HE ACHIEVED more in a lifetime than most could in several.
Even his untimely death a year ago this week has not put a stop to the inimitable Felix Dennis living his dream.
It was June 22, 2014 when multi-millionaire publishing giant, poet, former drug addict, wine drinking, woman loving friend of the stars Felix Dennis lost his valiant battle with cancer.
Twelve months on, Observer editor Chris Willmott takes a look at how Felix’s passions and dreams continue to shine bright.
In his latter years Felix gave up (most of) his hedonistic ways, enjoying the tranquillity of his Dorsington estate near Stratford and his caribbean home on the island of Mustique.
And it was from these two havens he dedicated much of his time to his two greatest passions – poetry and creating a brand new woodland reaching from the Vale of Evesham to the Forest of Arden – The Heart of England Forest.
In life he achieved great things with these passions – penning eleven critically acclaimed books of poetry and planting over 3,000 acres of native trees across his planned forest.
He lived to see the millionth tree being planted in his forest – and celebrated with a thank you dinner for all those who had helped this particular dream become a reality.
Monday (June 22) marked the anniversary of Felix’s death – and with it came the launch of his latest and last anthology of poetry – perhaps his most poignant work given that much of it was written after being diagnosed with cancer – dealing with the issue as swashbucklingly as he dealt with life itself.
The book – I Just Stepped Out – is broken into two sections.
Book I: Premonitions is a selction of poems written over the years when in Dennis’s words ‘the heart knew what the mind dared not perceive’. Many are eerily propetic.
Book II: verse Diary consists of over 60 poems selected by Felix Dennis from the 100-plus collection he wrote from the terminal diagnosis until his death – poems he felt were possibly the best he had ever written.
Felix Dennis will always live on through his words in print.
And he will always live on through his other great passion – his forest.
His publishing empire, its profits and many of his millions were bequeathed to the Heart of England Forest charity, which he set up before his death.
I met up with David Bliss, estate manager, trustee of the charity and long-time friend of Felix to talk about the forest, how far it had come and how far it will go.
He cares passionately about the forest – and about carrying on Felix’s dream.
“Felix is still a huge miss,” he said.
“We are carrying on with his dream and it is achievable.
“He would be very proud of what we are doing and I still feel he’s behind us 100 per cent.
“In typical Felix tradition, he left things in very good order and with very clear instructions – so it’s business as usual.”
And business as usual it is.
In the first ten to 15 years of the Heart of England Forest Felix inspired, oversaw and secured the planting of 3,000 acres of new native woodland with over one million trees.
In the past 12 months the purposefully steady and organic growth of the forest has continued with another 300 acres and 120,000 trees being planted on land surrounding Felix’s Dorsington estate and in Spernal Lane between Great Alne and Studley, where he also created and was the first resident of his natural burial ground.
“The long-term aim is to continue just as we are and to reach our goal of around 30,000 acres of beautiful woodland,” added Mr Bliss.
A brand new car park in Barton, between Bidford on Avon and Welford on Avon has now been opened for people to set off on the mapped-out walks around Dorsington and further seasonal car parks are being opened for visitors to set themselves into the forest.
There is also 60 acres of planted sapling forest in the Spernal section of the project, which the charity is encouraging the people of Alcester, Great Alne, Studley and beyond to embrace and enjoy.
Despite all the financial backing of Felix Dennis’ estate, the charity relies heavily on volunteer support to ensure that as much of the money as possible is used for land acquisition and the purchase of trees.
Local volunteers, local schools and local businesses are getting more and more involved with the fantastic project – but more help and support is needed.
Not only to help plant the trees and finance the project, but to spread the word, by mouth or by social media, about just what an amazing project, now and into the future, the Heart of England Forest is and will be.
Anyone wanting to get their walking boots or wellies on and head out into the beautiful acres of growing forest can access maps, guides and spotters’ guides for children from the website – www.heartofenglandforest.com.
The website details everything you need to know about the walks and the forest – its creation and its future.
Through the website you can also get involved financially, by becoming a Friend of the Forest for £3, £5 or £10 a month, which will give you all the guided walks and maps, a car parking pass for the car parks and regular newsletters and information – and, of course, will help fund the new trees.
Trees can also be dedicated in memory of loved ones past and present for just £25 which includes a special tag to remain on the tree forever.
“We want people to get involved in any way they can and want,” added Mr Bliss.
“Come and enjoy the forest, come and help out in the forest, donate to the cause, tell people about it.”
Visit: www.heartofenglandforest.com for everything you need to know about the forest and www.felixdennis.com for eberything you need to know about the man behind the dream.
A few words from Caroline Rush – Felix’s long-time PA and now literary executor
For over 15 years I worked as personal assistant to Felix Dennis and in particular worked with him to produce his poetry books and organise his infamous, ‘Did I Mention the Free Wine?’ poetry tours.
In the autumn of 2013, he was in the midst of the largest tour he had ever undertaken, covering 30 cities, when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
The day after his diagnosis, he arrived at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford for the next performance on the tour and announced to me with great excitement that he had the perfect title for the next book: ‘I Just Stepped Out’. He then roared with laughter and went on to say that he was going to do nothing but write poetry for as long as he was able.
I knew he would be true to his word and sure enough, once he had finished the tour a few weeks later, he shut himself away in his Writer’s Cottage on the island of Mustique and wrote poems of searing honesty as he faced up to his ultimate fate.
Some graphic, some melancholy, some despairing and some of hope, they portray the agonising path he followed. Personally, I think it is possibly the best poetry he ever wrote.
In June 2014 just a few days before his death, he returned to the UK, handed me a folder of poems and asked me to ensure it was published. I Just Stepped Out, published by Ebury Press, went on sale this month.
Since his death, there have been many changes for those of us who worked for Felix.
Properties have been put on the market, offices closed and there has been the inevitable downsizing of his personal staff.
On the positive side, though, The Heart of England Forest, the tree planting charity founded by Felix, continues to grow throughout the heart of England.
And his poetry lives on, too.
Before his death, Felix appointed Moni Mannings, Don Atyeo and myself as Literary Executors and, together with George Taylor as Digital Executor.
We have been tasked to keep Felix’s poetry legacy alive.
There are literally hundreds of his poems still unpublished and we know there is an enthusiastic fan base keen to see more of his work.
A recent social media campaign to promote I Just Stepped Out has garnered new followers of his work and a tribute event, held as part of the Stratford-upon-Avon Literary Festival with Robert Lindsay and Alexandra Gilbreath reading Felix’s poems, was a sell-out success.
Over the next few months and years we hope to publish further collections of his work and we hope to put on poetry reading recitals with guest readers in the style of his hugely popular ‘Did I Mention the Free Wine?’ events.
Despite only turning to writing poetry in the latter part of his life, Felix became completely consumed the craft of creating poetry. As he says in the Author Note of I Just Stepped Out, ‘Poetry has overtaken my existence to such a degree that I now think of myself as a poet who used to be in business.’
It is fascinating to see how Felix’s poetry seems to resonate with so many different people and, as Literary Executors, we want to be able to ensure that his work continues to be seen and heard.