Poet who vowed never to be poor
Middle class was not enough for publisher Felix Dennis – he realised he needed to be rich if he wanted to live life his way
“When I went home and saw my girlfriend and poured myself a glass of wine, and probably had a spliff and went to bed with my girlfriend for two days – I decided then I would never be poor again.”
This was the decision of Felix Dennis’s life. He had been sentenced to prison and then acquitted on appeal following the Oz trial. (Dennis and the other editors of Oz magazine had dragged the UK into its longest-ever obscenity trial after collaborating with teenagers on a “school kids” edition, which led to an explicit Rupert the Bear cartoon.) Dennis realised that had he and his defendants been wealthy and privileged, they would never have been treated so badly by the police. So he needed to get rich. Fast. And he did.
As a publisher, Dennis went on to amass more than half a billion pounds in personal wealth, latching on to trends and turning them into magazines: Kung Fu; the early computing magazines of the 1980s; the lads’ mags publishing revolution of the mid-1990s. Among his stable of titles was Maxim and Stuff. He sold these in 2007 as part of his US operation for a reputed $240 million. He currently owns more than 50 titles.
The chase for wealth did not come without warnings. “I remember discussing it with John Lennon, ” Dennis says. “He let me stay at his house in Ascot when he was recording Imagine. Yoko Ono had just moved in with him, and he was a very difficult person, John, but he was interested in my stories, the stories of these long-haired magazine editors. I remember him warning me, and by that time he was immensely rich. He said, ‘You be real careful, man. If you just go after the money, you forget to be kind along the way and you’re going to become unbearable. You’re pretty unbearable now, but at least you’re funny.’ ”
Dennis cracks up. He didn’t heed Lennon’s finger-wagging and ultimately felt the consequences of being minted. By his own admission, Dennis has blown about £100 million on drugs and partying, and developed a crack cocaine habit.
Now life is more sedate for the Londoner. Instead of cocaine and models, he concentrates on his best-selling poetry, and his reading tours entitled ‘Did I Mention The Free Wine?’ (his friend Mick Jagger came up with the name thinking that it would shift more tickets) coming to Ireland this month.
Dennis is a hard-core raconteur. Anecdotes are lengthy, jokes are punctuated by an infectious cackle, names drop like rain – and it’s all swaddled in a charming, polite swagger.
He grew up in a south London house with no electricity or heating. In the mid-1950s, his mother, divorced from his father, put herself through night school and became an accountant.
“Suddenly my brother and I were transported on a magic carpet to a middle-class home. I had to teach my brother how to turn on an electric light. We had a garden! It was fantastic.”
Dennis says he grew up as the alpha male in the family – “I was the guy who got the spiders out of the bath” – giving him independence, authority and drive that would serve him well as the maverick publisher who would become one of Britain’s richest men. “The first fifty thousand is the most difficult,” he says.
Things began to pick up after he chanced upon a queue of young people outside a sex cinema in Soho in London. He approached them, asking why they were queueing. It wasn’t for pornography but for a Bruce Lee film. “I went into the film and saw all these boys cheering and all these girls going weak at the knees. I came out, went over to the office, and said ‘Right lads, we’re going to do a Bruce Lee magazine.’
“So that’s the kind of opportunism and timing you need . . . by the time we’d finished doing all these magazines and posters – Star Wars, Jaws and Indiana Jones – already you’re looking at $40 million or $50 million. It’s really about sensing trends and having the arrogance to think, ‘I know I’m right.’ ”
Dennis gets most animated when talking about publishing. “My trick with Maxim was one of my oldest tricks. I wasn’t the first; James Brown was the first with Loaded. Loaded was published by a large company called IPC.
“In the magazine business, IPC has always been called the Ministry of Magazines – that will tell you everything you need to know about them. They loathed Loaded.”
He launched the hugely successful Maxim. “I usually try and remember to try and sell these magazines right at their peak,” he laughs.
With Edward Snowden in the papers, the conversation drifts towards Julian Assange, for whom Dennis put up bail money. “I don’t like Julian Assange,” he says, “but I was not having a man pre-judged and sent supposedly to Sweden where we knew absolutely that he would be put straight on a plane and sent to America . . . Most of the people who put the money up for Julian Assange knew there was a possibility we would lose our money. So what? Sometimes you just have to stand up and be counted when you see wrong being done. You have to fight.”
As for the latest whistle-blower? “I know it’s a difficult trick, but I’m afraid on balance, I’m with Mr Snowden . . . it hurts me to see America behaving in this way. It should not behave the way Russia behaves or China behaves. It is supposed to be a beacon of fairness and hope. It should be more reasoned and proportionate.”
Though he has been in more than a few scrapes, it’s still easy for him to choose the most dangerous situation he’s been in. On a British Airways Concorde over the Atlantic, an engine shut off and the plane dropped towards the ocean. “All of this was being recorded because they had this great big dial in the cabin. The reason they have that is to show off, because Concorde was the only plane in the world to fly at 55,000 feet.
“Unfortunately we could see this going down, and you now know you’re going to die. All the luggage had fallen out of the racks and crashed onto people’s heads. A beautiful Italian model ripped her pearl necklace off and began counting them like rosary beads. A great fat American guy was literally having a heart attack. An opera singer up the front was projectile vomiting. I had managed to hold on to the remains of my gin and tonic. I thought, ‘Well Felix, you’ve had a bloody good run, try not to scream on the way down, eh son.’ ”
The pilot managed to cut the other engine, levelling the plane. “There was nothing now except the sounds of crying, sobbing and the air conditioning, and the smell of aviation fuel. Finally the captain came on and said, ‘I’m so terribly sorry’. He said, ‘It’s a good job we fly at 50,000 feet otherwise the plane would have turned into a submarine.’ ”
His articulate retelling of the near-death experience brings us back to his current work. Dennis started to write poetry in 2000 when he was in a clinic in Harley Street with no phone or computer. He was recovering from Legionnaires’ disease he had contracted in a hotel where six other guests had died.
He stole a pack of Post-It notes from the nurses’s station. “I was so bored. I had to do something, and you can’t write a novel on a Post-It note.”
He recalled a poem by Dorothy Parker about the reasons not to take one’s life and thought he would write a response to it. For two or three hours, he lost himself, the clinic fading away. Since then, he has written 1,500 poems, “which is an astonishing output, even if many of them are no good – and believe me, many are no good”.
His friends Tom Wolfe, Melvyn Bragg and especially Stephen Fry told him to keep going. “They said, ‘Felix you’re going to get a lot of stick because you’re rich and you’re writing this poetry. The establishment will hate you, but take no notice and keep going.’ ”
Dennis credits Fry with much of his development. “I suspect I’m the biggest selling poet in England today and that was down to learning my craft. I don’t care if it sounds like I’m boasting, because I’ve worked like a demon to get to where I am.”
Dennis says poetry has “transformed my somewhat reprehensible life”. Having smoked for 49-and-½ years, he gave up overnight upon developing throat cancer last year. A nurse at his clinic asked him how he managed to stop so quickly, and he told her his motto: Terror is the best patch.
“She said, ‘That’s very clever’ and asked me how I came up with it. Well, I am a poet, aren’t I?”
Felix Dennis performs at the Button Factory, Dublin, on Thursday and Firkin Crane, Cork on Sunday