It is a good thing for the world’s 193rd most populous country, St Vincent and the Grenadines, that it has an Honorary Consul in Warwickshire.
More fortuitously still, he is the eccentric and very wealthy publisher Felix Dennis, who has just brokered a deal for the tiny Caribbean nation that would be the envy of any education authority in Britain.
After rounds of negotiation - involving the bearded British media mogul, the Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Microsoft, the Taiwanese computer giant Acer, the former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his troubled successor Nicholas Maduro - each one of the 12,500 secondary school children in the island country is to be given a new laptop computer.
Mr Dennis, 66, hopes the initiative will help St Vincent and the Grenadines, which has a population similar to that of Chesterfield, to grow into a technology hub with a population trained in computer skills. “The schools in St Vincent and the Grenadines have very limited access to IT facilities at the moment, let alone each individual child,” he told The Independent. “I’m delighted that Dennis Publishing has managed to help push this deal through so that every secondary school child can have a laptop to learn with.”
The publisher’s relationship with the Caribbean nation began more than 15 years ago after he purchased Mandalay, David Bowie’s hilltop villa on the exclusive island of Mustique, which is one of the Grenadines and is a favourite holiday destination of Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge.
The couple’s visit last year coincided with the island’s annual Blues Festival in which Mr Dennis, who takes part every year, performed his not-unaccomplished version of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”.
Mandalay is regarded as one of the most spectacular villas on an island where Mick Jagger and Tommy Hilfiger are among the other homeowners. Visitors pass through a gate guarded by a pair of flame-spitting stone Griffins and through Indonesian-style pavilions, with columns and doors carved from Javanese teak, courtyard pools stocked with goldfish and Japanese koi. The veranda look out to luxury yachts moored in the bay and the smell of frangipani and jasmine hangs in the air.
Dennis publishes a portfolio of titles that includes The Week, Viz and Auto Express and made one of his several fortunes from the $240 million [£144.5 million] sale of Maxim in 2007, when it was the best-selling men’s magazine in the world. He has been producing computer magazines for 30 years and now claims to be the UK’s leading technology publisher. He also has a 600-acre estate in the Midlands, where the grounds are the setting for a stunning collection of more than 50 bronze statues.
Felix Dennis is also known for his verse and among his output of more than 1,500 poems is a volume dedicated to his other homeland in the Caribbean. In Sunset, Mustique he describes the scene from Mandalay as the sun goes down.
A ball of fire is spilling in the sea
The empty sky flamingo-pink and grey
Cicada songs creak out the end of day
A choir of tree-frogs whistle: “Come to me!”
Despite his luxury lifestyle, Dennis, who has narrowly avoided death from thyroid illness, throat cancer and crack cocaine addiction, has a track record in trying to put something back. He has planted more than a million broadleaf trees in his Heart of England Forest near Bidford-on-Avon and the computer project is his attempt to leave a legacy in St Vincent and the Grenadines, where he holds citizenship as well as being Honorary Consul. “It is most definitely a home to me now – I spend four or five months of the year there,” he said.
He is friendly with the Prime Minister, Dr The Hon. Ralph Gonsalves, who praised “the ‘maestro’ Felix Dennis”, for his role in negotiating with Microsoft, Acer and Japanese software company Trend Micro to bring laptops to the country’s schools. Venezuela assisted with financing. “The special personal relationships between Felix, on the one hand, and between Hugo [Chavez], Nicholas [Maduro] and me, on the other, were instrumental in putting together this amazing project.”
Each year, Dennis gives four of his best-performing UK staff a holiday at Mandalay. One of those, Julian Lloyd-Evans, Dennis Publishing’s managing director of advertising, worked on the computer project and said he hoped it would have a lasting legacy. The software partners have given the schools a five-year licence to cover the children until the end of their studies. Teachers will receive specialist training in webinars from London.
Lloyd-Evans said he thought the project could inspire other similar initiatives in other parts of the Caribbean and in other developing nations. “We all hope that St Vincent and the Grenadines becomes a fantastic testimonial for what technology can do to inspire children and a new generation. We hope that this could be the start of similar programmes in the future.”