HOWARD Marks has gone to the pub.
I know this because I’ve arrived at his end-of-terrace childhood home in Kenfig Hill when my phone goes.
The 62-year-old former drug smuggler has left a message: “It’s Howard. I expected you about 40 minutes ago, probably going out now. To a pub. Call me and I’ll tell you where it is.”
Who can blame him? I’m very late. I’ve managed to get appallingly lost in nearby Bridgend – hardly a metropolis – and he’s upped and left. I am an idiot.
Thankfully, The Prince of Wales – the boozer in question – is a doddle to find.
I pull up in my humble work Corsa next to a red open-top Lotus Seven two-seater. Patrick McGoohan drove one in cult ’60s telly show The Prisoner.
It must be Howard’s.
It’s what I’d drive if I was a former international marijuana baron.
I hurry into the pub, only to be called back by a voice thicker than gravel-dappled chocolate.
“I’m over here.”
Of course he’s over there.
There’s a smoking ban in force. As if Howard Marks, a man synonymous with smoking, is going to be sat inside.
He probably doesn’t even trust air you can’t see.
I mutter an apology for being late, citing something about wrong junctions and missed signposts.
Howard, dressed in a creased black jacket, a white shirt and jeans cut off at the bottom, grins good-naturedly. His hair is grey and tousled. His eyes are startlingly blue.
He looks like Keith Richards and sounds like Richard Burton.
He’s cooler than most of the kids too.
His nickname, Mr Nice, comes from one of the 43 aliases he adopted through the 1980s – Donald Nice – but could equally apply to the fact that he is, well, really nice. Really, really nice.
He introduces me to his pals – both called Dave – before they leave to let us talk.
I’ve met Howard once before but he chats like we’re long-lost friends.
But then if I’d spent seven years in the USA’s notorious Terre Haute maximum-security prison side by side with the that nation’s most dangerous I’d have learnt a little respect too.
He got out in 1995 and published his best-selling autobiography, called Mr Nice, in 1996.
If I was worried he might have tired of chatting about drugs I needn’t have been:
“I smoked my first joint at 19,” he drawls. “Someone had been to Morocco and came back with some. I had heard about it and was interested in smoking some.
“The first step toward dealing would’ve been enjoying getting stoned and therefore smoking a lot.
“Also I was massively frustrated with the law against it. It seemed to me very stupid, and there was a climate where we thought we were addressing important issues for the first time – like race and sex equality and the Vietnam War. Smoking marijuana was a part of all that.
“I started to deal because I couldn’t afford to smoke what I wanted. Back then we thought it would be legal soon anyway.
“So I started to deal. Which means having more than you can smoke.
“Everyone who deals starts dealing in that way and gradually circles increase.
“If you keep at it you become a bigger and bigger dealer.
“Then you meet smugglers because they need to know bigger dealers.
“Then you start smuggling.”
This is not strictly true.
I’ve met people who have sold marijuana before.
The last one I knew lived in a small house in Coventry behind a mostly-locked door.
He’d still be there now, had he not been evicted because he was too addled to be bothered to pay the rent. Not a high achiever.
Smoking hash isn’t something one normally associates with motivation.
But Howard Marks was different.
He ended up flying the world under a wealth of different names, armed with dozens of different passports – snapshots from which adorn the cover of the Super Furry Animals’ debut album Fuzzy Logic – making contacts in the CIA, the IRA, MI6 and the Mafia.
Most dope smokers don’t shift 30-ton consignments from Pakistan and Thailand to America and Canada in the gear of touring rock bands.
Most don’t have millions of pounds passing through their hands and homes around the world. Most don’t end up far from home in US prisons.
Fewer come out the other side.
And though he’s not the only career criminal to launch himself into the spotlight, he’s the only one to have done it with such charm, wit and aplomb.
Who, other than wannabe hardmen, really warms to thugs like former Kray associate Frankie Fraser or strongarms like Dave Courtney?
“It seemed an acceptable way of carrying on,” Howard continues.
“It definitely didn’t seem wrong.
“I was smuggling from 1966 to 1988 – 22 years – with a couple of years in prison.
“My family knew I was smoking when I got busted but they didn’t know I was smuggling.
“My father was really disappointed I got caught.”
Howard’s less comfortable chatting about his personal life.
He has a girlfriend but doesn’t want her getting in trouble so won’t reveal her name, only that she’s a teacher with dark hair and that he’s been seeing her for eight years.
I note the overlap between that relationship starting and his marriage break-up in 2003, which culminated in divorce last year.
He, not unreasonably, points out that not many marriages survive long terms of imprisonment.
A dad of “four or five” he reveals he recently met his oldest daughter, named Tina.
“She offered DNA tests but there’s not really much point. She contacted me by e-mail. I was surprised because I didn’t know and wondered why I hadn’t known. I was pleased and we’ve become friends.
“She has definitely been the cheapest kid.
“Her mother finally told me after telling her that her father was someone else.
“This pub’s got a talking wall, do you want to come and see?”
“It’s haunted. Shall we see if the landlord will show us?”
Not exactly a seamless way to change the subject but, hell, let’s hear what the wall has to say.
Howard shuffles towards the bar and landlord Gareth Maund takes us up the stone stairs to a room once used as a courthouse.
Howard is clearly fascinated as Gareth recounts chapter and verse about the bar.
And doubtless he’s happy to be out of his interrogator’s hands.
Then Howard announces he’s going downstairs. He’s giving me the slip!
As soon as I can I follow, but the interview is becoming increasingly difficult. The Daves – who are nice too – have rejoined the table.
We chat for another 20 minutes or so but Howard has to leave.
He wanders toward the red Lotus Seven.
I half-expect him to pull a leather helmet and a pair of goggles from the glove-box before roaring off down the highway onto another ganja-fuelled adventure.
But he gets into the black Volkswagen Golf parked in the next space and drives away.
What a Nice man!
First published, er, I forget when.