Monday, October 05, 2015


The first (and probably not the last) biography of Felix Dennis has recently been published. As a long-time friend of Felix's I approached it with trepidation and a sense of relief that I hadn't been asked to do the job. 

Right up front let's say 'Hat's off' to Fergus Byrne for producing such a readable and professional piece of work that traces an ultimate rags to riches story of a unruly intelligent unstoppable boy/teenager who first sought fame and fortune as a beat band drummer, became nationally notorious as one of the Oz Three and went on build a magazine empire that earnt a bone fide fortune (£520 million plus). 

In his later years he indulged in a number of other passions, becoming a best-selling poet and author, an important patron of portrait bronzes (a legacy contained in his remarkable 'Garden of Heroes and Villains') and one of the greatest British tree planters - a modern-day John Evelyn. His vision of planting an entirely new forest in the centre of Britain - the Heart of England Forest - is already being realised. Before his untimely death in June 2014, he planted the one millionth tree. Another 11 million will follow, a process funded partly by charitable donations but mainly by all the profits from Dennis Publishing and whatever other income is gained from the dispersal of his estate. For this alone, we are all in his debt. 

The obituaries and editorial coverage following his death highlighted his well-known predilection for sex with multiple female partners and his well-publicised addiction to crack cocaine -  amongst other substances. Byrne does not shy away from this and his account makes uncomfortable reading as Felix's happy-go-lucky sex romps become more controlling and deameaning. His ability to 'pick up' women was noticeable from his teen years onwards when he was already oversexed with the gift of the gab and the energy of a rutting goat. 

Without indulging in cod psychology, Byrne gives us enough information about his childhood years and his battling relationship with his very strong and strict mother ( who died 17 days after him) to make his behaviour at least understandable if not excusable. Abandoned by his father at the age of four, he prematurely became the man of the house. In a memorable quote, his younger brother Julian says he was always aware that his brother was  different: 

'It was almost like from day one he was on a mission. He'd have a faraway look in his eye and always be skirting the edges, looking for something that was completely different, that other people wouldn't do or wouldn't say or wouldn't see.' 


From Left: Felix, Ralph Steadman & Will Self at a Groucho Club charity auction event. May 1999

As someone who, like many others from the underground press of the 1970s, worked for Felix and knew him, off and on, throughout the years, I want to take this opportunity to add some of my stories to the historical record and pay a       personal tribute to a dear friend and a generous patron, who encouraged me, gave me tremendous opportunities and saved my sorry ass on numerous occasions. 

Felix liked me I think partly because I was a good listener and I was no competition as I had absolutely no ambition to be rich and own and control the world. Underneath the bluster, the unbearable shouting at people, Felix was of course still dealing with his demons against which his only defense was his poems. I never thought he enjoyed his wealth. His natural acumen at making money was truly a mixed blessing.

I think we connected partly because my dad died when I was nine. I also had a difficult Mum (bless her). He was rarely interested in what I was doing and that was fine. I loved hearing of his exploits and behind-the-scenes gossip. Much of our hanging-out time was spent catching up on the current status of all our other mutual friends from the old underground. Mick Farren's death saddened him badly I know. 

I don't know how our friendship began but as some stage in the proceedings, when Felix was working with OZ and before the busts and the trial, we would meet on a semi-regular basis at a caff in Tottenham Court Road, have capuccino and cheesecake and then head over to the arcades in Leicester Square where we played pinball for a couple of hours. Felix loved pinball as I did. Having cut my teeth at 'The Goldmine' and 'The Viking' in Worthing, working the flippers in the company of pilled-up Mods I was good, Felix was also flash and we both worked hard to win. 

When Felix set up Bunch Books in Goodge Street at the end of the 70s we were all signed up to do stuff. It was the time of the poster mag. First came 'TV ScFi Monthly', edited by Mick which had a lot of fancy artwork alongside stories on a wide range of moves and tv series. Remember writing a feature on the Bionic Woman on an old sit-up-and-beg manual typewriter. 

Then 'Star Wars Monthly' arrived and we were really in business. We produced some 20 issues and Felix flew me out to Hollywood twice to do a 64pp newsstand special magazine on The Making of The Empire Strikes Back'. You can read my adventures here

Following on from this we did some poster mags on Indiana Jones and another newsstand special on the 'Making of Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom'. I met and interviewed Spielberg (for the 2nd time) and many of the key players and makers including Kate Capshaw (Spielberg's future wife), the Costume Designer, the Cinematographer (who had shot the Ealing Comedy 'Kind Hearts &Coronets') and many others. 

Then there was a long gap. The occasional meet, the odd drunken party before the pre-Millennium period by which time I had reached the end of my tether and resources. I wrote to Felix and asked for his help. It was something like a 4pm appointment in his office in Kingly Street. I went to Golden Square and had a coffee just before and I knew that whatever Felix suggested I was going to have to do By the time I was ushered into his office the sky had turned inky black and loud thunderclaps boomed across Regent Street like bomb blasts. Felix came straight to the point. "I've got two jobs for you". There was massive lightning strike right over the building. Then a pause. I want you to edit 'Tree News' magazine and catalog The Oz Archive. That was the next five years of my life. 

Another five-year stretch leading up his death, revolved around the production of a beautiful illustrated book on 'The Garden of Heroes and Villains'. A second edition followed which, in the end contained more than 50 larger-than-life bronze figures from some 30 different sculptors.  A last memorial supplement documented the final pieces he'd commissioned including a large bronze figure of himself, wearing an old flying jacket inscribed with some of his poems. 


A great strength of Byrne's book to my mind lies in his account of Felix's final years, not so much the material on the poetry tours but his medical condition and the sufferings he had to go through. I was on the mailing list for to receive a number of letters from Felix in which he described in grim detail the stages of treatment he was going through and its results. I thank him for persuading me to give up smoking (three years now). I know we've all got to die but I thought I'd try and avoid his way. He did recover from the throat cancer due to prompt treatment but in the end the lung cancer got him. 

This force of nature was a figure Shakespeare would have revelled in, a dangerous hybrid of Felix the Cat and Dennis the Menace. A man who seemed to stride the world, to have experienced sexual and financial extremes, drug addiction and high-flying adrenaline-riven business pressures at the highest level, who had several close-calls with the Reaper and spent his last years pumping out poetry and planting trees. He has left a legacy of memories in the minds of so many. Bombastic and domineering, he had a wonderful laugh and, buried deep, the sweet and fragile nature of a damaged child. 

Byrne pctures him wandering round Mandalay, one of two houses he owned on Mustique, fingering and gazing at the many treasures and objects he owned, like a character from Greek tragedy. He lost his voice and his battle for life in the end but his spirit and nature are captured in his verse and encoded in his vision of a new Forest of Arden. I can hear his voice now, shouting: 'Wendy.Where's my tea' and 'John, just bloody well get on with it.' I miss him  a lot.