This is not only an authorised but a commissioned biography. Felix Dennis, the tiny, depraved, manipulative media mogul, was hardly going to let a free hand choose the adjectives that defined him. The author recalls his initial fright at being contacted: “Of course I’d be delighted to speak to Felix,” I said, my voice an octave higher than normal.’
And so Fergus Byrne, of Dorset’s Marshland Vale magazine, was Dennis’s chosen one, flown to Mustique so they could sit in his paradisal grounds together, wondering at Dennis’s publishing achievements (from MacUser to lads’ mag Maxim), discussing his business technique (‘“I fucking hate accountants,” he shouted’) and remembering the laughs along the way, such as the ‘hysterical’ bitchfight between his Korean ‘companion’ and his Chinese girlfriend — on Christmas Day, no less!
This is a repellent portrait of an unrepentant individual. Its tone is mainly puerile admiration for Dennis’s exploits, combined with strained claims of virtue. ‘When it came to philanthropy, he didn’t differentiate between prostitutes and lovers. He was loyal and generous, regardless of anyone’s position in society.’ Every few pages this multimillionaire is called generous. It never seems to occur to the author that generosity is giving away what you can’t afford. Towards the end of his life Dennis did do good, planting a million broadleaf trees in England, and giving laptops to 12,000 local children in the Grenadines and St Vincent — although the latter was realised using funds from the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
Dennis’s father, a grocer, went to Australia when Felix was two and never came back; his mother Dorothy sounds rather magnificent, training to be an accountant at night school, for which Felix never forgave her. He was expelled from Northwood grammar and dropped out of Harrow School of Art. In 1968 he recorded a reel-to-reel tape of himself critiquing the underground magazine Oz. ‘It was a very amusing tape,’ Dennis declared,‘’cos it was done very late at night and I was a bit smashed.’ He signed off saying he was now selling his tape recorder to pay for an abortion, and sent the tape to the editor Richard Neville. ‘I knew that if you just get a tape with nothing else attached, there’s one thing for sure as hell you’ve got to do — you’ve got to listen to it. ’
Dennis was at a girlfriend’s house when she ‘suddenly shrieked that he was on television’. A BBC news piece about Oz was using his tape as the soundtrack. Soon he was on board and selling the magazine on the street, wearing full rig: ‘Afghan’ coat of rabbit fur, denim shirt, platform snakeskin boots (he was five foot six), yellow-tinted specs and faux Afro. And yet he was pushing the magazine like a hardened capitalist, getting girlfriends to help him, wearing ‘their shortest mini-skirts’, and aggressively targeting ‘wannabe’ hippies with just a hint of longer hair, but, crucially, jobs too. The Dennis shown here is a Sixties profiteer, licentious rather than libertarian, a seeker of kicks rather than enlightenment, a wolf in hippie clothing. Germaine Greer should know he claims to have argued with her until she ‘eventually slept with him, just to shut him up’.
The Oz obscenity trial saw John Mortimer QC defend the defendants’ right to print a cartoon of Rupert Bear with a stiffie. Justice Michael Argyle gave Dennis a shorter sentence than the others because he considered him ‘much less intelligent’. As it turned out, Dennis had no feeling for counterculture (Oz and INK quickly folded under him) but great business instincts. He made his first money out of young Bruce Lee fans, rushing out Kung Fu Monthly before moving on to transatlantic computer magazines too boring to name. He pioneered next-day delivery services, and invested in the Week until it outsold the Economist. It was good going. But he is mentioned here in the same breath as ‘another internationally renowned businessman, Steve Jobs’. It is also deemed ‘ironic’ that he chose to live in Warwickshire — Shakespeare country — before he even began writing poetry.
Dennis claims to have turned down a knighthood and peerage offered to him after £1million donations to the Labour party. The head spins. Lord Dennis of Dorsington would have given Sewel a run for his money. He was, at least, no hypocrite, openly using crack cocaine and prostitutes, whom he saw seven at a time. ‘We were made to stand in the garden naked…“because you’re useless. You’re just nothing but waste”. ’
On top of everything, this book is terribly badly written. He ‘never hid his veneer of steel’, ‘they testily circled one another, throwing punches like tightly coiled serpents…’, ‘perspective was a concept that was hard to swallow’. It seems conscientiously researched, but most contributors are Dennis stooges; those who crossed him are rarely even named, for example, ‘a journalist’ in 2008 made front-page news of his mid-interview confession, subsequently retracted, that he had killed a man. She’s called Ginny Dougary.
When in 2014 Dennis was diagnosed with cancer for the last time, ‘colleagues were shell-shocked, friends were desolate and lovers inconsolable’. This reader, not so much. I came to this with an open mind but I finish with it firmly closed.
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