By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine
He's a multi-millionaire, a lads mag publisher, who was prosecuted for obscenity before anyone had ever heard of Loaded; a former crack-cocaine addict and friend of John Lennon. Felix Dennis has never wanted for excitement, so why has he turned to writing poetry?
Felix Dennis says poetry is his "fully-fledged obsession"
If you're one of the richest people in the country and you've finished with your sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll years, what next? When you're facing a life-threatening illness, what really matters?
For publisher Felix Dennis, it's poetry. A veteran of controversy since his days with the hippy Oz magazine, he describes himself as in the grip of a "fully-fledged obsession".
His latest book of verse is a wise-cracking update on traditional nursery rhymes - called Nursery Rhymes for Modern Times: When Jack Sued Jill - attacking political correctness, Asbo culture and various forms of hypocrisy.
But where does this compulsion to write come from? "I don't know - I just know that I become immensely irritable if I don't write," says Mr Dennis.
He can even precisely date the point at which he began writing verse, and produces the Post-it note on which his first poem was penned in September 1999.
He was in hospital undergoing tests for a thyroid condition (from which he has since recovered) and his previous highs had been more chemical than lyrical.
"I needed something utterly absorbing and gripping, when I wasn't doing business. Maybe I was sub-consciously looking for something. And I certainly found it.
"When you're writing, you're in a totally different zone... I can start a difficult poem and look up at the clock and see to my astonishment that three hours have passed.
"Instead of taking crack cocaine, going out with whores and boozing, I'll sit down alone in a room and have just as much fun, if not more."
No, it hasn't exactly been a quiet life.
Sitting in his Soho office, Mr Dennis, who turns 60 next year, is an entertaining firework of energy; a Catherine wheel throwing out ideas, cigarette ash and indignation.
On poetry, he attacks the "closed shop" of the poetry establishment that looks down on his work, and poets whose work is too obscure to have any popular appeal.
"It's total snobbery. They can't make a living out of it - so they make a virtue out of writing incomprehensible gibberish."
"They can mock all they want," he says, pointing to the greater success of his own poetry sales for his first two collections and the hundreds of people who turned out each night for his readings in the UK and US.
Mind you, one of his poetry tours did have the catchy title "Did I mention the free wine?"
In 1971, as one of the "Oz three"
There is something irresistibly quirky about a publishing leviathan turning his serious attention - not to mention his cheque book - in the direction of the miniature world of poetry publishing.
This year's Sunday Times Rich List estimated Mr Dennis' wealth at £715m. As owner of Dennis Publishing, he divides his time between homes in Britain, the US and Mustique. He's got more homes than most poets have readers.
And he says that the poet and the businessman in him are not always the same person.
"It's very difficult to be continuously charitable in a capitalistic society. You've also got to make sure that you can pay everyone who works for you," he says.
Before his discovery of poetry, he had also been entertaining himself in an epic style; in a way that makes him sound like some kind of corporate Bacchus.
"It was complete madness, I'm very embarrassed about it. I had a wonderful time, I'm not going to lie, but I shouldn't have done it. It was fun at the beginning, but then it becomes not so pleasant.
Mr Dennis stayed with John Lennon after the Oz trial
"You're behaving badly and there's no one to tell you to stop, it gets out of hand. And then you get addicted. So I walked away."
Although now known for his publishing empire, including titles such as Maxim and Auto Express, Felix Dennis first entered the public arena for a different publication.
As an editor of the establishment-baiting Oz magazine, in 1971 he was briefly imprisoned, after an obscenity trial that became a cause celebre for the hippy counter-culture.
The experience - the political involvement in the case, the subsequent disclosure of police corruption and the way a deal was secretly agreed to release them - destroyed any faith in the system, he says.
The Forest of Dennis will cover thousands of acres in the Midlands
"It was utterly, utterly corrupt. Until then, I'd still held on to a belief in English justice, I still half-believed that some of it was true - none of it was true."
But it also gave him stories that sound like scenes from a movie. Released from jail and besieged by the press, he was rescued by none other than John Lennon, who had organised protests on behalf of the Oz defendants.
He stayed with Lennon, who was working on Imagine at the time, and says that every time the former Beatle threw away scraps of lyrics, he'd gather up the pieces of paper, which he prudently kept.
So if he is spending more cautiously these days, where is all the money going to go?
Mr Dennis has another big project underway - to plant a huge forest in the Midlands.
"I've been busy for years, buying land, often under pseudonyms, and planting trees on it. All the money is going into it when I die - and in the end I'd like to think that it will be 20 to 30,000 acres."
And he still sees himself as standing up to establishments. "It's the bullying that annoys me... When I see something that's wrong, I just speak and act first and I'll take the consequences later."
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
As an ex-hippy and ex-OZ reader I wish Felix well with his new hobby. I spent years trying to persuade my teenage sons NOT to buy dreck magazines like Loaded and read poetry instead. They are now grown up, don't buy lads mags but know no poetry at all, a great shame. I forgive Felix however because of the forest: I too am planting a more modest little wood.
Rob Brownell, Colchester
Marvellous, purely for the idea that he's creating a forest. I'd thought the other day - wouldn't it be greate if the truly rich could instead of campaigning to protect something like the amazon actually buy it... Surely this could be a starter for 10 .... ? Come on Sting & Co...
Simon Crooks, Wigan
Wow! What a refreshing change to read about a wealthy chap who still believes in true values.I wish him health and happiness.afm
A.F. Marvell, Shropshire,UK
Well for once it looks like one of the good guys got to the top, didn't see that coming! One day I hope I can take my, as yet unborn, kids for a walk in the forest he is planting.
What a guy. I believe he was spurred on in part by the Judge in the '71 Oz trial who described him as "easily the most stupid of the three defendants" (or something like that). An interesting (and complimentary) account of his early career is given in Mick Farren's "Give the Anarchist a Cigarette".
Margaret McGill, Reading
What a brave and unpretenscious individual,a example to everyone to be courageous and follow their dreams
Makes sense replacing all the wood used in printing magazines. Sounds like his heart is in the right place. We need more people to stand up to the establishment they just make things unnecessary complicated.
Excellent - I read some Dennis technical mags, and can think of nothing better than the profits from that going to plant trees. Truely, a wonderful thing to do, as long as there is public access... My wife & I garner oak saplings from local farmers' fields before the hay is "topped", and replant them in peoples gardens - we've done hundreds now, and gave an oak sapling to each child in our primary school. More trees, the better...
Nicko, Kent, UK
What a man! If only there were more people like him in the world then it would be a better place - albeit awash with second-rate poetry. The Forest Of Dennis and Bizarre magazine will stand the test of time as two of the most important creations in this or any other age! Bravo, Mr Dennis! Bravo!
A man after my own heart. Bright, funny, individualistic- fantastic. I love his idea of planting a forest: if only more rich people would do something like that. I have read quite a lot about him in the past and what interested me is the fact that money has simply been a challenge: I don't think he is really all that interested in it per se. Wish there were more like him.
Carol Philip, Oxford UK
"Mr Dennis has another big project underway - to plant a huge forest in the Midlands" - it's good to see that a man can have riches without it having to destroy his soul - a lesson for other wealthy people out there...
jai gomer, Wales, UK
Nice one mate, thanks for planting the trees. Alec
Alec, Rugby England
Never heard of this guy before but will be looking on the web to find out more about him. What an absolute LEGEND. Especially like the bit about buying up land under false names to plant trees. :)
Reuben Leach, WELLINGBOROUGH UK
Are the public interested in hearing the ins and outs of the life of such a moraly bankrupt lowlife?
Al Blackwood, Stevenage
He's also publisher of Computer Shopper, a fairly geeky computer mag overall. Although I guess I know why some of the occasional quirky opinion pieces get published now!
David, Hampshire, UK
Brilliant, Felix reflects the marvel of the chaos in life, his non-conformity to the 'established' protocols yet still excels in entrepreneurial talent... and yet finds console in the beauty of literature with the penultimate reward being offered to create mother nature herself. Excellent!
nash patel, bristol
Delighted to hear that Mr Dennis is alive and well and has lost none of his hippy idealism. Planting trees for our children's future is one of the best things any of us can do - but I particularly admire his desire to plant a new forest. I think it is a Japanese proverb that says "to live for a year, plant a flower; to live for ever plant a garden" - well I think a forest qualifies admirably. As someone might have said in the sixties - "Dig it!"
Huw Sayer, Norwich, Norfolk
I went to a Free Wine (Not the cheap stuff) evening a couple of years ago, and it is a superb night. I wouldn't say I'm a poetry lover but his words you can totally relate to.
Nathan Davies, Lichfield, United Kingdom
The Forest of Dennis. What a fabulous idea. If only their were more people like Felix Dennis!
Phil Petravich, Norwich
A reformed character, whose heart is in the right place. Society needs colourful people.
CS Zeng, Tunbridge Wells, Kent
What life-threatening illness are we talking about?
I did not know much about Felix Dennis past the publishing name, and so that article was very enlightening. To think he is now spending his millions on planting a forest is a wonderful idea.
I had not heard of Dennis until reading this article. He sounds like a brave humanist. I can understand why John Lennon liked him. I hope he has success and that he is able to protect his forest from the goverment after he's gone.
Bob, Philadelphia, PA
This man is a living legend: one of my real heroes!
Mark Doran, Oxford, England
Ha! He once described himself as a hedonistic buddhaist. What a wonderful guy. His eyes tell you he misses little and judging by his track record to date, that must be true. I've two of his poetry books, my favourite poem being 'Never Go Back' which is doubtless his motto. Keep the flag flying, you old war-horse, and keep that poetry coming!
Jon Douglas, Leeds, UK
Is Mr. Dennis publishing work by other poets, or just using his money to vanity-publish his own work? Other "celebrity" poets include Viggo Mortensen, who runs a thriving leftist press. To stand up to the poetry establishment - which is not represented by those doing experimental work, who struggle to get published or heard, but by the major presses and their textbook poets - Mr. Dennis should be supporting the poetic community, and publishing books by others. I find it hard to believe that someone who made their fortune from such sexist, consumerist titles as Maxim and Stuff can consider himself a rebel for jumping on the "rewriting nursery rhymes" bandwagon that began with feminist authors in the 1970s.
I am of an age (54 yrs), similar to that of Mr Dennis and of course to remember the period of the OZ for Kids and the OZ Trial that made British Legal history. I am pleased to see that Mr Dennis is creating potery, a very difficult art form to do well, and I have a copy of the CD and the printed book of one anthology of his potery. I was particulrly struck by the poem he pens calls 'Snake Skin Boots' I think that spending his money on a public forest is an excellent way to giving to the nation and I wish him well with his new anthology. Regards, Colin Clarke-Hill
What a great guy - no flannel about the past, inspired for the present, big plans for the future too. He has given a small fortune to charities and if all millionaires were like him the world would be a much better place!
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