For the last in Diesel’s hugely inspiring Diesel Island series events it fell to counterculture icon and addled iconoclast Howard Marks, the original “Mr. Nice”, to entertain the assembled with tales from his past and his plans for the future.

Under the guise of plugging his new book “Sympathy For The Devil” Marks instead took us on an educational journey through his views on the medicinal benefits of Nicotine, why selling skunk behind the bar in pubs would be very profitable (one word, thirst), and his views on the state of drug policy here in the UK. Infusing every anecdote and quip with his trademark warmth and profundity, it is truly a pleasure to hear the man speak, with his quiet valleys lilt lighting up the room, holding all present enthral.

…the crime confessionals so beloved of the publishing world are seemingly no more.

He takes his role as a shamanic narco seer very seriously, indeed he has built his career on chronicling his very shady past as an international drug smuggler, but times are getting harder for the Howard Marks and Dave Courtneys of this world. As the government has recently implemented legislature banning criminals previous or otherwise from profiting from their crimes, so the crime confessionals so beloved of the publishing world are seemingly no more.

But no matter, the clever Mr. Marks has flipped the script, so to speak; for “Sympathy For The Devil” he is now writing crime fiction, rather than crime fact. The story, ethos and anti-authoritarian stance are still very much in effect, although now with a female protagonist, who is forced to team up with the law to solve a riddle involving a missing rock star and paranormal activity. Having read the book I can’t possibly comment on its authenticity or readable-ness, but then again this is a piece of crime fiction written by a genuine criminal mastermind, this speaks for itself.

…he possesses an innate distrust of power structures…

So with Marks abandoning his planned book reading (he is apparently not a fan of such events), he settled in to read his special written piece on the differing strains of the Nicotiana plant, whose processed crop is what we call tobacco. It turns out that when Walter Raleigh and Jean Nicot de Villemain (Nicotine is his namesake) first introduced Nicotiana Tabacum to Europe in the 15th Century, they brought the wrong strain. It is Nicotiana Rustica, which contains up to 20 per cent more Nicotine than the Tabacum strain and is used in Latin American countries as a spiritual guide for its hallucinatory properties.

It is an illuminating and celebratory speech, advocating the smoker’s rights, which have all but disappeared. People see Marks as a sordid character, one who made his fortune through very illegal means, but he is to this crowd a national hero. He stands up for what he believes in and speaks with such conviction and warmth that the listener cannot help but come around to his way of thinking.

We need counterculture icons such as Marks to redress the societal balance…

On speaking to Mr. Marks outside the venue after the speech, I found him to be even more affable one-on-one, answering my questions with vague, humorous answers that further his “Mr. Nice” persona. He tells me that he has no writing schedule and writes “when he feels like it”, his favourite book (although he says he was not influenced by it) is Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. He has no interest in entering politics, even on a cannabis advocacy mandate, as he possesses an innate distrust of power structures (extended incarceration will inevitably cause this) even though without these power structures he would not be the outlaw hero that he is feted as today. We need counterculture icons such as Marks to redress the societal balance, to be a voice for the voiceless in society, the marginalised and the stepped upon. This writer feels we need a Howard Marks in British politics right now, now more than ever.

Image courtesy of Diesel School of Island Life


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