Monday, September 07, 2015

Review: More Lives than One

More Lives than One. Fergus Byrne. Biography.

Felix Dennis came from a home with no electricity and an outside toilet to being a many times millionaire and owning homes in England, America and the Caribbean, writes Brian Byrne. From selling an underground magazine on London streets, he parlayed his talents into building a global magazine empire which today is helping to build England's largest forest of legacy broadleaf trees.

He was a crack-cocaine addict, one of Concorde's most frequent fliers, had a prodigious sexual appetite, and browbeat his staff and his competitors while in equal measure charming them and being amazingly generous. He was a man who built his life as the biggest roller coaster in the world and he rode it with a never flagging enthusiasm right up to his death last year at the age of 67.

Shortly after learning that he had terminal cancer, Felix Dennis commissioned my youngest brother Fergus to write his biography. So if you perceive any level of personal bias in this review, I'll get it out of the way first. I'm immensely proud of what Fergus has done, not just because he's my brother but because he has written a fascinating book, about a fascinating and very complicated man.

Though he was of my generation, Felix Dennis was never on my radar. In the late 60s when he first came to a prominence of notoriety in London, I was busy in my own life in Kilcullen before the journalism I moved to a decade later. Felix Dennis's journey into publishing was beginning, with the Oz magazine which was cocking a snook at the British establishment. Its editors and contributors were infuriating politicians, police and the rest of the ruling elements of England with a racy mix of satire, sex, and blunt in-your-smug-ruling-faces attitude and observation.

When an edition produced by teenage schoolchildren, as an experiment, used Rupert Bear in an explicitly sexual way, the magazine's owners — by then including Felix Dennis — were charged with attacking public morals under the Obscene Publications Act. That, ironically, sowed the seeds of a publishing behemoth which was in turn maverick, lucky, brilliant, and with many other essential and sometimes unexpected characteristics. All of them reflecting the myriad facets of Felix Dennis himself. More Lives than One not only chronicles the extraordinary and complicated life of a man arguably too complex to fully describe, but leaves the reader at the end feeling very much that he knew Felix Dennis. If anyone truly could know him.

But more than that, the book is also a fascinating reminder of the 1960s and 1970s, the hippy years when London and its more outrageous sex, drugs and rock and roll luminaries became the role models for a generation. Later it details the rise and rise of a man who was their contemporary and was to make it extremely big in publishing, but whose temperament could just as easily have made him a global musical superstar or a literary lion.

The last part of this biography is, aptly, Felix Dennis's 'third age', when he had the time and the wish, but most importantly the talent, to become a respected poet. It helped too that he had the money to fund the promotion and the traveling that is involved in making literary endeavor a success in these times, but any reading of his more than 1,000 poems will show that he deserved the many accolades accorded by serious commentators of literature.

Reading this book is a roller coaster ride just as much as was Felix Dennis's life and achievements. It took me an uncharacteristically three sessions, only because I had to put it down from time to time to allow the detail sift and sort itself in my head and to rest from a virtual dizziness. In a way, I'm writing this reflection too soon after finishing, because there's very much that hasn't settled yet.

For someone like me, a writer and journalist and a small publisher myself — as is Fergus — there's so much about the life and achievements of Felix Dennis that I can relate to. There's also so much that I don't have at all, the perceptiveness of an ultimately genius man, the ability to target and hit the most vulnerable points of a competitor or takeover candidate, the almost unbelievable hedonist lifestyle that Felix Dennis engaged in, are just some of that.

He became a multi-millionaire almost despite his lifestyle — on his own estimate he spent $2.5m on crack cocaine at the height of his rampant addiction period. He refused to be monogamous yet was absolutely loved by countless women, including those who remained close to him until the end of his life. He had, from the reading of his life in this biography, an ability to obsess about anything in which he became interested — business, art, architecture, literature — to the point where he could discuss these things on an equal level with people who had spent their lives studying and teaching them.

He was unpredictable in his dealings with all those around him — 'he can sometimes be difficult', a new recruit to his personal office was warned in typical British understatement. He was generous to a fault, with most of his philanthropy being hidden. He had vision, indeed many different ones throughout his personal and business lives, among them a love of trees that will eventually be seen as possibly his greatest legacy.

He was by any standards an extraordinarily difficult man to put between the pages of a single book, quite simply because he was so much larger than even the More Lives than One of the title. But his biography should become an essential read for anyone with any interest in the growth of magazine publishing both before and in today's internet era. It is a period in the communications industry that will never be emulated, simply because so much of it changed during the career of Felix Dennis, arguably the inventor of the modern magazine business.

But there might also not be a place there for the pirate, the buccaneering kind of person that Felix Dennis was. I'm reminded in a much more local way, and very much smaller context, of the things my own father, Jim Byrne, did to make his Kilcullen 'Hideout' pub and restaurant business known, literally, around the world. He wasn't a crackhead — though he had a great appetite for Jameson whiskey — and he didn't have the killer instinct that globally successful entrepreneurs generally have, nor was he a serial womaniser. He was no Felix Dennis in most of that man's characteristics, but he did share an innate ability for self-publicity and a willingness to operate on a gut instinct that was as likely to be successful as not.

And maybe it was his growing up with our Dad's exploits that made Fergus so well the right person to understand the man whose biography he has just completed, a book that is in its own way a primer for modern entrepreneurism. About a man who was the 'rock king' of his chosen business arena, but who was, through it all, just a man too. A man whose life is told here not just, occasionally, in his own words, but in reflections and memories generously shared by very many people who worked with him. And who, often despite Felix Dennis himself, never ceased to love him.

Biographies don't always engage me. This one grabbed me by my remaining hair, by the throat, by the balls, and gave me no choice but to keep going until I reached those magic words, The End. Except that they're not there. That's about right too, because as long as the 'Heart of England' forest that Felix Dennis has commissioned as his final legacy is growing, his amazing life, and his story, will not end.

More Lives than One — The Extraordinary Life of Felix Dennis is published on 10 September by Ebury Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House UK.