On the anniversary of his death, friends and colleagues of the poet, tree planter and magazine publisher Felix Dennis gathered for the launch of his latest book of poetry. Fergus Byrne was there.
On a warm June evening, about one hundred people crowded into a small room at the Groucho club in London’s Dean Street. Beads of perspiration glistened on the foreheads of most of those present, and like any large gathering in a small space, the volume of conversation made it hard to hear even those standing nearby. But there was a hum of excitement and anticipation as wine and canapés were liberally distributed amongst the crowd.
They were there to celebrate the launch of a new poetry book. Not an unusual event in itself, but this particular evening marked the one year anniversary of the death of the poet whose book was being launched, and like many poets, writers and artists, his craft hadn’t made him a living. However, in this case, it didn’t have to. The poet in question, Felix Dennis, had made a substantial fortune as a magazine publisher. Titles like MacUser, PC Pro, Maxim and more recently, The Week, had ensured that he had earned the time to spend many of his waking hours crafting words and thoughts into verse. It was an activity that he had devoted much of the last fifteen years of his life to.
Felix would have enjoyed the gathering. He always liked a party, especially one where he could entertain friends and colleagues, and more especially, one where he might have had the opportunity to read one or two of his poems to a captive audience. However in the case of this new book he had always known that he wouldn’t be there to see it in print, nor would he get the opportunity to sign copies and have a laugh with his friends. As his former PA, Caroline Rush explained to those present, Felix had bounced into his office the morning after receiving the news that he had inoperative cancer in both lungs and said, ‘I’ve got a great title for my next book!’ He had decided to call it I Just Stepped Out after a poem written many years earlier about his death.
Having spent over a year battling throat cancer and believing he had beaten it, the news that he wasn’t likely to see out another year because the cancer had spread to his lungs took a little time to sink in, but he soon took the decision to spend whatever time he had left writing poetry and tidying up his affairs. The result was a book that even those who previously hadn’t enjoyed his poetry were unable to fault.
With the sound of many tributes to Felix’s life still echoing around the room, the poet Michael Horovitz read four poems from the book. He then slowly closed his copy and said ‘This book and its predecessors welcomes him to the company of poets, in this life and other lives. Thank you, Felix Dennis.’ It was a poignant moment and one that many of those close to Felix knew would have meant more to him than all of the five hundred million pounds that the Sunday Times Rich List claimed he was worth.
I Just Stepped Out is divided into two sections: first is a selection of poems that come under the overall banner of premonitions and the second part is a sort of verse diary of his thoughts, emotions and observations as he dealt with the final months of his life.
Although he had homes in London, Warwickshire, New York and Connecticut, he elected to stay in his Caribbean home on the island of Mustique, not so much because of its beauty and tranquillity, but really because that was where he could more efficiently orchestrate who he would spend the last few months of his life with. It was the one place where he could sit for days on end writing without actually seeing a soul. At the back of the book, there is a selection of photographs, one of which shows Felix at the door of his Writers Cottage beside a sign saying ‘Please go away. Thank you’. Here I have to declare an interest. I took that photograph. During the time I was there, interviewing him for a biography which is scheduled to be published in September, he spent all of his days and often much of his nights’ writing, editing and compiling work for I Just Stepped Out. He joined us for breakfast and dinner and occasionally for drinks with neighbours, but mostly he burned with a need to get his thoughts on paper. His mood alternated between fury and desolation, yet his gracious charm was never far from the surface.
Those who knew him would say he was one of the funniest, most generous and at times infuriating men they had ever met, yet not one of them could say they really knew him. The secrets of his complex character, often disguised by bluster and flamboyance, were tantalisingly drip-fed through his poetry. Through lines of verse, he showed a depth of knowledge and understanding of the world we inhabit that allowed him to deal with his impending death, in what some might call a cold and calculating way. But that gave the resulting poetry a poignancy that rose above melancholy.
Although the poems in the verse diary and the compilation of poems that he described as ‘Premonitions’ are on the theme of death, this collection doesn’t come from a dark place. But it does come from a deep place, a place that Felix Dennis never revealed before. In many of his previous poems he opened a window onto his soul, but only a small crack at a time. In I Just Stepped Out he opened that window a little wider and offered an insight into a state of mind where there is little left to hide.
On the day of the launch, his close friend, the journalist and broadcaster Jon Snow wrote in The Huffington Post that Felix was a ‘one-off’ and said ‘there are no comparisons, no yardsticks, no reference points against which to classify Felix’. Jon knew him well, and as he went on to say, the poems in I Just Stepped Out tell us a great deal ‘especially those of us who haven’t yet tried dying.’
Felix Dennis judged the Marshwood Vale Magazine Poetry Competition in 2007 and in tribute to his memory we are launching the competition again this Summer. The theme for poets is ‘Life’ and the writer of the winning poem will receive a cheque for £200. There will also be runner-up prizes of copies of Felix’s book I Just Stepped Out. For details email email@example.com.