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Beating the Taboo of Writing About Dying

22/06/2015 08:56 BST | Updated 21/06/2016 10:59 BST

There's a chance that this final book of poems by Felix Dennis, I Just Stepped Out, seriously assaults the taboo of writing about one's own death, indeed of writing about death at all. But if anyone could do it, Felix Dennis could. The richest man I've ever known well - the most generous, kindest, angriest, and perhaps also the most eccentric, too.

There are no comparisons, no yardsticks, no reference points against which to classify Felix. He was an absolute one-off. A man whose business judgement was as brilliant as his life was at times chaotic. A man whose poetry was as rhythmic and lyrical as his private life was eclectic.

I was an unlikely friend. We came from contrasting beginnings. Twenty-five years ago I sought to enlist his help with a young homeless project of which I am Chair. From then on we lunched together, shot the breeze, and sorted the world from our very different perspectives.

The most intense manifestation of our friendship resided, almost annually, during the Christmas weeks at Mandalay - the house that Bowie built on Mustique. It was a house that Felix enhanced, and adapted to his own needs - aesthetic, musical, culinary, above all, fulfilling his occasional need for companionship.

jon felix

Yet his most vital need in the last decade-and-a-half of his life was that of a remote peace in which to write. And to the very end, he wrote. Large though Felix's life was, I believe his poetry, together with the forest legacy that flowed from his love of trees, will be his lasting memorial.

He was already compiling and writing I Just Stepped Out, when we stayed with him in January 2014. It proved to be some six months before his death. Over time he had developed the 'Writer's Cottage' on the edge of the Mandalay estate. Here he was surrounded by his beloved array of leather-bound books and all the necessities for an independent life. It is here that he decided to retrieve some earlier poems and add new ones that recorded his thoughts on his own journey towards his end. They tell one a great deal, especially those of us who haven't yet tried dying.

Felix did not fight death. In a predictably Felix kind of a way, he accepted it would come sooner than he wanted. That January was to mark a few weeks into what was to become perhaps the longest period of time he ever stayed in one place - some seven months. With homes in Warwickshire, London, New York, Connecticut and Mustique, and seemingly business around each, his life had previously been always on the move.

In those seven months, the people who loved him most would come in their ones, twos, and threes to eat and drink with him. But the great majority of his time and effort was left to this last poetic ambition.

jon snow felix dennis

Felix dealt with death as he had dealt with smashing his erstwhile addiction to crack cocaine - cold turkey. His treatment for throat cancer was palliative, he hardly expected a cure.

In this time he was as mellow as I ever knew him. Still the shout, the rant, but softer and more affectionate. These poems are insightful, never mawkish. They are a diary of his dying, of reviewing life, and perhaps above all a kind of satisfaction that he really had lived it to the full.

In remembering him there is the candour and yet optimism of this, his poem Doubtful, which he wrote just nine weeks before he died.

It's doubtful I could bear another spring,

The winter in my heart could find no room;

And yet, whatever fate the gods may bring,

Within my mind the bluebells are in bloom.

Finally, there is the very last poem, delightfully and worryingly true. Prophetic too, penned a year ahead of Arsenal winning the FA Cup in 2015, and the very last poem in the book.

Friends die - and we screw our wet eyes up

And swear we'll miss them now they are gone.

We mourn, then Arsenal wins the Cup;

Dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.

Felix Dennis' final book of poems I Just Stepped Out, published by Ebury Press is out now

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