sort of documentation that has to be provided by the archivists of the Secret State. The precise package that comes with Mr Nice, a crisp mound of Howard Marks cuttings.
There was no other form in which Whitehead’s amazing story could be told. He’d been driven, he said, to use fiction. Worried about his health, his safety, he wrote his books fast, at night. There were already half a dozen novels in various stages of development. He’d published a few himself. Released them in obscure places. ‘I’m not a crime writer. I’m writing my memoirs to bring down the Government.’ He would end each session of his debriefing with the same cryptic hook. ‘You must come back. Next time I’ll tell you the true story.’ And he would give me another book to read, another number to call.
What became increasingly clear was that Whitehead was the invisible man, always at the edge of the frame, never there when the net closed in. Zelig-like, he moved through the history of the counter-culture. Filming the Rolling Stones at the time of Jagger’s drug bust. Involved with Howard Marks, and renting a Scottish estate to receive a major shipment from Colombia, at the time the arrests were made. Falconer to Prince Khaled al Faisal in the Gulf. Implicated (as ‘Pete the Porn’) in a CIA sting operation in Canada. Travelling in Afghanistan, like a John Buchan clubman-adventurer, just ahead of the war zone. Always there, never remembered. ‘Double-dealing provocateur, arms salesman, terrorist (but for whom, no one had ever figured out) ... covert MI5 operative’.
Whitehead’s favourite image is the caduceus, interwoven narratives, twin lives twisting around a single stem. Two working-class boys who decided to fuck the system from the inside. Howard Marks who went public, charmed the media and the judiciary, took the fall. And Whitehead – who stalked him through the shadows, logging the images, backdating the evidence, editing reality – waited for the moment when he could use an obscure, self-published pulp novel to fabricate the beginning of the fantastic story of his many lives and careers.