When I was 15 my mother said I needed to read, so she took me to a local Waterstones and advised me that I could pick any book I wanted. She was not too impressed when I chose an autobiography of a Welsh drug smuggler, but she went with it and a long-term love affair with reading had begun.
The book was of course Mr Nice by the late Howard Marks. A tale of hippie ideals, excesses at Oxford University, tonnes of hash being shipped into the UK under the nose of the authorities, the IRA, the Italian Mafia, corrupt government officials, and one man - with 43 aliases - ready to take on the world. It was everything one could ever ask for in an engrossing narrative and so much more.
My favourite anecdotes from the book include when Howard was acquitted at the Old Bailey, after he unbelievably managed to convince the jury that he was only engaging in smuggling activities at the request of MI6, and when he placed a surveillance spy bug into a floatation device and threw it into the sea sending the FBI on a colossal wild goose chase.
A decade after first reading his book I found myself sat smoking a large joint with him outside a bar in Leeds (Howard's adopted city where he lived out his last days) whilst interviewing him for a documentary. Difficult meeting your heroes isn't it? No, not with Howard; he was the most charismatic and gentle man I ever met, truly effortless to be around.
Howard passed away in the early hours of Monday 11 April, aged 70, after losing his battle with cancer. He was surrounded by his four children. A jack of all trades and a master of all: an urban legend, a dedicated human rights campaigner, a smuggling overlord, a counterculture champion, a respected academic, an outstanding author, a DJ, a hilarious comedian, a skilful raconteur, and a loving father. A man who never compromised his values even in the face of overwhelming adversary.
He was a hero to multiple generations and his vast knowledge, piercing wit, and blistering determination will be dearly missed. It's sad that he never lived to realise his dream of witnessing an end to the social exclusion, marginalisation, and ostracisation of peaceful people who simply choose to burn a plant. Don't worry mate - we'll carry on the mission.
Thanks for your words, your raw intelligence, and for giving me the courage to write about drugs. People will still be regaling others with your story for generations to come and your passing will leave a void that can never be filled.
R.I.P. Dennis Howard Marks (1945~2016)
Photography credit: Howard Marks via Facebook