Last year, the multi-millionaire publishing mogul and drug-addled dissolute Felix Dennis was diagnosed with throat cancer. But don't count him out yet, he tells Sean O'Hagan
Felix Dennis is laughing like a loon as he tells me how hard it is to spend a fortune on crack cocaine, fine wine and wild women: "$100m on sex and drugs and rock'n'roll!" he shouts. "I literally pissed it away. Do you know how much hard work that is?"
I shake my head, trying to make sense of the numbers and wondering if this could possibly be true. "It's really bloody difficult," he continues, cackling. "From the minute you get up, you have to waste money. It takes super-human stamina. It takes total bloody dedication."
He is now doubled up over his kitchen table and has had to remove his spectacles to wipe the tears of mirth from his eyes. It is difficult to do justice to Felix Dennis's madcap laugh, a full-blown, slightly demented cackle that shakes his whole torso. Alongside the dandyish style and wild white hair, it may mask deeper discontents, or perhaps it is part of an elaborate act, a persona that Felix Dennis can slip into at will when talking to the press.
All the time I am with him, I never manage to work out which but, at a time when even the most dully uninteresting entrepreneurs are lauded as artists once were, Dennis is both a maverick and a mould-breaker. He's a self-confessed dissolute who heads the multi-million pound Dennis Publishing empire, whose titles currently include the condensed newspaper The Week, as well as Auto Express, PC Pro and several big, thick, aspirational "mag books" full of glossy photographs of fast cars and mind-bogglingly expensive golfing equipment. "None of them are my children," he says. "It's a business and, right now, the mag-book is the future and we invented it."
These days, though, Dennis has other things on his mind apart from business. Having survived his marathon crack-cocaine bender in the late 1990s, and the serious thyroid-based illness that followed it, he is now coming to terms with a recent diagnosis of throat cancer. He underwent surgery to remove a tumour in February 2012 and has been keeping friends and fans abreast of his recovery via regular missives on his blog. Having undergone radiotherapy treatment, his chances of a full recovery are good but, as one posting put it: "There is no guarantee" and "nothing will be the same for me."
Dennis seems bruised but unbowed, as we converse over a chilled bottle of wine – he now takes his diluted with water – in the kitchen of an expansive apartment above his office in Soho, one of the dozen residencies he owns around the globe. "When I was diagnosed, I gave up smoking as easy as that," he says, clicking his fingers, "because terror is the best patch. But, after 50 years, I cannot quit the habit of making shit-loads of money."
Today, the madcap laugh is much in evidence. It punctuates his stream of wildly tangential monologues, which, if they are not "strictly off-the-record" (and legally terrifying) snippets of gossip about his myriad famous acquaintances, such as Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger, his neighbour on Mustique, are almost exclusively about himself. He is immensely entertaining company, though perhaps in small doses. Not many people can say, for instance, that they have been a mega-successful publisher and a gargantuan consumer of crack cocaine; fewer can boast to having done both simultaneously.
"I built a Nasdaq company turning over $2.5m while on crack cocaine," he tells me at one point. How, I ask, incredulously? "Easy. I never slept for five years," he says. "You can get a lot done if you don't have to waste fucking time sleeping."
At 66, Dennis is worth £500m, but he is still defined by the often-extreme contradictions of character that have marked his wilfully wayward yet extraordinarily successful life thus far. (In a recent alcohol-fuelled interview, he said that he had once killed a man. He later retracted the claim, saying it was down to the side effects of mixing medication and booze.) He seems, though, to have finally embraced a kind of late-flowering self-reflection through the writing of poetry and the planting of trees, both of which he now does in abundance. His project, the Heart of England Forest, has purchased almost 2,000 acres of land and he will soon plant his millionth broadleaf British tree. He has just published his seventh book of verse, Love, of a Kind.
"I've lived an unbelievable life, even if I did do my best to kill myself in order to live it," he says at one point. "That I survived at all is a miracle – that's what the quacks tell me – but here I am." He pauses for a beat, then, eyes sparkling, adds, "It's not quite right, is it? To shag all the women, have all the money and two cases of Petrus in my wine cellar and then write poetry that sells and that people love. It shouldn't be allowed. That's what annoys people. They think that I've got to get what's coming to me and no doubt I will."
This underlying belief in some kind of karmic retribution is also a constant: a kind of downbeat counterpoint to the relentless self-belief. It may be a throwback to his days as a hippy radical in the late 1960s, when he famously became a counter-cultural icon as one of the three defendants in the famous Oz underground magazine obscenity trial in 1970, his first and most viscerally exciting experience of publishing. Or, it may be to do with his lingering sense of guilt at so upsetting his beloved mother a few months previously, when he became briefly notorious as the first person to utter the c-word on live television.
The expletive was delivered off-camera on the David Frost programme during an anarchic takeover of the studio by yippies – radical, non peace-loving hippies. (You can see him on YouTube aiming a water pistol at the effortlessly pompous Frost and hear him aiming the insult at the effortlessly annoying yippie spokesperson Jerry Rubin.) Whatever, he has often said that he did not expect to reach 70, a belief that must have appeared self-fulfilling when he was diagnosed with throat cancer.
"It's my third brush with mortality and the most serious," he says.
Has it finally slowed him down?
"Hell, yeah!" Dennis shouts, and you can sense that he has taken the diagnosis as a kind of personal insult from on high. "It has whacked me in terms of my stamina. And to say my diet is restricted is putting it mildly. My hearing, which was brilliant, is fucked from the radiotherapy. And my beard's gone. I get up in the morning and I shave one side of my face. The hair has stopped growing on the other." He rubs one side of his face, then the other, for emphasis. "But, you know, whenever I go on about it, my lover, Mary France, says, 'Stop bellyaching. You're here, aren't you? You're alive!' Which is undoubtedly the case."
His love affair is a long-distance one because "I would drive her mad and, if we lived together, we would literally kill each other."
Has the diagnosis changed him emotionally or psychologically in any way, though?
He thinks about this for a moment. "Sky TV made a documentary about me recently and Jon Snow presented it. He asked me what my reaction was when I was diagnosed with throat cancer and I said: 'Rage. Absolute rage.' Jon pointed out that I had no real right to be angry given that I'd smoked for 50 years, but that's not what it's about. I'm in a rage because I haven't finished. There's still so much to do and suddenly mortality is getting in the way. My friends are starting to die and I don't like it. I understand it, but I don't bloody like it."
Has he always been in a rage, though, or is it a new development?
"Oh, always, always. It's been my petrol."
Surely, he must have given the occasional thought to why that might be?
"Oh, I figured that out a long time ago," he says, staring dolefully into his glass of wine. "It's to do with the realisation that we are not gifted life; it's loaned to us." He looks up, eyes suddenly blazing: "at compound bloody interest".
Felix Dennis grew up poor in southwest London, his father having mysteriously emigrated to Australia when Dennis was just two, leaving him and his mother behind. Dennis left home and school, aged 15, when his mother remarried, briefly working as a sign-painter, before blagging a place at art school, perhaps the key breeding ground for 60s radicalism and creativity. He eventually pitched up at Oz, London's leading underground magazine, where he sold advertising, leaving the politics and provocation to his fellow editors, Richard Neville and Jim Anderson. "I was never a true believer," he says. "I was the only one with the long hair who wore a suit every day. You couldn't sell advertising to Decca Records without a suit. So, I was this Jekyll and Hyde character. I knew it was a wonderful time, but I also knew it couldn't last. It was too much fun."
For Dennis, and his Oz buddies, the 60s ended spectacularly with the now infamous Oz obscenity trial, which followed the publication of Schoolkids Oz in May 1970– an issue edited by mostly posh public school kids. A gleefully obscene Rupert the Bear cartoon strip was too much for the authorities, who raided the offices, arrested the three editors and charged them with "conspiracy to corrupt public morals". The three appeared in court, their long hair shorn, after a stint in the Old Bailey and were found guilty, though the verdict was later overturned.
"It was," says Dennis, "a difficult time. It came just a few months after the whole Frost programme, after which my mother did not really speak to me for three years. When she walked into Wandsworth prison to visit me, she looked around and said: 'So, it's come to this.' It was terrible, really. That's when the 60s ended. For me, there is only before and after the slam of the Bailey's iron door." (This has since become the opening line of one of his more epic poems, Old Bailey– "And the room grows stiller than ice/And my face is a mask of snow…")
It was Oz, though, that set the course for his career, instilling in him a love for the cut and thrust of publishing.
A fan of Bruce Lee, Dennis built his current publishing empire on the unlikely Kung-Fu Monthly, launched in 1974, the first of a long series of highly successful specialist magazines that continued apace with deftly targeted titles such as Mac User, PC World, Maxim, Bizarre and Stuff. A few years ago, he sold his American magazine stable, including the phenomenally successfully mens' magazine Maxim (35 editions and 17m readers worldwide) for $240m.
What does he think is the key factor in his success as a publisher? "Instinct and talent. Talent is really the thing. I hire talent, real talent, and I pay them and, even more importantly, I give them their head. That's how they learn, but it is bloody risky."
Given the high risk factor, there must have been failure along the way, though?
"Christ, yes. I can't even count the number of business failures I've had. Mags that never worked. Mags that worked at the start then failed. Mags that we poured money into and they tanked. No one else remembers them, but I remember them all. They are engraved on my soul."
It is a wonder, though, that he himself is not the biggest failure of all, that he is, indeed, alive to tell the tale. The extraordinary energy that drives his publishing empire was channelled for several wild years into an epic bout of self-destruction that reached a kind of sustained critical point with his crack-cocaine addiction. It began in 1995 – the same year, incidentally, that he launched the loud, brash, über lad's mag Maxim– and ended just as abruptly with a spell of self-enforced cold turkey in 1997. I put it to him that 50 was perhaps not the wisest age at which to take up the crack pipe.
"Well, I'd done everything else," he retorts, hooting with laughter. "But, no, it wasn't, but then being wise doesn't come into it. King habit rules all. I was still rebelling and constant rebellion isn't really rebellion, is it? It's bloody Orwellian."
What eventually made him stop?
"Well, I was doing so much wenching, drinking and taking drugs, that there was no time to sleep. I never really slept for five years. I was just too busy building up the company and spending $2.5m on crack cocaine. But, you crash and burn in the end. That's the nature of it."
Can he recall the tipping point?
"Oh yes. Vividly. This one day, I was walking around the house with a hammer thinking to myself: 'When that bastard comes though that skylight, I'm going to give him such a whack…' Then I caught myself in a mirror and I thought: Bastard? Skylight? There is no bastard. There is no skylight. And why am I walking around with this hammer?" He creases up, laughing like a loon again. "I was in deep trouble, but I did what I always do," he says, still giggling. "I didn't seek help. I just closed the door and came off myself. Pure cold turkey."
Does he think now that the demons that drove him to make loads of money also drove him into addiction?
"That's a difficult question. Making money is certainly the one addiction I cannot shake. I love the business of business, I love the risk raking. The only thing I don't love is the losing. I fucking hate it."
Yet he risked losing it all on crack cocaine? "Yeah, but that was great, too. Can I just say that all narcotics are wonderful and the only reason I wouldn't take drugs again is I am not sure I have the guts or the strength of will to give them up again. It was absolute hell. But, if I absolutely knew that I had the power to do that impossible thing, I'd go for it."
Really? "Yes! But I won't… Ha! Ha… Or will I?" He throws back his head and out comes the cackle.
Our conversation inevitably turns to mortality via poetry and the planting of trees. Dennis is about to embark on another poetry-reading jaunt called the Cut Throat Tour: a Smile from Ear to Ear. ("It seemed somehow apt after the surgery."). He took up writing poetry in 2001 and published his first book, Glass Half Full, that same year. One tour goes under the heading "Did I Mention the Free Wine?", because audience members get to imbibe fine French vintages from his famous cellar as he recites. His verse is unashamedly old fashioned and populist and has been lauded by Stephen Fry, Melvyn Bragg and even Tom Wolfe, who described him as "a latter-day Kipling". He is immensely proud of it.
"Nobody was more surprised than me, when I discovered that I could write poetry, that people would pay to come to listen to and pay to own," he says, still looking surprised. "But even when I was doing all the wild stuff, there was always a certain solitariness there, so maybe it came out of that." He pauses for a moment, as if considering the full import of this late self-discovery, then he says: "I am a total prick, but I hope my poetry isn't a reflection of that."
One volume is called Tales from the Woods and centres on his other great passion: native English broadleaf trees. "Native trees are so important to our eco system, he says, turning suddenly serious. "In France, Italy, Germany, they have around 25% of native trees covering their land. Here, we have 4.5%, though the government says it's 11%. It's shameful. Utterly shameful."
I would not, I say, have put him down as an eco warrior. "Oh, fuck that," he says. "I'm not doing this for the eco cause. Human beings are definitely changing the planet, but how much impact they are having on climate, I don't know and I don't care. I plant trees because of the beetles that arrive, the birds that arrive, the little creatures, the medium-sized creatures, all the deer that breed much faster than I can shoot them and then eat my saplings, and the fucking field mice and dormice that eat my fucking trees, and the funghi. Do I think it will make any difference? No! Nature does not care what I do, she will shrug once and we're gone."
He slumps back on his chair, as if suddenly exhausted. How would he sum himself up? He thinks for a moment. "I did a poetry reading for the Wordsworth Trust. I had people laughing, in tears, the lot. I just killed them. Then Robert Woof, their director, got up to thank me and he said: 'You feel he lived it so dangerously just to be so wise for our delight.' I think that just about nails it." He nods, looking almost contented. Then a familiar glint comes into his eye. "The thing is, I still want to live dangerously, otherwise what's the bloody point?"