Felix Dennis on the teacher who sparked his career and the mogul who guided it.
My first mentor was a shy supply teacher of English at my grammar school. I was an unruly pupil, constantly in trouble and much addicted to showing off by tormenting teachers who lacked the ability to keep order. ‘Abdul’ Rowe was such a teacher. (We never learned his first name and nicknamed him Abdul for his black beard, somewhat reminiscent, in our adolescent eyes, of a Turkish pasha.)
One day, Abdul kept me in after class. Then he did a surprising thing: he sat down opposite me on one of the benches. Masters never did that— you always had to converse with them standing in front of their desks with your hands behind your back. I realise now that he wanted to get my attention, something he was unlikely to achieve with a formal lecture. Then he took out my exercise book and went through an essay I’d written. Despite myself, I began to listen as he critiqued it. His voice hardly above a murmur but looking very hard into my eyes, he ended by saying: ‘You’re a born writer. Why don’t you stop playing the fool and learn to use this talent?’ For the next few months, before I was expelled for some prank or other, that’s what I did. In Abdul’s classes at least, I became a model pupil. Mr. Rowe instilled in me a belief that I could write. That belief never left me and was a major factor in determining the future course of my life. He was a very shy man but an excellent teacher when given the chance. He took a lot of interest in me and lent me books.
My next mentor was a very different man and entered my life in very different circumstances. By then, I was a brash, young multi-millionaire magazine publisher. His name was Bill Ziff. In the close-knit world of American magazine publishing he was a demigod. Born to rich parents and the inheritor of a huge stable of consumer magazines, he had gone on to eclipse his father’s achievements. For whatever reason Bill took to calling me up at my tiny offices in New York to invite me out to lunch. He was gracious and unassuming, with a mind like a steel trap and a vast knowledge of the magazine industry. Lunch was invariably accompanied by what amounted to a master-class in magazine publishing.
I’ve no idea why Bill took so much time to show an English interloper and potential rival the ropes of an industry of which he was an undisputed master. Perhaps he already knew that neither of his sons were going into the magazine business (they eventually became investment bankers). Perhaps our very different upbringing intrigued him. Perhaps he liked what I was trying to do — he did buy one of my magazines for $20 million; the most money I had ever earned. Later, he attempted to persuade me to merge my company with his in Europe. Like a fool, I fought him tooth and nail, using everything he had taught me to defend my independence. Looking back, I wish I had compromised. He still had much to teach me.
Felix Dennis’s new book of verse, Homeless in My Heart, is published by Ebury Press (£12.99) next week.