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.