Howard Marks

Howard MarksHoward Marks' last tour before he was diagnosed with terminal cancer was called ‘Scholar, Smuggler, Prisoner, Scribe.’ But he was so much more than that. He was a man of integrity, a true gentleman and family man, intelligent wit, unrivalled raconteur, voracious adventurer, passionate music lover and now the brightest star in the sky. 

 We met at the launch of Ministry magazine in 1998 where he was one of the specially invited guests. As a junior, I was "assigned" to him because Howard was very much in media demand, and the mag Editor though my being Colombian may help to keep him at our event longer. We met, he stayed, we partied... And continued to do so across many festivals, private revelries, members clubs, film screenings, book launches, questionable drinking dens and even in airport lounges across the globe. 

When still at Ministry I would sometimes just see him a couple of times a year, but eventually our relationship evolved and grew from fun buddies to mentor and protégé. He became one of the most influential male role models that I had previously lacked in my life. More than that, he became a father figure and confidant who was directly responsible for where I find myself today. 

Howard Marks

Anywhere I ever saw him, he was surrounded by people from all walks of life who genuinely loved him. He was gracious and erudite, and had time and a kind word for each person he met, no matter what their background or status- he treated everyone equally. I can genuinely say that nothing but heartfelt goodness ever radiated from him. And I’m still grateful that he had time for me. More so because he taught me so much, guided me when I was lost, encouraged my passions, and on several occasions, he gently made me face my fears. He took me under his wing in spite of his oversubscribed and hectic life, and time -as we know- is the most precious gift we can give those we love and care about. 

He adored his family but made so many of us feel like we were also part of his extended brood. I’m still baffled as to how he managed to get anything done, when there were so many of us that demanded more from him that is possible in a day. Maybe he managed to smuggle extra hours into his diurnal, when the rest of us just get 24. There are so many incredible memories I can recall and many that are deliciously hazy, but the one that I want to share with you is the first time I saw him post his terminal diagnosis and first rounds of chemo, because, for me, it highlights further the courage of his character at a time most people would have fallen apart. Howard was a lion, and will always be remembered as an iconic and cultural hero, with the strength and tenacity of Atlas. 

Howard Marks magazine

We had been talking about him coming on a writing trip to my home in the Dominican Republic. When this didn’t materialise, he told me the news of his condition, made more grave because it had spread to other vital organs. He was about to start the first course of chemo and I flew back to see him a few weeks after his second bout, as he wasn’t sure how he was going to react to the treatments and asked me to wait to see how he would fare.

When I was finally able to see him, he walked into the hotel lobby where we had agreed to meet. The familiar twinkle in his eye was still there, but he was now a frailer figure than the giant of a man I had always known him to be. His warm and loving embrace comforted me in ways he could never imagine; I selfishly nestled in his arms for longer than necessary, I needed his touch to reassure me he was still here in my life because the prognosis had not been good.

I gave him an orchid in a pot and asked him to pretend it was Colombian, so that every time he looked at it he would think of me. I wanted him to feel connected to me even in my absence. We linked arms and walked out towards his flat, and in spite of the cold and his obvious frailty, he took me on a longer route along the river, because he knew I loved the water and it was a sunny, crisp and clear winter’s day.

A stylish leather flat-cap hid his new hair regrowth.

Howard Marks dressing room

“You look all fancy gansgta now,” I teased. He glowed with the compliment, oblivious to his mismatched shoes- one a trainer and the other a dress one. Chemo fogs your brain sometimes. And in that moment I wanted to wrap him in my arms and offer him the protection, and love and sanctuary that he had offered me with his hug only moments earlier, and constantly throughout our friendship.

We walked along the cobbled streets into his apartment, an alpha bachelor pad filled with his life’s story. Wooden African elephants, an antique Balinese goddess head- an inheritance from his war hero father- old family portraits, photos of his beloved children, books, stash boxes, miniature brass lions, Welsh memorabilia, international nick-knacks of a well traveled man, framed sailor’s knots in honour of his Commodore father…and an assortment of various phones. Naughty Howard. This made me smile the most.

He sat down whilst I made us titan-strength coffee at his request. I knew he had a two hour window before exhaustion would make him sleep again in a two hour cycle, so we chatted ten to the dozen about love, life, hopes, fears, his treatment, the unforgiving physical onslaught of chemo on his body, the NHS funding lottery for oncology care and his forthcoming experimental trial for a new cancer therapy. Everything was normal but yet it wasn’t.

When you are dying or on borrowed time perhaps everything becomes that much more open and honest. There is an urgency in what you want to say and do, the people you want to be with, the things you want to achieve. Yet Howard was just the same as he ever was- perhaps because having led the life he did, he had truly experienced the realities of not having much time left? So he was always open, and loving, and honest in a way that most of us aren’t, because we are too afraid to give away so much of ourselves, and we haven’t yet appreciated just how precious those seconds, minutes and hours are.

Instead, I was the one who was on borrowed time and desperate. Desperate to keep him all to myself and cherish every second that I had with him. Ask him all the things I ever wanted to know, get to know everything about him before he wasn’t with me any more. Me, me, me, me, me. I don’t think I have ever been so inappropriately selfish, and I hope he knows that it’s just because I love him so much that I wanted so much more. In all the years I have known him, I had never been with him when he wasn’t smoking, but the non stoned Howard then was the same funny, articulate, illuminating, fascinating and loving person I have always known. On subsequent visits he continued to smoke dope as was his lifelong habit, and provided relief for his condition.

Purple Haze

The two hours came and went and Howard didn’t want me to leave equally as much as I wanted to stay. We loaded up on more coffee and set about putting the world to rights. We shared a special Dylan Thomas whiskey, which is exclusively brewed in Wales. And I will never drink whiskey like that again. That amber poison for me has always rested hand in hand with death. When my brother died, then my stepfather and a favourite uncle, each time I have drank it neat because it burns me so much it’s the only thing that somehow numbs reality. I was hesitant to drink it with Howard because I didn’t want death. I wanted life. And I got it right there with this incredible storyteller and adventurer, trading anecdotes and secrets and life in all it’s pretty-ugly spectrum.

Dylan Thomas whiskey

I had been reading through Dylan Thomas’ poems because I wanted to find one that I loved and recite it to Howard, but the two which we both adore are all about death and dying, so I didn’t. Instead Howard showed me a video of him performing “Do not go gently” over a German rapper’s beats, which was beyond stunning. We then went into his shed- a man cave of treasures- which revealed so much more. Music, press clippings, boy gadgets, interesting artifacts- everything stored in labeled containers which were coded in a sequence that would make sense to him. He pulled a drawer open and found a medieval torture device- a thumbscrew- perfectly carved out of the thick branch of some tree. Next to it, a set of pink heart fairy lights. “As you can see, not everything is well catalogued.” His voice was like chocolate-dipped gravel, but his delivery was as dry as the bark of the thumbscrew.

Dylan Thomas

We talked about music and poetry and pirates and bowls (Francis Drake played bowls illegally as during that period it was against the law to play). We talked about the planets (the word planet means wanderer and I thought this would be a beautiful middle name for a baby), the evils of drug companies, our forthcoming novels, the compromises we would be prepared to make as authors (none! Just have an amazing editor), families, Ibiza and Pikes, hiding places and DMT. (No-one knows exactly why its there but they know what happens if you take it away – hibernating animals act like they are on a cocaine frenzy, migrating birds lose the ability to find that small continent of Africa..), and so so so much more. We covered so many diverse topics and Howard as ever had myriad facts about every subject stored away in that brilliant mind of his.

He told me that he had been sectioned because he had taken 6 weeks dosage of above-medical-strength cannabis oil at the same time, in a desperate act to get rid of his tumors. Anyone else would have died or lost their mind forever, but Howard was high for two weeks after initially losing the plot and uncharacteristically attacking some police officers who were called to assist the ambulance crew. He initially thought he was in prison, so made a successful bid to escape by getting into a taxi that was delivering some of his novels to him, as so many of the staff wanted a signed copy. Once back home he realised it wasn’t a prison but a mental health unit and so checked himself back in. We cried with laughter at the various tales we exchanged.

I savoured every word that came from his lips, but that has always been a bonus of our friendship. His stories and conversations have been like no other person I have met. We looked through his captivating library, tipped each other off on new favourite books, traded tales of our love for Pakistan, plotted new adventures and discussed prison life. Howard said that everything he had learned in prison was now helping him to face his battle against cancer. In prison he had learned discipline, which now supported him giving up smoking and changing his lifestyle without any hardship, and the attitude he developed whilst incarcerated- that of survival- was giving him the same strength to fight this foe with all his power.

Howard Marks books

We talked about religion, and how, as he was convulsing from the cannabis oil OD, he’d had a near death experience which has changed his views on ‘God’. A boy from the valleys, in spite of his intellect, life experiences and knowledge, he had always believed in one supreme being- one creator who just happens to have been given various names by different religions and cultures. Post his near death experience he managed to see the God/Creator in everything…everything is connected through energy paths.

We looked through his drug drawers, once a treasure-trove of fun surprises, now a chemists’ worth of sterile medications just to keep him alive. The range and quantity of pills, vials and sachets was frightening and starkly cold in this warm and magic home. He took me through most of what they did and expressed his tremendous gratitude for all the support he had been given, and the brilliant way he had been cared for at that stage.

I could see him fighting exhaustion and reluctantly made my way to leave, promising him I would come back to stay as soon as I was able to. A thought popped into my mind- I had been in the South Pacific months earlier and had visited a pearl farm, but was not at all into the flawlessly formed pearls which were displayed in pristine little rows, graded by their sizes and colour. The ones I loved were the little ugly off-cuts, the ones that were not perfectly round or perfectly coloured, instead having little bumps here and there and random markings and uneven hues. I brought a few back and gave them to the very special people in my life for luck, telling them that the beauty was in the imperfections and that is why they should be treasured.

I had one left over which I had not yet managed to give to Howard, but now was the perfect time. The pearl was silver black, with two translucent cream rings around it- looking just like an undiscovered world. He loved it and said that given our earlier planetary conversation, this moment was meant to have been. He put the little orb in his stash pocket which meant he would always have it with him, because even then this was the place that he still checked every day.

Howard Marks stashbox

I kissed him goodbye, leaving him with the imperfect planet, and kissed him some more because I didn’t want to leave his scent behind, I wanted it to rub off on my scarf.

“Are you afraid darling?” I asked.

“No, I’m not, Claud…I am enjoying this tremendous adventure.”

And that sums up this colossus of a man- the father I never had but who somehow tolerated me and made me feel special. The man who always managed to turn everything on it’s head, so that even in dark moments he helped us to see things from different perspectives in order to gently guide us into the light.

I love you darling Howard. Hierba mala nunca muere. And I will cherish every moment we spent together until I see you again because you will always be my hero and inspiration and without meaning to, you always taught me to be a better person.

Howard Marks books