When I last met Felix Dennis we sat in the kitchen of his flat in London and talked about his past, his business, his poetry, his tree planting and the fears that have driven him to live, what in anyone’s terms, has been an extraordinary life. He chain-smoked then, and we drank a pre-lunch bottle of a fine Rosé before separating and getting on with our respective lives.
Today, a little over two years later we meet again in the same flat and there are obvious changes. We drink tea, there are no cigarettes and the conversation is somehow more candid and serious. Felix has joined the legions of people whose world has been rocked by the words, ‘You have a tumour’, the soft-step term often used to tell a patient that they have a potentially life-threatening illness—in Felix’s case, throat cancer.
Now—a year after surgery and treatment, and multiple years wiser—Felix actually looks well. In fact, he looks healthier than he did two years ago. He has lost weight, his beard is tighter (a result of the radiotherapy) and the pallor that so often wilts the faces of heavy smokers is no longer obvious. Those are the immediate and apparent physical changes but there are deeper, more imperceptible shifts inside him that perhaps few will ever really see or understand.
That’s not to say he is in any way less of a force than ever. As is so often the case his voice enters the room before he does. Today his anger and expletives are, not for the first time, directed at the local constabulary, who’s “overreaction” to a small demonstration in the West End meant he had to walk back to his office. Not ideal for a man who is still dealing with the resultant lack of stamina after cancer treatment and is, this very evening, due to embark on a 30-date poetry tour that will include stops in the UK, Ireland, Holland, France and Belgium.
I questioned the wisdom of booking a 30-date tour after cancer treatment and assumed he had begun arranging it before the diagnosis. “No, I did it on purpose afterwards” he booms with his signature mighty laugh. “I was absolutely determined to show that I could still get out on the road. This is a bit mad, this is a bit like an old lothario who’s now in his 60s trying to prove that he can still pick up girls and drink and do all the things he used to do. Possibly he can, but it will take its bloody toll. Anyway, I was determined to do it and I have done it—I am about to do it—I hope.” He is also being pressed to do a tour of America and his decision on that will likely be determined by just what a toll this tour takes.
Felix is very candid about his cancer, as well as about the process of finding out what would be the best treatment. His diagnosis was given to him at his home on the island of Mustique in the Grenadines and he first sought treatment in London. “I didn’t stint on seeing a specialist,” he says. “That’s another problem with having too much money, you go and see too many. It’s ridiculous, absolutely insane. I’m like the French National Health Service; I’m going to all these doctors until I get the diagnosis I want.” However, that brought its own set of hurdles to jump. “Everywhere I went I got different advice… everywhere I went. Then I began to realise that a turf war, a cancer turf war has erupted in London and this was finally told to me by doctors who are nowhere near London.” They told him that the number of major cancer treatment centres in London was going to be reduced very radically and that they were all fighting to be the one that survives and trying to improve their “recovery rate or their non-die rate as they call it—the survival rate.”
Felix felt that his wealth and name made him a potential prize patient and says that one surgeon “whom I will never name” said to him, “I’m going to, if you want me to, do a very radical operation indeed. I’m going to save your life and then you’re going to build me a hospital”. In the end, he went to the John Radcliffe Oxford University Trust hospital, not least because it was only a little over an hour away from his home in Warwickshire, but also because the surgeon he met didn’t seem to see him as a meal ticket. Of the initial process, he says: “I’ve got to tell you that meeting all those consultants, specialists, surgeons, radiographers, the whole panoply was utterly confusing, terrifying, contradictory and very frightening.”
He says the cancer itself didn’t hurt at all. In fact, he thought it was just a bit of pain following some root canal work he’d had done. But treatment after surgery took its toll. “Radiotherapy just bounces around and does damage,” he says. “I used to have perfect hearing; I’ve now got a disassociated left ear that as far as I know will never go away. Half my teeth were taken out. They have to be taken out with radiotherapy because otherwise, you get necrosis. I’ve lost my saliva glands from the surgery. I’ve got no appetite, I can’t eat ordinary food. If it wasn’t for soft fruit and casseroles and soup I’d be a dead man. So all of this comes from the treatment—because we don’t know how to treat it, we’re wandering around in the Stone Age!”
The details of the excesses in Felix Dennis’s life are well documented and one just needs a few clicks on the internet, and indeed onto his own website to find them. Suffice to say he had notoriety prior to his rise to fame as a publishing magnate and one of the richest men in Britain, and carried on building on that notoriety throughout his career. He has had near-death experiences more than once before his brush with cancer and has even gone ‘cold turkey’ to rid himself of a crack cocaine habit. However, one thing he hadn’t planned to do was to give up smoking, but shockingly for those who know him, he has done just that. He says: “So I’d been smoking, God knows, thirty, forty or fifty a day for forty-nine and a half years and then just stopped, just like I gave up narcotics.” He amused the lady in the radiotherapy department with the explanation that he gave up through fear. “Terror is the best patch,” he told her and she proceeded to make a sign with just that quote to hang in the radiotherapy waiting room. He speaks highly of all those involved in treating him but says: “I don’t think there are any more grimly cheerful places than radiotherapy waiting rooms.”
For all his success, anyone familiar with his poetry will know that he is acutely aware of the pitfalls of being rich. Poems from his latest book such as To a Child on Getting Rich and Crumbs of Comfort, offer an insight into the shallow gains of wealth. However, Felix, a self-confessed addict to the chase of making money, says it comes with the territory. Many lines of his poetry over the years have alluded to the fact that money doesn’t buy real friendship. He tells me: “Obviously what happens if you’ve got a bit of money is that a lot of people come to you and are after you, often for very good reasons, for charitable purposes or whatever, and you do kind of get tired of it. You grow absolutely sick and tired of people asking you for money. And I think that that probably interferes with your relationships with everyone else. So that’s another price you pay. But look, if you don’t want to pay the price there is a very, very simple way out. Give it all away!”
This alienation and insecurity is perhaps one of the reasons that poetry became the all-consuming passion of his life. It is a machine for him to use to dig into and turn over the soil of his emotions. Like a vast rambling garden, it contains seeds of ideas, human observations at various stages of development, and verse that holds young as well as more mature cuttings from the emotional turmoil he sees and feels. In the relatively short space of time that he has been writing, a dozen years or so, he has written over 1,500 poems. About a little less than a third of these have been published and the latest book, Love, Of A Kind, contains about twenty new ones. The rest are the product of time spent trawling through his catalogue of unpublished work. Those praising his work include the author Tom Wolf; Broadcaster and author Melvyn Bragg; Poet Benjamin Zephaniah and actor, writer and director Stephen Fry. There are also a host of others. However, there is still a hint of snobbery amongst some of the poetry fraternity. Because he is a self-made millionaire who has not held back from self-promotion, there are those within a cliquey world that will not take his poetry seriously. That is their loss. Over the years he has published seven books of poems. He explores his life and the lives of others through rhythm, rhyme and meter, painting fleeting memories, chronicling highs and lows, delivering pearls of wisdom with irony, and speaking of loneliness, death, sex and sometimes loves—of a kind.
There is a long-held belief that artistic output should come from the soul, from something deeper than intelligence and application—that somehow artistic integrity can only be defined by an entity outside of human perception and endeavour. Years ago, after one of his poetry readings, a lady came to up to speak to him. Crying softly and squeezing his shoulder she said ‘How could you know? How could you know? You are not a mother. How could you know?’ Felix Dennis has a unique ability to comprehend and articulate much of what happens around him, but that doesn’t mean he has the same depth of feeling that his subjects may have. It takes a certain kind of intelligence and focus to be as successful as he has in business and that same ability has allowed him to possess a strong grasp of the human condition, even if, as he admits, he cannot feel it himself. “I mean if you’re not willing to try to understand the engine room of what is happening in all the people around you, then I don’t know what you’re writing about” he says. He writes with the same intelligence and focus that he applies to everything he does. “When I’m writing I’m a totally different person because I’m immensely patient, I’m incredibly empathetic, very empathetic and I can put myself in a woman’s position, in an old person’s position, in a dying person’s position, in a young child’s position. I can do that and I’ve always been able to do it. Can I do this in real life? … No.”
He says that people who read his poetry, play his CDs in their cars and listen to his poems every day are a bit disappointed when they meet him, “because I’m not as immensely empathetic as perhaps my poetry is.”
An apparent lack of empathy doesn’t mean a lack of knowledge or understanding. More often than not it goes hand in hand with vast knowledge and intelligence and in Felix’s case this has been gained from personal experience of a life lived hard, as well as from his love of literature. “The Lord knows, I think I’ve read far more than is good for me,” he says. “We’ve just finished cataloguing all my books and I’ve got 23,000 of the buggers, and I have read an awful lot of them. There is a lot of wisdom in poetry and in prose, and maybe some of it has rubbed off.”
However, he has a strong thirst for more. “Because life is so short and there’s so many things to do, so many sights to see, so many things to achieve and to try, I’m terribly, terribly impatient. I just cannot bear wasting time.” As I wrote once before, Felix Dennis will probably still cram more into whatever years he has left than a whole bunch of the rest of us put together, and after what he has gone through over the last two years you can be sure that he is even more aware that wasting time is not an option.
The opening night of the tour in London showed Felix in fine voice, prowling the stage and turning on the drama for a crowd that showed their appreciation as though they were at a Rolling Stones concert. In poetry terms, perhaps they were.
Within striking distance of the Marshwood Vale he visits Southampton on July 2nd, Exeter on July 3rd and Bath on July 6th. And with ticket prices including a ridiculously generous supply of fine wines, an evening with Felix Dennis is an experience that should be added to even the shortest bucket list.
To book tickets visit www.didimentionthefreewine.com