Felix Dennis: The poet inside a Sixties radical turned multimillionaire

Felix Dennis’s brushes with death haven’t lessened his vigour or his personality, says Ian Burrell

Even a visit, seven years ago, to the sumptuous and Baroque surroundings of his London pied-à-terre was no preparation for half a day in the company of Britain’s most flamboyant media mogul on his country estate. There’s no one like Felix Dennis.

The poet and publisher sends a chauffeur to the train station and a drive through the Stratford-upon-Avon streets the greatest Bard once trod leads to a Domesday village where Dennis has owned a manor house for 27 years.

At the end of a winding lane, between several luxurious outbuildings – one containing an indoor swimming pool where giant horses carved from African cedar stand at waterside on their hind legs – visitors encounter a tattooed man in a “Security Dog Handler” T-shirt and an angry canine; part of the 24-hour patrol team. Onwards past a maze, between figures of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, William Blake and Thomas Paine, is the first sign of the Seigneur: the Segway he uses to propel himself around his  600 acres.

Dennis, 66, is recovering from throat cancer – the closest of his three flirtations with death, following a serious thyroid illness and a crack-cocaine addiction. He sits down at a kitchen table with a view of more of the 56 statues in his “Garden of Heroes & Villains”. It is a remarkable collection. On the skyline, Lawrence of Arabia, 14 feet high aboard his favourite camel, Jeddah, is situated on a ridge to ensure a silhouette before the sunset. “I like to keep the art of bronze figurative sculpture alive,” Dennis says. He has a list of future subjects. Is there a  committee? “No! Well, a committee  of one.”

One way or another, the owner of The Week, Auto Express and Viz is making his mark. This week he will plant an oak sapling, the one millionth native broadleaf tree in his Heart of England Forest. “Whosoever plants a tree/ Winks at immortality,” as he wrote in one of his poems.

He will shortly publish his eighth book of verse. His poesy – which uses modern themes to regenerate largely forgotten techniques including  sestinas and sonnet cycles – is very popular, and so are his live readings, backed by customised video and sound. “How many poets do you know – and I know I am boasting – who can put 800 people in a theatre, charging £20? Give me one that lives! I do it all the time.” Humility has never been a strong point.

Dennis had a further reminder of his mortality this month when his former adversary Sir David Frost died. As a young radical in 1970, Dennis invaded the stage of The Frost Programme and became the first person to use the C-word on British television before squirting Frost with a water pistol.

“You said a four-letter word on television, big deal,” Frost rebuked his unexpected guest.

“OK, man,” a long-haired Dennis  responded, “how many times have  you said a four-letter word  on television?”

Now a multimillionaire with 70  personal staff, three homes on the West Indian island of Mustique and more in America, this former counter-culture icon – who was briefly jailed in 1971 after an obscenity trial relating to his satirical magazine Oz – looks back on the Frost episode with amusement. “I’m afraid that I’m personally responsible for the delay in all broadcasts to the Great British public. When it says ‘This is The 10 O’Clock News’ – no it’s not!”

During the Seventies, he and Sir David were frequent fellow passengers on Concorde. “The first couple of times he just glared at me but in the end he admitted it was probably the most important marketing for ‘David Frost the brand’, as he called himself.”

Dennis – who has never married but has a long-standing partner in Marie-France Demolis – grew up without a father in a house without electricity, using scraps of the Surrey Comet as paper in the outdoor privy. He is a Labour supporter (and former donor) who has yet to forgive the party for Tony Blair’s foreign policy.

Dennis is also scathing of Blairite environmentalism, describing the National Forest as a “New Labour Forest”. “You give a farmer money to plant trees and can’t stop him chopping them all down in 25 years, but by then Tony Blair has retired and doesn’t give a monkey’s.”

He has planted 2,500 acres (“five Hyde Parks”) and says he remains committed to the project simply because “I like to see the change that comes over land when you reintroduce the natural habitat – the return of wildlife and watercourses and insect and fungi.”

This is not the guilt trip of a man who has made a fortune through publishing on paper. “I want to nail the idea of a ‘dead-trees’ industry,” he says, telling of his helicopter rides over the softwood forests of Finland and Canada. “There are tens upon tens of millions of trees planted by the paper industry. The softwoods used to make paper are a crop. They are replanted when they are felled. We do not use oak trees to make paper!”

He doesn’t look like a cancer victim and the surgery hasn’t inhibited his humour (his latest poetry tour is called “The Cut-Throat Tour: A Smile from Ear to Ear”) or his hospitality. After making coffee, he waits for midday and then plucks a bottle of his favourite Pouilly-Fumé from the fridge (though he is obliged to take his wine with water).

In 2007, Dennis sold most of his US publishing operation –including the globally lucrative title Maxim – to a private-equity group for £121m. The business he retains, he says, is “the largest technology publisher in the UK”. He was setting up computer  magazines such as MacUser in the Eighties when tech was the niche world of the geek. According to latest accounts, which conveniently materialise before him, the company has grown 7 per cent in the past year as its titles make the transition to tablet and mobile formats.

He started writing poetry only 13 years ago, during a very serious thyroid illness, but he has written 1,537 poems and his verse has been compared to that of Rudyard Kipling, another of his sculpted heroes.

This, he says, is unfathomable for someone who has spent his adult life convinced he failed his 11-plus.

There is a bronze that features Felix himself as a schoolgirl, waving a copy of the infamous “Schoolkids Issue” of Oz. It’s hidden in the very centre of the swirling yew maze and it appears to be saying: “How did I end up here?”

Dennis in verse: The fog of age

The fog of age begins as morning mist,
A word forgotten here, a name, a face,
Your keys left in the shop while you insist
You had them in the car. The extra place
You laid for dinner. Stopping in the hall
To realise you can’t remember what
It was you came to do. The hopeless trawl
Through memory: “What was it I forgot?”
Yet mist has its advantages—what’s near
Is dearer to the eye and to the heart
When shielded from confusion at its rear:
An April cherry tree revealed as art!
The jumble of our younger years give birth
To veils that clarify each thing of worth.

Felix Dennis’s ‘Did I Mention the  Free Wine? The Cut-Throat Tour’ continues today. For more  information and to buy tickets, go to felixdennis.com.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own