Felix Dennis Dennis Publishing

Felix Dennis was a hedonistic wild man and a hard nosed businessman and he was justified right until the end - colleague and friend Dick Pountain pays tribute

By Dick Pountain

July 11, 2014 | 7 min read

Dick Pountain, the close friend and business partner who set up Dennis Publishing with the late Felix Dennis - who died in June - offers his memories of the man following a fitting tribute at this week's PPA Awards in London.

Tribute: Felix Dennis

Were you to judge Felix Dennis, never having met him, from those potted obituaries that flooded the daily papers, you'd be likely to conclude that he inhabited two separate characters: the hedonistic wild-man who revelled in sex, drugs and rock 'n roll, and the canny, hard-nosed businessman who took on the biggest magazine publishers in the world and beat them at their own game.

Having worked with the man for 40+ years, I'd suggest it's nearer the truth to say that Felix was always both of those characters, all the time. The balance may have shifted a little over the years, but never in any neat sequence that one could label as "wild youth" followed by “adult wisdom", and those two characters aren't nearly so incompatible as conventional opinion would have you believe: both are above all risk takers, contemptuous of the quiet life.

Felix did in fact play in several rock bands in the 1960s, even made a record with The Flamingos in 1966, but by the time the age of rock 'n roll excess really started (when Keith Moon wrecked his first Holiday Inn?) Felix had already moved across into print-and-paper, thanks to Richard Neville, Jim Anderson, Martin Sharp and Oz magazine. When I first met Felix in 1971 he was still doing some graphic design, and I was reviews editor of Ink: every Friday we'd pull an all-nighter pasting up the reviews pages for press. He wrote excellent record reviews back then, through which I learned that his taste was less for heavy rock than for blues, and for singer-songwriters like Jesse Winchester. In fact his favourite song, Winchester's "Do It", pretty well summarises his whole philosophy in 17 lines:

If the wheel is fixed

I would still take a chance

If we're treading on thin ice

Then we might as well dance

He was neither athletic nor mechanically minded, so his love of risk would never express itself in mountain climbing or driving racing cars: he had the temperament of a gambler, and a lucky gambler too. His confidence in his own luck was unshakeable, and was justified right up until the end. In the 1970s we'd stage weekend poker sessions at his SoHo flat, where Mick Farren and Felix vied to bet fastest and loudest, but Felix always had the cards while Mick was really bluffing.

Do it

'Til you're sick of it

Do it 'till you can't do it no more

Eventually we did all get sick of it, and had to think about making a living. After Oz folded in 1972 Felix and I set up H. Bunch Associates to continue publishing underground comics. We had £96 in the bank from the sale of a battered military chest found in our new office, and a process camera borrowed from the liquidator.

When the underground finally fizzled out in the mid '70s we had to resort to more commercial topics like hi-fi, motorbikes, pop music and kung fu, and eventually to personal computers. As the only one with a background in science, I was elected to take home a Commodore PET and sit up in my basement flat every night for a year teaching myself to write programs in a dozen different obscure programming languages.

During those years we faced bankruptcy many times – whether from titles that lost money or from titles that made money but overstretched the cash-flow – but each time we sat down, examined the prospects and decided to carry on because getting a proper job was inconceivable. And we never once fell out, in 40 years of collaboration, perhaps because my analytical bent and his unshakable optimism complemented one another.

Eventually, Dennis Publishing grew into a provider of proper jobs for over 500 people, and gave many more a start in publishing through working there. It regularly wins awards as a model employer. Felix went off to the USA where he was warned that America's vast publishing corporations would eat him for breakfast, but instead they found that he'd eaten their lunch. Launching “The Week” in the USA was the publishing equivalent of going "all in" at the poker table, but once again he had the cards.

None of this is meant to deny that Felix's character displayed some baffling contradictions. He professed to hate computers and refused to use email, but took to Facebook like a cat to a piano, and recently brokered a deal whereby all 12,500 schoolchildren on the Caribbean island of St Vincent would receive a free laptop.

But his ambivalence isn't all that hard to fathom. Felix certainly belonged among that generation of entrepreneurs spawned by the 1960s counterculture – including Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Jann Wenner – who created successful businesses in the media, information technology and culture industries.

They all continued to see themselves as rebels against an older establishment, and built companies whose ethos reflected counterculture values to some degree. They made millions through innovations that changed the way the whole world communicates, and it was as much the change as the money that excited them – unlike those succeeding generations who went into Wall Street to take the money and run.

However, though his career saw him dealing with Apple, Microsoft and the rest, Felix differed from this cohort in one important way – his deep love of the printed word, which made him quite unhappy with some of the innovations they wrought. Despite (maybe because of) his neglect of school in favour of rock 'n roll, Felix became a voracious reader who consumed several books a week, spanning every genre from fiction through poetry to science. He couldn't bear the thought of printed books being displaced by electronic media and took a conservative, curmudgeonly line when confronting starry-eyed digital utopians, though he was realist enough to permit Dennis Publishing to become successful pioneers in the digital realm.

Like all moguls he had a powerful will, but unlike most he didn't force it on everyone else. Perhaps the best tribute to Felix I can think of is that the last 40 years have never felt like work, and though he's gone and will be terribly missed, we'll carry on doing it, whatever you want to call it...

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