Felix Dennis has today lost his battle with Cancer.
In tribute to an inspirational poet and a true lover of nature, I share my last interview with a man who through tireless planting of trees, has made this world a better place for us all.
'What do you make of the widespread notion that you need to be poor in order to make art?' I ask 'millionaire poet' Felix Dennis. 'It is absolute nonsense', he replies swiftly, 'you don't have to live in a garage to write great poetry'..
Dennis himself is the ultimate dispeller of this baseless myth; he was already one of Britain's richest men when his acclaimed, eloquently observant first book of poems A Glass Half Full was published. This surprisingly successful collection marked the start of an illustrious writing career that like Dennis, left fans wishing he turned to poetry in his twenties instead of his fifties.
The following years have seen his 'beautifully crafted' poetry winning over many high profile luminaries; Stephan Fry describes Dennis as 'the real thing', Mick Jagger enjoys reading his poetry 'immensely' and to Sir Paul McCartney 'his poetry sings like summer breeze through the fairground'. Sky Arts' Millionaire Poet' documentary (to be screened Wednesday 10th October at 9pm) even features long time admirer Tom Wolfe reciting one of Dennis's poems.
'The start however was far from smooth' Dennis tells me, 'I had huge problems finding a publisher. It was actually a poem I wrote on the spot about the dog sitting next to Sue Freeman in her Hutchinson's office, that finally won the publisher over'.
Recognition by Benjamin Zephaniah meant the world as did Melvin Bragg's somewhat visionary endorsement. Bragg has dedicated an entire South Bank show to Dennis's poetry, vehemently ensuring the skeptics that 'at least one of these poems will be instantly anthologized'..
Dennis has gone on to write six best selling collections of poetry, all of which are still in print with Tales From The Woods reprinted three times. His poems have also been performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, featured in the 2009 UK school curriculum as well as the iconic US show 60 Minutes.
I give it to Felix Dennis that he is the most unfamous famous person alive. "I like that" he says with a pleasant chuckle. Be it from his imprisonment as an OZ magazine co-conspirator, the instantly recognizable red Dennis publishing logo on countless magazine titles or his much publicised support for Wikileaks's troubled Assange, people know Felix Dennis's name. Dennis has recently joined Jemima Khan, Michael Moore, Ken Loach, John Pilger and other high profile figures in bail backing the enigmatic 'world agitator'.
"Assange is not a personal friend," Felix is quick to explain. "What was happening here last Christmas was wrong, people were ready to place him in solitary confinement even before any guilt was proven..I was defending a basic democratic principle as a UK citizen; a man is innocent until proven guilty..what is clear is that the US cannot wait to get its hands on him and that he is in fact fighting for his life."
Dennis's greatest love, more so an obsession is trees. The love affair that began many years ago in London's Golden Square, is the subject of the haunting Hornbeams from his book Tales from the Woods;
'..High up above those streets of woe
Four massive hornbeams clawed the sky
Each bough a silhouette of snow
A sight to paralyze the eye
To stun the mind and warm the heart
That nature might produce such art..'
I share my love of trees with Dennis and feel immense gratitude towards the man who plants 300 acres of land each year with native British broadleaf trees and whose life's ambition is to plant a huge broadleaf forest in the Heart of England.
I tell Dennis of my questioning urgent calls to the local council whenever I spot a tree being cut down and when I complain of the recklessness that takes just minutes to kill a magnificent source of life that took hundreds of years to grow, Dennis suggests I become a tree warden. I jump at the idea.
If you were to meet the Prime Minister tomorrow, I ask Dennis in conclusion, what would you say to him?
"I would ask David Cameron to stop putting wind turbines up, they should be off shore and not here as this is a small island. I would tell him that France, Italy and Germany have approximately twenty five percent of their land surface covered in trees where in England it is only five percent..that is shocking."
Dennis intends to leave his vast fortune to the Heart of England Forest charity, 'so they can plant 30 000 thousand acres of native deciduous trees in the heart of England.. from Shakespeare's old forest of Arden, going south towards Vale of Evesham '
What a vision..