Felix Dennis: Publish and be damned

From his days as Oz editor to his current role as lad-mag magnate, Felix Dennis has rarely shown much concern for the world's opinion. But he does now. Why? He's become a poet by John Walsh
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Dates reverberate in the life of Felix Dennis. He has a neurotic habit of remembering the date on which he stopped doing something, or started doing something else – as if a purely personal occurrence possessed a larger, historical resonance. As with 11 September 2001, or 1 September 1939, his moment of truth came in the late summer and in the shadow of death. It was 13 September 1999, the day he wrote his first poem.

He was in a Harley Street clinic at the time, seriously ill, being examined all over to see what was wrong: he couldn't breathe properly, he was snoringly lethargic, his memory was leaking away, his voice slurred. At 52, he was in an alarmingly terminal condition.

"I've got photographs of me you wouldn't believe," he says in his habitual jagged growl. "Really horrible. My face was a quarter of a size wider than it should be. People thought I was drunk all the time. I was finally diagnosed as hypothyroid and most people who suffer from that, they turn into vegetables, they're literally cretins – that's the exact terminology – and they usually drown in their own soup, or their food, because they just can't move." A pause. "Well, I managed to avoid that..." and he goes off into a huge, bellowing laugh that threatens to buckle the walls of his sweetly domestic kitchen, one floor above his company HQ beside Regent Street, London. The wall is covered with photographs from the Oz trial of 1971, at which he was convicted, along with his co-editors at Oz magazine, of outraging public decency. The magazine's notorious Schoolkids Issue had carried a cartoon strip showing a priapic Rupert Bear pleasuring Gypsy Granny, and the resulting trial had been a classic stand-off between the British Establishment and the groovy, counter-cultural "underground".

The photographs show a plump, long-haired, laughing Dennis in a velvet jacket, evidently having a jolly time under the threat of incarceration. He was always on the portly side – especially alongside the ascetic Jim Anderson and the boyish Richard Neville. Now, 30 years later, he is decidedly stout, his Falstaffian girth emphasised by an Old Testament beard and an air of breezy confidence that surrounds him like expensive cigar smoke. He talks incessantly in an ex-cathedra growl that suggests a man who has to make life-and-death decisions every 10 minutes – which of course he does, as the multimillionaire chairman of Dennis Publishing, one of the most successful magazine empires in the world. And he's talking today with rapt fascination about the thing that changed his life 30 months ago. It was his Road to Damascus. It was his moment of enlightenment, like Buddha sitting under the Bo tree. Because obviously he didn't die of the nasty degenerative condition, but – while still being investigated, and CAT-scanned and angiogrammed and endoscopied and X-rayed – he got infected with something else. It was, for want of a better word, a muse.

"I was sitting on the edge of a bed, bored, in a pink nylon gown, with my private parts shaved and my legs dangling above the floor – and I thought of that poem of Dorothy Parker's, 'Resumé'. You know it?" ("Razors pain you;/ Rivers are damp;/ Acids stain you;/ And drugs cause cramp;/ Guns aren't lawful;/ Nooses give;/ Gas smells awful;/ You might as well live"). And he decided to have a go at writing "a spot of poetry" himself. He asked a nurse for a slab of yellow Post-It notes and a pen. And he wrote a squib called "Travel Advisory", and it went: "Parachutes tangle;/ Brake pads fail;/ Seat belts strangle;/ And trains derail./ Motorcycles maim you;/ Ships collide/ New boots lame you;/ Stay inside".

"I wrote it just as a pastiche," he says modestly. "But then I looked at it and thought, 'Bugger me, this isn't too bad.' I was a bit surprised. There was a long interregnum when I wandered around thinking, 'I can't do this, I'm not a poet.'" It was 11 months later, in August 2000, that he wrote his second attempt at verse, with a dawning sense of apprehension about his new calling. And in October of that year, he decided to do it seriously. From then onwards, he has set aside three to five hours every day to write – and the work has come in an unprecedented flood. He writes like a man obsessed, an average of five poems a week. Since that October he's produced 300 of them. The bulk will be published by Hutchinson in November. It's an aston-ishing shift of sensibility, a torrential watershed in the career of a monstre sacré of hedonism, excess and hard-headed, money-spinning moguldom.

The words "obsessive" and "monomaniacal" just don't cover Felix Dennis. They fail to evoke the deranged, Homeric quality of his dealings with the outside world. Dennis is a man of huge passions who can, in a split second, convert a whim into a whirlwind. He uses unfeasibly large sums of money, and vast applications of will-power, to make his passing fancies as palpable as Stonehenge.

A desire to memorialise some of his cultural favourites, for instance, led him to invent a "Garden of Heroes", in which the likes of Bob Dylan and Charles Darwin are cast in bronze, in freeze-framed key moments of their careers – the former sitting beside the hospital bed of his inspiration, Woody Guthrie, the latter riding ecstatically, top-hat askew, on the back of a Galapagos tortoise. Dennis is still adding exhibits to the garden, at a rate of six to 10 sculptures a year, at a cost of between £45,000 and £150,000 each.

He is fond of capricious gestures. Three years ago, for instance, he read in a newspaper about the Compton Homies. They were a cricket team made up of former gang members from the most violent neighbourhoods around Los Angeles, and they were planning a goodwill tour to the UK. But at the last minute, their sponsor pulled out. Instantly, Dennis telephoned the States, got in touch with the team and offered the thunderstruck homeboys $50,000 to finance their tour.

And just don't get him started about trees. He can talk trees for hours. He is the most barkingly enthusiastic dendrophile since Tarzan. He owns thousands of the things and he hopes, in due course, to plant millions. "What I want to do is to create the largest contiguous forest in England, because there are no real forests in England. It would cost somewhere between £400m and £600m. I won't have that in my estate when I die – I've hosed too much away on wine, women, song and art – but I can provide a hell of a nucleus..."

He is fantastically, bewilderingly rich. In the latest list of the wealthiest people in the UK (due to be published on Sunday), he is expected to come in at number 56, with a personal fortune estimated at £500m. The money comes from Dennis Publishing, a glossy-paper empire with a striking Midas touch. Along with thick-as-a-brick computer journals (PC Zone, MacUser, Computer Buyer, Dreamcast) he is responsible for The Week, that handy digest of nationwide press coverage from the previous seven days that, in the US, rivals Time and Newsweek in popularity, and the rock'n'roll magazine Blender, which has been giving Rolling Stone a run for its money. Dennis's flagship production, Maxim, currently has the honour of being the top-selling magazine in the US. No, that'snot "the top-selling men's magazine"; it's the top magazine of all, beating the competition of Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire into a pair ofbattered bonnets. Not bad for a man who for years was described by the judge in the Oz trial as "very much less intelligent than his fellow defendants". This offhand insult has followed Dennis around all his life, and you feel he has enjoyed proving the judge wrong over the decades.

It was not an act of stupidity when, two years out of prison, when Oz folded and an underground comics venture was facing bankruptcy, he talked to some kids in the street in 1974 and discovered they were queueing (at 9am) to see "the Chink who beats people up". The Chink turned out to be Bruce Lee; Dennis started up Kung Fu Monthly and never looked back. He has proved to be an astute backer of hunches and chooser of markets and personnel, and clings to his counter-culture roots by publishing an "anti-corporate brochure" and claiming: "I'm not a real businessman." So what is he? He considered for a while. "I guess I'm the fat bastard in the glasses with the money, aren't I?"

The road to Parnassus was long and hard and dangerously obsessive. Dennis tells stories of head-spinning excess about what got him there. "I've always been a sex and drugs and rock'n'roll and fine wine guy," he admits happily. "That's what I do, endlessly, relentlessly, every single day, because I've been blessed with enormous stamina, and women have been the centre of my life, along with drugs." Despite the presence of a life-long companion called Marie-France, he has talked many times in the past about his seraglio of 14 mistresses, some of whom have been around him for years (and some of whom he gave away when they got married). "I've spent many, in fact most, evenings eating fantastic food, drinking unbelievable wines, taking endless quantities of crack cocaine, with about half a dozen young women around the place. For years and years! I was spending up to £1,500 a day! Anyone who tells you that crack cocaine is not simply unbelievable and doesn't give you the most extraordinary time is lying through their teeth. The only problem with it is, it'll kill you. And it'll change your personality and make you paranoid until you're peeping out the window in case the police are behind a bush, and you start to think, 'Maybe I should carry a hammer around with me,' and then you think, 'Hammers? What am I talking about?'"

Dennis's addiction to cocaine can be traced back to the time when he should have died. Everybody else did. It was 1988 and Dennis was meeting six businessmen in a classy hotel in Beverly Hills. They all fell victim to a freak outbreak of legionnaire's disease and were rushed to hospital. Six of them went into a coma. Dennis didn't. The stricken six all died. Dennis didn't. "None of them were smokers," he recalls with glee. "I mentioned it to the quack at the hospital. He said, 'You've already abused your body to the point where it's used to being abused.' These buggers who go to the gym every day, legionnaire's hits them and they're wiped out. A-HA-HA-HA!!" Massive gales of laughter.

He survived the attack, but it left him in the grip of something worse. "I became addicted to crack, because if you're going to die, you might as well go out in a blaze of glory." But it was gradual suicide and he knew it. Friends (including Dr Sam Hutt, aka the country singer Hank Wangford) told him: "This is serious. This isn't funny. It's gone on too long. You're gonna die because your chest can't take it." They worried him. "I was well off the rails by then, and I was getting really ill. I can tell you the exact date it all stopped. It was 28 November 1998, at 3.30am. I took all the crack paraphernalia, looked at myself in the mirror, walked out on to the flat roof and then I smashed them. I took all the rest of the stuff, I went mad, and smashed it all. Then I swept it all up, put it in a black plastic bag, then I called my chauffeur, got in the car, drove to the country and had – ah – a fairly difficult couple of weeks." Cold turkey hell went on for nine months, culminating in his hypothyroid writhings and the onset of the new poetry addiction.

The images keep coming in a flood, he says. I quote him Thomas Kinsella's lines about how "Ragged phrases in a flock/ Settle softly, shock by shock", and he nods empathically. "Absolutely. They can turn up at very inconvenient moments. The other day I was in a not-unimportant meeting with the president of Hearst, a not-unimportant woman. We were talking business, but I had this line, 'Who seeks to breach the siege of song?' running through my head. I'm sitting there having a proper conversation in a highly expensive New York restaurant with an incredibly powerful and entertaining woman, and all I'm itching to do is write down these words. And indeed, when she goes off to the loo, I start desperately scribbling on the napkins."

He shook his giant head. "I'm using a split brain here, where one half is working where millions of dollars could be the consequence, and the other half is trying to work out what to do with 'Who seeks to breach the siege of song?' It's a problem."

Indeed. As well as being an example of the archaic portentousness to which Dennis is sometimes a prey, "Who seeks to breach" is an expression of nervousness at his reception by the literary community. "I know I don't belong there. I'm expecting endless flak from the critics. I know I'm walking into the lion's den. The vast majority of people who write poetry don't have money. Not all, but the vast majority. And it isn't fair that I should insist on having a very large number of poems in my first collection. There's nothing fair about it – or the fact that I'm going to market the hell out of it."

He sprang his new Parnassian identity on friends in Mustique, the gorgeous Caribbean island where he owns a hilltop compound called Mandalay. He bought it from David Bowie and spent millions doing it up. "That's where I came out as a poet. It was a charity evening to raise funds for the library I built on Mustique for the island's population. I decided to do a small poetry-reading to a hundred people, though to be accurate they were a hundred of the richest people in the world, and none of them reads poetry. Most of them came to check out the inside of the house, and watch a person making an idiot of himself, knowing they'd be royally wined and dined." And they were impressed? "By the end of it they were standing on the chairs. As far as live performance went, I knew I could do it."

A bigger problem was launching himself as a poet in London. He hired a room in the Groucho Club on 28 November last year, invited 300 of the cream of media London (including Ralph Steadman, the cartoonist, and Tony Elliott, the owner of Time Out), hung an electronic screen on the wall and, through clouds of cigar smoke, declaimed his poetry with a lot of growling sincerity and high drama. As each line was recited, it would appear on the TV screen, then the next, then the next... It was the oddest poetry event I've ever attended. So pleased was Dennis by the result that he's now giving away a free CD of him reciting 30 poems.

A vanity-published recital, a 300-page poetry book – it's not exactly Philip Larkin, is it? "And I'm going to do a tour," says Dennis firmly. "A helicopter tour. And I'm having jackets designed. I spoke to Mick Jagger about it at Christmas. He said, 'You gotta have a name for your tour.' I said, 'Mick, I'm only doing a dozen readings around the country.' He said, 'Yeah, but it's still a tour, innit?' So now I'm calling it the 'Did I Mention The Free Wine?' tour..."

The literary-critical world will have its say about Dennis's poetic works in November. But one striking feature is that they all rhyme, and scan, and "make sense" as the late Auberon Waugh used to say. If Waugh were still alive, he would fall on Dennis's verse with a glad cry of recognition and approval – though even he might find it just a tad old-fashioned. I can confidently predict that Dennis will be the only poet publishing a book this year who still, unironically, uses the word "poesy". His language is full of smoking-jacket archaisms like "supped with", "cloven tongue" and "a prince's ransom", just as his subject matter features Babel and Baal and knights and Nebuchadnezzar, and his rhythms are strictly formal iambs and dactyls.

How come the crazy, Oz-mag counter-culture groover from 1971 has become obsessed with writing verse straight out of the 19th century, as correct and formal as a blazer? Instead of answering, Dennis gets up, walks around the side of the table to the kitchen area, opens a cupboard door and shows off the jars of apple sauce and marmalade, and bottles of Lea & Perrins and Kikkonen soy sauce. "All the labels on the bottles," he commented shortly, "face out." Why? "All of us are born with certain DNA propensities. I'm totally anal retentive. All my shirts hang on exactly the same hangers, and all of them are buttoned two buttons down so that I can slip them over my head. I know I'm very anal and precise, incredibly fussy about words and their selection, and scanning and metre and rhyme."

"Felix," I said, "do you know why you're writing poetry at this ridiculous rate?" He has pondered it himself and talked to friends, other poets and novelists, and he thinks he knows. "They all said the same thing – 'Felix, you think you're going to die soon, don't you?' and I say, 'Yes I do' and they say, 'Well, you'd better just pour it out.' Because it's true. I've had too many illnesses, taken too many drugs, drunk too much wine, smoked too many cigarettes, been to bed with too many women, I've worked in the business arena like a demon. I just envisage myself past 60. When I think about it, there's nothing there. I'm not even sure I'm going to get there. So I'd better hurry up. Writing has become more important than anything else. I won't let anything else interfere with it. And of course my nights have suddenly become weirdly empty."

All the babes have gone? "All the babes melted away about the same time as the crack," says Dennis, laughing uproariously at the folly of being addicted to anything other than his art. The art that he is now setting down, day after day, like a man running for his life.


by Felix Dennis

was taking his pleasure,
Rocking at leisure
while sipping his wine.
"Dost thou grow tired
of love thou hast hired?"
Politely enquired
his young concubine.
"Abigail, truly,
thy tongue grows unruly!
Am I not duly
the sire of thy heart?"
"If thou would know it
command! I must show it,
Yet the worth of a poet
is all in his art!"
Turning to trail
the hem of her veil,
Sweet Abigail
died there on the swings.
Never tease lions
with open defiance.
Place no reliance
on princes or kings.

Dorsington, Warwickshire 30 September 2001