Legal child of an outlaw dad

October 11, 1996

Just as law figured strongly in her father's life so it will in Amber Marks's. But whereas he specialised in breaking it she is planning to uphold it. Harriet Swain finds out what it was like growing up as the child of an Oxford-educated author and cannabis-smuggler. Student life in London began for Amber Marks in time-honoured fashion - nights setting the world to rights in smoke-filled pubs, fiery debates with new acquaintances over philosophy and drugs, sleeping late into the morning on a friend's floor.

But in her case the friend was the eminent cancer specialist Julian Peto, the pub nights were mostly book launches and their focus and her companion throughout these first heady weeks was her 52-year-old father, author, Balliol graduate and renowned cannabis smuggler Howard Marks.

"He's showing me all the things he did and the kind of places he went to and I want to do the same kinds of things," she says. "I don't want to smuggle hash but I want to go for it in the way he did."

Howard's desire to "go for it" has dominated life so far for 18-year-old Amber, his second child and eldest by his second wife Judy. She was born in Wimbledon in 1977 while Howard was on the run after skipping bail. The father's name on her birth certificate was given as Albert Waylon Jennings, a singer for the group Laughing Grass.

At the age of two she was playing with Jade Jagger and living in a luxury flat opposite Harrods. By the time she was four, police had caught up with her father and he had spent two years in jail.

After his release, the family travelled around the world - Howard clinching drugs deals along the way - before settling in Majorca, where, when Amber was ten, she witnessed the arrest of both her parents on drugs-smuggling charges. For a year she visited them both in prison until their extradition to the United States. During this time she was looked after by relatives, along with her eight-year-old sister and toddler brother. Amber refuses to discuss this period but Howard's book, Mr Nice, says that their Aunt Masha's boyfriend turned out to be a junkie and drunkard who kept the children locked in their rooms for hours.

Her mother was eventually released after pleading guilty to conspiring to import hashish into the US. Her father was sentenced to 25 years in jail, of which he served seven.

But despite all this, parts of Amber's life have been remarkably conventional. Her family is close-knit and her parents have been together for more than 20 years. She attended a small private school for expatriates in Majorca, is about to start a degree in history at the London School of Economics and aims to become a barrister. By going into the law she will in a way be following her father - except that he specialised in breaking it. "I've always wanted to be a barrister," she says. "I don't know what Dad wanted me to be but my mother wanted me to go into the law in the way most parents like the idea of law or medicine for their children."

She wants to tackle criminal law - defending - and has no fear that her background or strong pro-cannabis beliefs will hold her back. "So far, my background has helped," she says. "You see, Dad knows all these barristers."

Her father's former career also helped Amber find work during her gap year with Duncan Campbell, The Guardian's crime journalist, who had covered his case. Howard Marks has never been reticent about using the old-boy network or dropping the odd name when necessary. His Oxford days provided him with the contacts to launch and sustain his drugs-dealing business - and a way to persuade juries of his innocence. Mention of his Balliol friend Hamilton McMillan supported his case that the deals had been carried out with the knowledge of M16.

His old college also helped out with his children's school fees while he was locked up, supplied him with proof-reading work and petitioned the US government to grant repatriation to Britain. "Oxford was ridiculously important to him," says Amber. "It's a bit of a sore point between us now because they rejected me. It was the only pressure he has ever put on me, going to Oxford, to Balliol."

Other parental pressures, even now that she is about to start an independent life in London, are minimal. "My father hasn't told me what to do," she says. He certainly never warned her against drugs although her mother did lay down certain rules. "My mother wouldn't let me smoke marijuana at school," says Amber. "She's really strict and she doesn't like Ecstasy or acid."

Unlike her father, she has no strong desire to fight against her background. "If you have to look after your younger brother and sister when you're ten years old and look after your mother while your father's in prison there's not much point in it. I remember at 14 thinking: 'It's really annoying. If my Dad wasn't in prison and we had a bit more money I could be really rebellious.'" "It seems a bit sad to start now. I think the whole rebelling idea is a bit stupid. It's much better to rebel against things that are worth acting on rather than just against your parents. What could I do? I could become a hopeless junkie I suppose but that idea has never really appealed to me.

"My Dad came from a small Welsh mining village and I think if I came from somewhere like that I would rebel too. But I don't."

Amber grins when I mention the "Saffy syndrome", so-called after the daughter in the television comedy Absolutely Fabulous who despairs of her pot-smoking, loose-living mother and reacts by being eminently sensible. But Amber does not disapprove of her parents - in fact she passionately agrees with their views on soft drugs - and she says she feels no anger for the disruptions of her early years. "All I think they could have done is be a bit more responsible about money," she says. "They could have set up a trust or something to make sure we would be provided for. But for myself, everything's turned out fine. There's a sense of a waste of the time I could have spent with my father but that's all."

She is making up for this lost time by helping Howard with his writing, travelling with him around the country to help publicise his autobiography, and clubbing with him and his bevy of old university friends, criminal cronies and idolising pro-cannabis fans.

But does she not feel it is now her turn - that having a father famed for sex, drugs and bucking the system is somehow cramping her style? Not at all. "It's only in the 1960s that people didn't look up to the older generation and rejected what they had done," she says. "Every other generation has respected old people. I think we need them."

One wonders what Howard, whose vanity prevents him wearing glasses at book readings, would think of being described as "old".

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