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.
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