FELIX DENNIS IS DEAD by Harry McAvinchey

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We all pass through this way but one time only and some of us do so  without leaving any kind of stain whatsoever.We may individually only be remembered within our own  generation or by our children until they too die, but unless we leave something behind that is capable of capturing the public  imagination beyond our own time span, we will soon be forgotten.

 Felix Dennis was not one of those  whose life will simply be a footnote in a family tree. He was someone  who made his own kind of  impression and rose above the madding crowd. Although many may not have heard his name , you’ll have  at some time, maybe without realising it, noticed,  or have been confronted, with the out-workings of his unique mind.. He left an impression on our social history although he started off in less than sublime circumstances in a household without an indoor toilet or bathroom, no electricity  and light by candles and gas. It was an almost Dickensian beginning for someone who would light a fire in the 1960s..

We all know that Kenneth Tynan , the acerbic theatre  critic, was the one with the dubious pleasure of emoting that  all -purpose expletive  f**k ,live on television. When all the sheltered, maiden aunts had settled their tresses for another generation or so , it was Felix Dennis who similarly let rip with possibly  even more  sumptuously stinking and profane, c**t  expletive. Fans would have fluttered maniacally, no doubt, at the escape on the airwaves of these monkey-boy sexual  emissions. For Felix Dennis , though it was simply an amicable insult aimed at  Jerry Rubin on David Frost’s “The Frost Report”.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s , just in time for me to catch its colourful wave, the underground , alternative press burst out from the social undergrowth to parlay a different vision of reality than the one being sold in our national newspapers, on radio,  television or anything our politicians were allowing us to hear or see.

 “Oz” magazine was the most consistently colourful and innovative of the alternative underground magazines in the UK and Ireland. It was called “OZ” because its originators each had some Australian connection. Like most of these periodicals, printers were changed on a regular basis.There may have been economic reasons or possibly reasons connected to business  censorship considerations, but this resulted in Oz appearing in a diversity of printed formats. There were tabloid newspaper versions on cheap newsprint pulp paper, but Oz usually stretched to  glossy  magazine quality paper and eventually settled  on a size which was approximately A4 or something akin to “Time” magazine. Sometimes it appeared as an unstapled set of fold – out posters and at one point came out as a large tabloid – sized glossy magazine.That was unusual at the time. Most copies of OZ now trade to collectors of ephemera,  at high prices , especially for the earlier issues , as can be seen on Ebay. You can expect to pay a minimum of £30.00 per issue but this can rise easily to the hundreds of pounds {or dollars!} for mint quality particular printings. Some individual issues also hit the streets in a series of differently coloured covers, so they are also quite collectable.Thankfully I kept most of mine.

It has to be remembered that OZ and International Times , its cousin {IT} appeared at a time when the newspapers of the day were really colour-free zones. Black and white was everywhere. Colour television didn’t really exist in the UK and Ireland until  well into the 1970s. The only place so see colour films was the cinema and any printed matter with colour was usually a cheaply printed , poorly distributed comic from America or the UK.Most  British comics had colour covers , but with the  exceptions of publications like” Boys’ World”, “TV 21st  Century” or “the Eagle” with their excellent painted artwork, the popular print world was a very black and white place.When OZ and IT appeared as adult -orientated fare , their use of colour made a real impact. They appeared to buttoned- up suburban “Mr.Jones” to be adult comics with some very risque material. Young adults with open minds may have felt to be part of a social revolution reading OZ in their dreary bedsits, but for the most part the magazines were treated as a bit of fun and games at the expense of  the uptight established order.

There are three people associated with the creation of OZ: Richard Neville, an Australian, Felix Dennis and Jim Anderson.  There was also an influential Australian  graphic artist named Martin Sharpe who put his individual stamp on the 1960s graphics and poster scene. He did the Dylan “Blowing Your Mind ” original cover for Oz #6 which was  also printed up as a very iconic,  collectable poster. He also drew many other Oz covers  and illustrations.

If you Google any of those names there’s much to read. In Felix Dennis’  case you literally couldn’t make it up. It’s akin to believing during the 1950s that Ronald Reagan, a “B” grade movie actor at the time, would become President of America a couple of decades later. Truth being stranger than fiction, of course, Reagan graduated from being the Woodstock hippies’ whipping boy,  as Governor of  California ,to becoming the Commander in Chief of the USA in short order.

Felix Dennis was another ex-art student who  fell into publishing almost by accident.He stumbled into it by first hawking bundles of “OZ” magazines around the King’s Road in London and selling them to the strolling hippies.From street-seller he gravitated to the inner sanctum of the magazine’s production .He wrote the first review ever of Led Zeppelin’s first album for it. It appeared in the issue with Germaine Greer unzipping Viv Stanshall’s trouser flies on the cover …  . Germaine was a bit of a wild card back then.After introducing Led Zeppelin to the world ,he then gravitated to become a full-time contributor and editor.Trouble always attached to the magazine because of its attitude to drugs, sex, music  and politics. These four things always exercised the collective bile of the established orders. Felix’s sin was to allow some sixth form students to edit and put their licentious, snotty stamp on an issue of the magazine . This “Schoolkids OZ” funked up a terrible scandal. The Wee Innocent  Darlings let rip with a stream of nudity, profanity and anything guaranteed  to get a Daily  Mail reader hopping and spitting out their  breakfast cornflakes in outrage. It was as if the “Beano” comic’s Dennis the Menace had become a teenager and wanted the world to know all about it..It all ended in the courthouse of course.It was the longest conspiracy trial in English history and involved some famous names  such as Lord Widgery, John Lennon, Tony Benn and John Mortimer.  The anodyne Rupert the Bear had been depraved by splicing in some outre Robert Crumb  cartoons. There was sex and naked flesh. Rupert had gone rampant . John Lennon and Felix released the agit- prop  single  “God Save OZ” to fund a campaign. The world was in uproar.

Of course the three editors were duly nailed up on their crosses. Among the defence witnesses was DJ John Peel,  jazz musician George Melly (who at one point explained a Latin sexual term in detail to the jury) and comedy writer Marty Feldman, who had written many alternative comedies for television and who called the judge a “boring old fart”. By the time the trial of the ‘OZ Three’,ended, they  were found not guilty on the charge of “Conspiracy to deprave and corrupt the Morals of the Young of the Realm”, but were convicted on two lesser offences and sentenced to imprisonment. Dennis received a more lenient sentence than his co-defendants because he was, in the opinion of the judge, “much less intelligent” and therefore less culpable.These convictions were later quashed on appeal, of course . Believe it or not they had all their long “hippy hair ” forcibly shaved off as if to appease the slavering  conservatives who were crying out  for blood.Apparently Tony Benn and Michael Foot interceded on their behalf and Lord Widgery was supposed to have said that if the trio  abandoned the dreadful “OZ” project, all would be forgotten.

 You might say ..a big hoohah over very little …a lot of taxpayers’  cash burnt up the chimney.

Well , on paper , Felix mightn’t have seemed the brightest of the trio but arguably his innate talents were to take him further than any of them.

The poor beleaguered , downtrodden  hippy, Felix  Dennis of the Oz Obscenity trial , also had his caterpillar to butterfly  moment of genesis and went on, mere months later,to become  a publishing giant , initially on the back of the Kung Fu  craze of 1973.

 At the time everybody was “Kung Fu Fighting ” as the hit song of the times implied. There was a popular TV show  of that name starring the very same David Carradine who was to be the “Bill” in Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” films and who would later die in in some odd erotic circumstances in Thailand in 2009. Bruce Lee had become a popular film icon too and lots of enthusiastic children and teenagers were trying to emulate his acrobatic filmic  martial- arts  antics in Kung Fu classes across the land. With that seed Felix Dennis began his world -straddling publishing empire.

His talent was to see where the public’s popular tastes were heading and to supply magazines to feed that appetite.He saw how home -computing was developing and how “style” magazines were important to certain sections of the population and published to supply that need .You might say he had the popular touch.

Under the Dennis Publications banner he produced “Personal Computer”, “Maxim”, “Viz”  , “PC World”, “Fortean Times”  , “The Week”, “Auto Express” and a plethora  of magazines and publications that blared off the shelves of Eason’s up and down the land .He became a millionaire many times over.

Then he took up writing poetry. He sold his poetry by the sackload and published several best selling books . One was “How to become a Millionaire” , naturally enough .

 He now operated from a very high plateau as possibly the best selling poet cum millionaire publishing magnate in the UK. He gave  out glasses of free, fine  wines at his poetry readings, was  the subject of several documentaries, appeared on Radio 4’s “Desert Island Discs” {with a really excellent records choice and a very droll story to tell }..

His Dennis Publishing  empire  straddled the world with over fifty  titles in its catalogue so he decided to get into some conservation work and began  a programme of tree- planting. The Forest of Dennis Ltd charity  planted a million trees .

If throat cancer hadn’t finished his life in June this year, who knows what further devilment Felix may have gotten up to .Like I say , he certainly left a stain behind him .Not too bad for an old “much less intelligent” hippy….


2 Responses to FELIX DENNIS IS DEAD by Harry McAvinchey

  1. Jude Collins August 9, 2014 at 11:52 am #

    My daughter once did a TV documentary on Dennis at his palatial pad somewhere really nice.

    • paddykool August 9, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

      He was a bit of a one -off by all intents . I’m sure she came away with a tale or two…hopefully unscathed too !!