What the Old Manor requires is a short person with plenty of money, says its owner, Felix Dennis. At 5ft 7in, he is used to his hair touching his home’s low 16th-century door frames, and is cheerfully unconcerned by the recent bill for thatching that lurched well into six figures.
“People who have a great deal of money and who come here are surprised that I’m not living in a £10m castle,” he says. “I wouldn’t know what to do with it.” Dennis sits in the conservatory he uses for correspondence on his vast Warwickshire estate, and gestures towards the house he calls his cottage. Then he shifts his gaze and avoids eye contact. Behind the grizzled hair and tortoiseshell bifocals he looks profoundly shy.
A cottage? I’m looking at a substantial residence so manicured it could have been drawn for a cartoon. “It’s not even 5,000 sq ft,” he protests. “A tiny bloody house.” With four ensuite bedrooms, a huge kitchen and wine cellar, it’s all velvet sofas, big fireplaces and William and Mary antiques. “Perfect for a bachelor,” he is unable to resist adding. There are other homes in London’s Soho, Manhattan, Connecticut, and a couple on Mustique, but for 25 years this estate, welded together as Dennis has acquired more thatched houses and land, has been his main base.
The owner and chairman of Dennis Publishing has always painted himself as a reckless, excessive and lascivious buffoon and that’s how we know about the crack cocaine habit that nearly killed him, the 14-strong harem, now disbanded, and the lunatic partying that he claims lost him a decade and cost £65m. But you don’t make a £500m fortune by being loud and lairy. Since a judge took a dim view of him in the Oz obscenity trial in 1971 – Dennis was eventually acquitted – he has published more than 250 lifestyle and leisure magazines and websites, and co-founded a $2.5bn computer mail order company that went public on the Nasdaq. He sold that, as he did Maxim, the men’s magazine, but has held on to his flagship title, The Week, published in the UK, US and Australia.
“I never take vacations or watch television. It’s a hell of a lot of time saved. But I’ve had other lives. Not always lives that my mother would be proud of, but over the last decade I have been planting trees and writing poetry. Which is all wrong for the image, isn’t it? You can’t have a poet going on tour in Agusta AW109 Power helicopters. Ha, ha, ha.” This is precisely what he is doing and he is boasting again, though it is intriguing that, at 63, he needs to remind you of his success. He writes accessible, structured verse, and he is confident that the new collection, his seventh, will sell. Ever the numerate businessman, he can tell you how many days, hours and minutes he has spent composing, but what is interesting about his verse is not just that he took it up to replace the drug addiction that was killing him, but that it has an emotional range. He is passionate about the countryside in a way he has never been about people.
Cod psychology would doubtless put this down to his childhood. His father left when he was two and died, an alcoholic, in Australia. Dennis never knew him and had an impecunious upbringing in Kingston upon Thames as his mother trained to become a chartered accountant. Yet in his poetry he puts his emotional inhibition down to his ruthless business acumen, suggesting that because making money involves wearing armour and not declaring your hand, it discourages intimacy.
“Poetry is a counterpoint to business,” he says. “I’m an addictive personality. When I start to enjoy something, I do it to death. I was bored with the girls, the sex and spending ridiculous amounts of money. It was fabulous but after a while it becomes futile. So I woke up one day and went cold turkey – it is easy to carve a new life with money. I had to cut these people out. So I did.
“I am still loyal to old friends, I see six people who were in my class at school. But if you’re talking about sex and that kind of thing, no, I don’t have big relationships. I do have a companion of the heart, a lovely lady who’s been with me for many years now, but I’m not remotely monogamous. I never promised Marie-France [Demolis] and she never promised me and we never even bothered to discuss the subject.”
So he’s never wanted to commit? “No. The bravest thing you can do is to bring up children. I’m too cowardly and I pay the price. Of course I’d have liked children,” he bellows. “Made a bit of an error there. Ha, ha, ha.” Surely it’s not too late? “It’s far too late. When a boy is 12 he needs somebody to play football with, not some idiot dribbling on about the 1960s.”
He opens one of his poetry books and reads a moving tribute to the sense of ease that his companion Marie-France gives him. “But still the demons are there. If a ravishing mid-20s girl walked in the room, I’d think about it. It’s pathetic. I love conversation but find it excruciating to talk about emotions. The only way I can is with poetry and I am now addicted to poetry and trees.”
The tree obsession takes the form of planting across a stretch of Warwickshire that will ultimately become the Forest of Dennis. He started it 14 years ago and now plants 300 acres a year but Dennis is no conservationist. We may destroy ourselves, he argues, but the planet will survive.
“I’m not planting trees to save the planet. I do it because I like doing it and because by putting so much money into a charity, it will stop law suits when I’m dead. There’s about £20m going to humans. The rest is going to the trees. Ha, ha, ha.”
He shows me his duck house and a gypsy caravan converted into a loo and kitchen, and pays no heed to his suede shoes on the damp grass. We meet one of the estate’s 25 retainers, who is polite but formal, and you can see the isolation that can accompany immense wealth. Dennis acknowledges this: “Sadly, my life is full of belongings.”
‘Tales from the Woods’, by Felix Dennis, Ebury Press, RRP£9.99. See www.felixdennis.com for details of Dennis’s poetry reading tour of the UK, ‘Did I Mention the Free Wine?’
My favourite things: First editions and fine wine
“I’ve got many first editions, including the best bound original of Johnson’s Dictionary in the world. I should say that’s my favourite thing because I’m a poet, but I’m going to say John Evelyn’s first edition of Sylva with his emendations in his own hand. It was the first book about trees ever published in England and the first book published by The Royal Society in 1664. So I’ve got that. And I’ve got a bad first edition of Sylva. Imagine, two first editions from 1664. Actually, I’ve got three. I kept on tracking them down until I found the emended one.
“And I’d be pretty upset if I lost my 1947 bottle of Pétrus. Certainly I’ll drink it when something exciting happens. I always drink the old wines in the end. How much did it cost? Many, many thousands of pounds but I’m not going there, it’s too embarrassing. We can get one of the assistants to get it from the cellar. Christ, it will take a year [for it] to sit down again. Ha, ha, ha.”