There was nothing in the lead-up to our meeting to suggest that it would be exceptional in any way. I had wanted to interview Felix Dennis for a long time: He’s a big personality and the antithesis of bland mediocrity. My editor on the Times Magazine had heard him recently on Desert Island Discs and thought he sounded interesting, too.
Dennis promptly agreed to be interviewed by me and we set a date for November. I arrived at 2pm, as requested, and was given a tour of Dennis’s personal leisure centre while he finished a business meeting.
After about 30 minutes, I was ushered into the conservatory – where I watched Dennis listening to himself reciting his poems on a new CD with the composer. Then he was ready.
The first thing he did was open a bottle of wine, and off we went. From the start, Dennis was flamboyant, within minutes breaking into song to demonstrate his R&B voice. I asked him not far into the interview about his crack-cocaine years – long since passed – and he talked in great detail about them, along with a great many other subjects from his horror of organised religion, to his disgust with Al Gore.
The conversation was unstoppable, and there seemed no reason to staunch the flow, particularly as Dennis is entertaining and informed about many things (although he occasionally rants) and had been kind enough to offer his lovely chauffeur, Lloyd, to drive me home.
The revelation that he had killed a man – which he later retracted – was towards the end of almost five hours of taped interview. What amazed me afterwards – apart from him saying something so extraordinary – was how I immediately switched into alert mode, asking: Who, where, what, when, why?
The next day, I received a jolly note from Dennis about poetry and trees, but also suggesting that I forget about one particular incident he had recounted.
At the time of the interview, I made it clear that once he had committed this to tape – I had no choice but to run it.
Christmas came and went and in January I started to write the article for publication in the magazine. At the point when it was delivered, in mid-February, my magazine editor and I discussed the possibility that it might have to go into the newspaper because of the uncertainty of how to handle its publication.
The weeks dragged on as The Times’s editor and lawyers consulted and discussed how best to handle such an explosive story. I was forever adding and subtracting copy to incorporate lawyers’ wishes, other experts’ views, Dennis’s own comments in a series of telephone conversations with me – when he finally did retract his confession – and later a series of notes to the editor.
I have to say that I never wavered from my belief that we should publish the full interview – regardless of the drink and the medication that Dennis remembered he had been on as we approached publication. I did have to cut out his boast of 1,000 lovers – eat your heart out Clegg – and that a madame called Didiwadidi pronounced him the best lover in England. At 60 Dennis is most definitely an adult, and as a publisher himself, I would be surprised if he expected his journalists to behave any differently.