"I don't battle anymore! I uplift motherfuckers!" - GZA
Saturday, February 14, 2009,10:01 PM
The old devil

Felix Dennis, former counter-culture icon and now full-time millionaire, is behaving badly.

"Bring me some fucking beer, Marie-France," he bellows from one end of the garden to the next, across the tennis court, over the ornamental pond, past the rolling lawns. Marie-France, a tall, angular woman who seems to be operating as chatelaine at his Warwickshire manor, pops her head out of the kitchen door and nods. Two other women lounge in the sun on the terrace, giggling as we go past.

Dennis, 48, short, bearded and bristling with aggressive energy, seems to have been on edge for hours. Perhaps it's the heat scorching the leaves of his beloved trees, or a hangover - Dennis is a man with a mountainous appetite and a large wine collection. Despite his Panama hat, top-to-toe linen and warp-around shades, he's sweating profusely, and spends the first five minutes of our meeting harrumphing around his sitting room saying he is going to hit someone because he cannot find the window lock keys.

Dennis is usually smooth and funny, say his friends, but on days like this you would think he has barely mellowed since his celebrated appearance as a defendant in the Oz magazine trial 24 years ago. He is talking fast and lewd, like a lubricious satyr, and guzzling tea, cigarettes, beer and sandwiches. "Try these, Andrew, try these," he exhorts. For all his occasional prickliness, Dennis is, by reputation, the sort of sentimental millionaire who waits for the "And finally" items on News at Ten and then sends off an anonymous cheque.

We start the afternoon in the pin-neat sitting-room of his thatched, picture-postcard manor near Stratford-on-Avon. Dennis, you would guess, has bought into the myth: topiaried yew and York stone, exposed beams, leaded windows and antiques. It's beautiful, but too neat, a house full of those fussy flower arrangements you only get in glossy magazines. You have to go upstairs to get a sense of his real playfulness. On the wall of his study there's a large Hockney, and a Warhol outside, and next door the Egyptian bathroom, which is decked out with pharaohs and hieroglyphics. But everywhere, everything is tidy. Tidiness is one of his obsessions.

All somewhat different, of course, from his mouldy hippie days, when even his friends complained about the state of his hygiene. At that stage, Dennis the menacing millionaire was but a glint in his own eye. Then came the moment when he, Richard Neville and Jim Anderson were charged with producing a magazine designed to "corrupt the morals of children". They spent only a few days in jail, but earned lifelong notoriety after the most famous obscenity trial of the Seventies.

Back then, Dennis told the High Court that, hey man, money corrupts, even though he was already frightening his hippie friends with his aggressive commercial instincts. He also, famously, got a shorter sentence than his co-defendants because the trial judge, Michael Argyle, who was later found to have misdirected the jury, thought he was "less intelligent". Ha! Now he is worth somewhere between pounds 110 million and pounds 200million, has residences in London, Warwickshire, New York, Connecticut and Mustique, and has reached that stage when multi-millionaires start to think of posterity and take to building gardens and setting things straight.

So, while Dennis is normally a man who keeps his head below the parapet - overseeing his stake in a large computer accessories business in America, running his British magazine empire, and generally enjoying his wealth, you might say, rather than building it - recently he has been popping up all over the place. Earlier this summer, he extracted a crawling apology and an out-of-court settlement from the Spectator after it rehashed the whole Oz affair on the back of Richard Neville's new memoir, Hippie Hippie Shake. The Spectator had printed a piece by Michael Argyle which intimated that the Oz team had peddled drugs to schoolchildren and fully deserved their jail sentence. The pounds 10,000 Dennis extracted went to charity. Easy money, and he could have asked for a lot more.

Vengeance at last? Dennis laughs: "And the Lord saith, vengeance is mine!" But it isn't quite. He has wisely backed off suing Argyle himself. "Oh, I don't want to make him a martyr of the Right: there's no glory to be had in suing an 80-year-old man and taking his house away from him. It was just a totally obvious libel." Argyle, however, had been repeating it for years, ever since he left the bench; and everyone who knows Dennis says the trial judgment ("less intelligent") has always nagged at him - so was he just biding his time? "I never wait," he says tartly. "I've got better things to do than wait." (Argyle declines to give his side. "I have absolutely nothing to say about that man," he told me.)

Now Dennis has other fish to fry. Last month, after buying David Bowie's Mustique estate for pounds 5 million, he emerged as one of the main backers of Spiked, a new fortnightly rival to Private Eye produced by the Scallywag team. Those with long memories will recall that the original Oz carried a Spike section and that, back in the late Sixties, the Aussie hippies that ran Oz and the British public school satirists on Private Eye loathed each other for most of the time.

So is Dennis - Surbiton-born but, he claims, "an honorary Australian" - just settling old scores? No, he laughs, pacing the room. "We used to say rude things about them and they used to say rude things about us but, when push came to shove, they waded in when we were in the shit and I've got to thank them for it."

It seems a funny form of gratitude. But Private Eye, he says, has gone soft, and he likes the mischief of the Scallywag team. Scallywag, of course, is best known for the furore it caused printing rumours of a relationship between John Major and his caterer, Clare Latimer. Dennis says he has put "a substantial sum" into the new title - less than pounds 100,000 - and doesn't care if he gets any return on it. But he hasn't become a director, and so cannot be sued for anything it prints.

The Scallywag team says his move encouraged four other investors to reach into their pockets, but it will be interesting to note if Dennis's involvement, even at arm's length, now makes him a target for Private Eye. If he is worried, he is not showing it. "With all due deference to Ian Hislop, he is a lot better on television than he is in the editor's chair at Private Eye. It's become part of the Establishment now."

Part of the Establishment? That seems a bit rich from a man setting himself up as landed gentry, but Dennis, if you hadn't realised it by now, is a master of contradictions. He built his fortune out of adroit investments, first in Bruce Lee kung fu books, then one-shot poster magazines, computer titles (Personal Computer World, MacUser, PCPro) and, most profitably, in an American software company called Micro Warehouse Inc. Yet he has never moved easily among the publishing plutocracy.

He describes himself as a "contrarian", but thought nothing of threatening to get the Spectator, that most contrarian of magazines, pulled from every newsagent, a move which many thought extraordinary behaviour from someone who used to complain about the "pigs" harassing Oz. He explains that he just had to put the record straight for his mum's sake. His mother brought Dennis and his brother up single-handed after his father walked out; she is installed in a farmhouse on his estate and, at 76, still exerts a strong influence.

Despite the trappings of the self-made man, there is still a restless iconoclasm about him, as if he despises the club he has worked so hard to join. Some believe he is constantly at war with himself: his old hedonistic, hippie side never coming to terms with his single-minded drive to prove himself. Prove himself as what? Intelligent? An achiever?

He obviously has a knack. His old friend and lawyer, Michael Nixon, says it is simply a remarkable eye for what will sell. "He's incredibly foresighted; he always knows what the public wants to buy." He cites Dennis's early move into computer magazines and now periodicals on CD-Rom. But others note that these days Dennis is ambivalent about business. He has dabbed his toe in the mainstream magazine market with the launch of Maxim, the young men's title, but it is a crowded sector and it is unclear how much he wants to build on its early success.

He does love his wealth, though. He drags me to the kitchen to look at his cheques to the Inland Revenue, copies of which are pinned behind the door: they are for pounds 2 million, pounds 1 million and pounds 900,000. Next to the cheques are an array of photos of Felix with female friends spilling out of swimsuits. His fondness for women is well- known. "But you know," says one friend, "they are all long-term relationships. If you go to his place, you see the same people there year after year."

Isn't he ever tempted to settle down and have children? "You realise how many hairless monkeys there are?" he retorts, looking horrified. The "hairless monkey" line is a favourite of Dennis's, which he uses to explain everything from motivation to morality. "I am gutless," he continues. "I haven't got the courage. How these people can just casually have children which, if they are any kind of responsible human being, will utterly transform their life forever, is totally beyond me. I know it would take over my life."

Some say that, because his Dad walked out when he was young, he married money-making instead; others, that it is a hangover from the innate misogyny which characterised the hippie scene of the late Sixties. Crap, responds the artist George Snow, an old friend: "Felix was the first guy on the block to be a 'new man'. His company had female publishers, editors, designers way before anyone else." He is also, by repute, extraordinary loyal to his friends, both male and female. When I ask Dennis, impertinently, if he has to sleep with all his female friends, he looks genuinely upset, as if I couldn't have got him more wrong. No, he replies - but there remains an edge to our conversation. When I ask if he is surprised at how wealthy he has become, he seizes on it. "And when did you stop beating your wife, eh? Eh? It's the John Lennon question, isn't it? How did a git like you get from there to here, right? Right?" Yeah, sure, right. At this stage, I am beginning to estimate the distance between my chair and the door.

But that's just Dennis: he gives as good as he gets. The next minute he is explaining to me why he was useless at school. He had never told anyone this before, he says, but the defining moment of his childhood was when, aged 13-and-a-half, a relative gave him a bunch of records from America. Till then young Felix had been doing fine at school. So one night, after his mother had gone to bed, he says he sneaked the records on to the radiogram. "And I can tell you what it was, and who it was, and for the next five years it was all I was."

Dennis then leaps up, pushing his face so close I can see the beads of perspiration, and screams, "If you hear me howlin', howlin' for my darlin', oooooohhhh, oooooohhh, oooooohhh, weee!" in a pretty passable imitation of the blues singer Howling Wolf. Dennis, by all accounts an ace singer and drummer, could have gone into the music business. The thing is, he says, he could always imitate other singers, but didn't have a voice of his own.

Richard Neville's Hippie Hippie Shake puts a different spin on his ambitions, with Dennis turning up on the Oz doorstep demanding royalties for a tape he'd sent in, apparently penniless after selling his drum kit to pay for a girlfriend's abortion. Dennis's huge libido is one of the book's running jokes. When I ask him, tongue-in-cheek, if he is even more attractive to women now that he is rich and famous, he answers, rather po-faced, "I think you will find, reading Richard's book, that I had no trouble in that department ever. I am a ladies' man." Then he lets out a barking laugh. "'Course I am attractive because I am rich! They want the money! That's not female psychology; that's hairless monkey psychology!"

Anyway, he lost his youth to the blues. His father, a jazz pianist and bomber navigator in the War, had left for Australia when he was three. The thought of another budding musician must have given his mother the shivers, he says. His father did try to contact him, much later, when he was older, but he rebuffed him. He also put his mum through quite a lot - expulsions, academic failure, dropping out - while his brother was the complete opposite, very quiet and straight; he became a master lens grinder, but currently works for his big brother.

Dennis ducks and dives when he's asked what now motivates him. He told a recent, fawning Central TV documentary that the secret of his success was easy to encapsulate: "Dear Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz! My friends all drive Porsches. . ." So what does he do all day? He spends a few days in the country, a few in town, a week in America, keeping an eye on his businesses. "My guiding principle is, 'I know a man who can', and I let them get on with it," he says cheerfully.

Right now he is occupied with Blender, Britain's first CD-Rom only magazine. "It's sensational," he says, leading me up to his study. Halfway there, he taps an oil painting of a bullock. "Vermeer," he says, waggling his eyebrows. Funny - surely Vermeer never painted cattle. "Wait till you see this," he continues, and switches on his AppleMac. "It will knock your socks off."

The disc has five hours of interactive TV, with pop features, movie reviews and star profiles. You flick from one to another, and it talks, it moves, it sings. Great, but where's the portability? You have to be plugged in to use it. That will all come, says Dennis, excited as a kid with a new trainset, and, when it does, his company will be at the forefront. The irony is, he doesn't much like computers, and has never been that computer- literate. But he knows a revolution when he sees one.

Beyond his study window, the Vale of Evesham rolls off towards the Cotswolds. There is a whisper among his friends that, as well as building a large estate - he buys anything that moves around Dorsington, then hands it over to the farming family running it all for him - he also wants to build his own mausoleum, a strangely morbid aim for someone not yet 50. Intimations of mortality? Perhaps. He has already had one dice with death. "You're looking", he explains, "at the only survivor of Legionnaires disease you will ever see." He caught it in America, in 1989. He remembers the doctor in Connecticut who saved his life continually shaking him and saying: "It's really simple. You're over 40 years old. You obviously smoke, you drink like a fish, and probably take illegal drugs. You have contracted legionella and, if you go to sleep, you are probably going to die." He stayed awake. Now he describes what's left of his life as "bonus time".

He says he has grown tired of the manor and all the houses in the village he has bought for guests, and moans that he never gets any peace. The new plan is to build another mansion from a barn half a mile up the road. He has already planted beside it a maze spelling the name "Oz", with the "O" as the centre. "This", he says, gesturing round the old manor, "is going to be my day-house." The two will be linked by the gardens and woods he is creating.

Is he happy? Today, at least, it seems that you could spend hours with him and never really get to grips with what he is about. "Oh, what a question," he explodes, slapping his thigh. "People always want me to say I am miserable. I am not miserable!" He is shouting. "You know, I have lived, and continue to live, the life of Reilly. I have, all my life. I have never clocked in, never said 'yes, sir'. I don't wake up feeling miserable. I do whatever I fucking well want every day of my life. I always have - and it isn't the money. I did the same without the money!"

Yet, I add piously, you need others to clock in to maintain your empire.

"And Amen to that!" he yells

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