When Mark Basford walked out of Britain’s most notorious prison, he vowed to change his life of crime. And he did. Moving to New Zealand, Mark became an acclaimed chef. But alcoholism still kept him in a prison without walls. Today, though, he is a free man.
UK-born Mark Basford had his first drink at the age of four. ‘I stole what I thought was blackcurrant juice from my nan. When I came to, I was in hospital with a stomach pump.’
At the age of six, he stole his mother’s anti-depressants, which led him to become a ward of the state. He bounced around foster care institutions throughout his early years.
By the age of 12, Mark was living rough under a bridge in Bristol. One day, he stole a charity box from a shop counter to feed himself and was caught by the local police. The police tracked down Mark’s biological grandfather, gave him some money, and dropped him off several hours away at his grandfather’s house.
‘He said, “If you’re going to turn up here you need to bring a bottle of whiskey.” So I went to the bottle store and bought some whiskey with the money the police had given me and we started drinking together.’
Mark drank until he passed out. The next thing he remembers was being woken up by his father—it was the first time Mark had ever met his dad.
‘My dad took me to a restaurant and left me in the car while he drank inside for a couple of hours. He came back and said, “Right, this is where you start work”.’ Mark reckons his dad owed the chef a debt, so Mark was put to work. Today, we’d call it child trafficking. But for Mark, it was just life.
It was a 13 kilometre walk to and from work each day. Sometimes Mark was so exhausted he simply slept on the side of the road outside the restaurant.
‘The chef was a violent person. One day I was piping mayonnaise and I thought I would cheat and use a spoon. The chef looked at it and reached across the front counter and bashed the hell out of me,’ he recalls.
By the time Mark was in his teens, he had become involved in violent crime and was sentenced to a detention centre. There, he earned a reputation as the toughest of the tough. ‘If a “screw”, as we called them, was upset with one of the inmates they would say to me, “You go and sort them out”. That meant a battery in a sock and just going at them. It was there that I learnt how to be a full-on criminal,’ he says.
When Mark got out there were more burglaries, fights, stolen cars and guns. ‘That worked for me because I could walk around town and everyone was scared of me. If someone upset me I would fire a shot at them.
‘I got involved with putting girls on the street for money. A lot of times I was sitting in the pub with their husbands while they were out there making me money,’ he says softly.
One day, an armed robbery went awry and Mark was sentenced to four years in Dartmoor Prison—a place with a fierce reputation that even hardened criminals approached with trembling. As you enter the prison, a sign reads: ‘All Ye Who Enter Here Give Up All Hope’.
This part of his life is not something Mark talks about—not even his closest friends know about his dark history. Because Mark did what seemed impossible: he reinvented himself.
After getting out of Dartmoor, Mark joined the Navy as a chef. But the drink had a hold of him, and he was expelled. He drifted in and out of other employment and back into crime. ‘One day I was drunk and emotional and I called my brother who had immigrated to New Zealand. He told me to come over, but I needed to stop all that crap. That is when my life changed. There was no more crime, I buried that part of my life, I had been through enough by then.’ Mark was still only 20 years old.
He worked hard to build a reputation as a chef. Eventually, Mark was able to buy his own fine-dining restaurant in Wellington, Verant. A phenomenal success, it seated 56 people with a long waiting list for bookings. Mark won several accolades, including five Lamb Cuisine awards, three Taste New Zealand awards and Restaurant of the Year. Celebrity chefs visited the restaurant—Mark laughs that one even stole a dessert recipe for his TV show!
But, personally, things were not as sweet. ‘Put it this way, I wouldn’t work for me in my kitchen. I wasn’t as bad as Gordon Ramsey, but not far off.’ His wife left, taking their daughter with her. And, of course, there was always the drinking.
And it got worse. Mark bought and sold restaurants. He did a stint as a repo man but found it too demoralising. Eventually, he bought a milk run, distributing to businesses. ‘My health was getting worse and worse. I always had a bottle of Bacardi with me. I would be doing my milk run at two in the morning, drunk as anything.’
By now, Mark had met his second wife—with whom he has had a very happy marriage. But the drink was always there, haunting their happiness. Mark’s health was quickly deteriorating and he had to have his gall bladder out. ‘My surgeon said to me that I had to do something about my drinking, but I didn’t stop.
‘My house was a party house and every night I had 15–20 people around. I had a fear of not having people around me, and losing the mana I had with them.’
Mark had money—and that was an effective disguise. But his health deteriorated to the point that he could no longer work. The drinking became constant and secretive. ‘I would wait for my wife to leave for work, and start drinking at 8:30 am. Then I would sleep for a few hours before she got home,’ he says. By now he was drinking a bottle and a half of vodka every day.
‘Gradually, I drank all the money away. My health issues got worse until I was told I needed a liver transplant,’ he says. A normal liver is bigger than a rugby ball, but the surgeon told Mark that his was the size of a raisin. Without an effective liver, his body couldn’t dispose of toxins, leading to obesity and diabetes.
By this time, Mark was living in Upper Hutt. He often found himself visiting Booth College of Mission to help out his mate, who worked there as the chef. It wasn’t his first encounter with The Salvation Army—during his years in the hospitality industry he gave thousands of dollars in unused food to our foodbanks.
Karl Foreman, then one of the cadets at Booth College, made a nuisance of himself by always asking Mark to come to church. Karl joked that he’d get Mark to church one day, and Mark would say, ‘No way, no you won’t!’
It was a seemingly simple moment that changed everything for Mark. He went to visit his elderly mum in Australia, and she said: ‘Mark, it is not my job to bury you. It is your job to bury me.’ When he returned to New Zealand, Mark walked into The Salvation Army Upper Hutt Corps and asked for help.
Karl—who was now the corps officer (pastor) at Upper Hutt—took him to see a counsellor and helped him enrol in the Bridge programme to tackle Mark’s addiction issues. Much of his six-month stint at the Bridge is a blur. Mark was in hospital with severe liver failure as often as he was at the programme. ‘The doctors said, “Don’t push it, you’re going to die anyway”.’
‘The only time I had ever been to church was to steal the wine. During rehab I was really anti-God. But the day after I got released, I went to my first AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting and I started to understand the spiritual journey a bit better,’ explains Mark. ‘Instead of saying “God”, we would say “Higher Power”—we knew what it meant, but for people like me it took the scary bit away.’
Mark announced to his friends that his place was now a dry house. All but two of them stopped coming around. ‘It was hard to lose my friends, but instead of turning back, I went to an AA meeting,’ says Mark.
He became involved in the Upper Hutt Corps men’s group, which was a lifeline. Karl, who became a close friend, shares his perspective on Mark’s journey: ‘What was key to Mark’s recovery is that the day after he got out of the Bridge, he headed straight to AA, and ever since he has done something every day to stay sober, including service and sharing the message. Mark is honest and real in sharing his story.’
At the group, Mark learnt more about his Higher Power. ‘I know my Higher Power is God. It’s not a religious journey; it’s a spiritual journey,’ he says. ‘I can’t believe what my spiritual journey has done for me. I can honestly say that if I had known [what a difference God could make], I would have done it years ago.’
Today, Mark shares his story in hospitals, prisons and at Salvation Army Recovery Churches. ‘The best moment for me was walking back into the Bridge after six months sober and telling my story. I was able to say, “I’ve been where you are, but I’ve done it, and so can you”.’
Mark has now been sober for two-and-a-half years. Discovering God not only helped him give up alcohol, but taught him to tackle the challenges of life—and he has been tested through difficult waters. Mark is currently on the kidney transplant list and has been told that without a kidney, he has a month to live.
‘If God decides to take me, that’s fine. But if he wants me to carry on doing God’s work and service on earth, I pray I can do that. My attitude now is: yesterday is gone, tomorrow is not here, just worry about today.’
by Ingrid Barratt (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 24 February 2018, pp6-9 - You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.