Felix Dennis: Warwickshire's poet

PUBLISHED: 00:23 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:46 20 February 2013

Felix Dennis

Felix Dennis

Felix Dennis first came to national attention when, as one of three editors of Oz magazine, he was jailed for obscenity.

Felix Dennis first came to national attention when, as one of three editors of Oz magazine, he was jailed for obscenity. The notorious Oz Trial of 1971 was a landmark in British legal history. The editors were released within days and Felix Dennis went on to build up a multi-million pound publishing business. In a complete change of tack he is now intent on covering Warwickshire with woodland and writing poetry. Tessa Jenkins met him at his Dorsington home. Photographs by Phil Britt.

Felix Dennis first came to national attention when, as one of three editors of Oz magazine, he was jailed for obscenity. The notorious Oz Trial of 1971 was a landmark in British legal history. The editors were released within days and Felix Dennis went on to build up a multi-million pound publishing business. In a complete change of tack he is now intent on covering Warwickshire with woodland and writing poetry. Tessa Jenkins met him at his Dorsington home. Photographs by Phil Britt.





By anybody's standards Felix Dennis is an extraordinary man. His life has all the twists and turns of a Hollywood blockbuster. Blessed with high octane drive and entrepreneurial flair he's the founder and chairman of Dennis Publishing, a self-made millionaire, ranked 101st in the 2008 Sunday Times Rich List.

Thrown into the public spotlight for the first time as a co-defendant in the infamously flawed Oz Trial of 1971, Fleet Street later tracked the rise of his media empire, and gleefully seized upon tales of a hedonistic lifestyle. He freely admits to having spent $100 million on 'personal excess', and a period of crack cocaine addiction which he mastered with a period of self-imposed cold turkey. His past is not something he shies away from but nor is it something on which he wants to dwell.

Sitting in the conservatory at his home in Dorsington, near Stratford upon Avon, he's refreshingly down to earth: "I need a cup of tea before we get started." He's also engaging company as we flit from topic to topic: careers sown in the counter-culture of the 60s and 70s, his life in publishing, the standards of today's media, the threats and opportunities that this recession brings, the legal system, government spin...

But we've digressed and it's time to get back to business, we're here to talk about his passion for poetry and trees.

Pure chance led Felix to Warwickshire. Over 20 years ago at the start of a search for a country pad he opened a map, stuck a compass point in Charing Cross, and encircled the area that fell within 100 miles as the crow flies and started looking at properties. His decision to buy The Old Manor in Dorsington was influenced, in part, by a beautiful old walnut tree in its grounds as Felix has always been inordinately fond of trees.

Writing poetry has been a more recent interest. With well over 1,000 poems written, five collections of work published, national poetry tours completed and a worldwide tour being planned for within the next couple of years it's hard to believe that it was just nine years ago, whilst recovering from a life-threatening illness, and confined to a clinic bed that Felix wrote his first poem.

I'm intrigued to know why he chose poetry, why not begin a novel, sketch a picture, or plan a future arduous expedition that would prove to all and sundry his return to rude health?

The answer is a pragmatic one:

"I finally managed to cadge a little pack of Post-it notes sort of that size and a stubby told pencil," he says, indicating an area an inch and a half wide. "And you can't write a novel on a pack of Post-it notes so I just started writing poetry."

Within 12 months what began as a way to pass time and relieve boredom had become an established routine with two or three hours a day spent writing and studying poetry. It's a discipline that he maintains today, although the 'great flood' that saw him write so prolifically early on has waned, and more time is now spent revising his earlier poems and studying the work of others.

His latest collection of poems, Homeless in My Heart published last October, spans the realms of social commentary, observation and personal reflection. The written words are complemented by evocative colour images, and accompanied by a CD of Felix performing a selection aloud.

His enthusiasm for poetry in its oral form is abundantly apparent when you see him perform it on stage. A natural showman who's had the benefit of some coaching from the RSC, he's just completed a national tour of poetry readings to launch the book, and on hearing that I'd joined the audience for his performance at Warwick Words he asks what I thought.

I begin by confessing to being no great aficionado of verse, admit that I arrived intrigued by his reputation, but unsure of what to expect and with a nagging doubt that it was not going to be an experience that I'd particularly enjoy. I then continue to say that I'd found his performance engaging, the poems entertaining and thought provoking, but that what had intrigued me most of all was the sense of familiarity I felt with his work.

Felix is unsurprised, it's a comment he's heard before, when he began writing he quickly decided not to follow the contemporary vogue for 'free verse.'

"I agree with Robert Frost, the great American poet, who said that he'd as soon write Free Verse as play tennis with the net down," says Felix.

He chose instead to write in the structured forms of traditional English poetry - a decision to which he attributes much of his success.

"I think these forms were in a sense as much discovered as invented, and I think people are comfortable with them. It doesn't make any sense to me that they have been thrown on the scrap heap of history and that we must all bow down and worship the new idol of free verse.

"I am convinced the reason I have had so much success, so much perhaps undeserved success, so quickly as a poet, in not even 10 years can be attributed to writing in forms that people are comfortable with."

It's certainly true that he's making his mark. His book sales have outstripped his and his publishers most optimistic expectations, he counts the likes of Stephen Fry, Dawn French and Hugh Grant amongst his fans, his poems have been performed by the RSC, can be found on the website poetryarchive.org, and the Poetry Society Of Great Britain recently ordered 3,000 copies of his book Island Of Dreams to send to its members.

"I am in danger of becoming respectable and I've got to be very cautious here, one wouldn't want to wreck a lifetime's achievement," he laughs.

Time spent tree planting seems equally unlikely to bring him back into disrepute!! Over the past 20 or so years his country estate at Dorsington has steadily evolved. "It's grown like Topsy really - are we allowed to say: 'to grow like Topsy' anymore? Is this it politically correct?" he asks with an enquiring smile.

"One thing led to another and now there's 5,000 acres and an estate manager so this search for a country cottage, it's got completely out of hand, but life gets out of hand that's what life is, I'm delighted about it."

Trees were first planted in copses and along the banks of streams. Then he created an arboretum in 1992.

"But an arboretum of course is a 'tree zoo' with foreign interlopers that are kept strictly within it," he says. "That was fun and it's an extraordinary collection of trees, but none of those trees are going to self-generate, they're foreign exotic specimens."

In 1996 he established a five-and-a-half acre area of woodland and named it Ralph's Wood, after the local farmer, environmentalist and forester who planned and planted it. The seeds of a much grander scheme had quite literally been sown.

In the years that followed Felix has continued to buy up and plant parcels of land further away from the environs of Dorsington towards the old Forest of Arden. His vision is a vast expanse of forest populated with native broadleaf trees that will be opened up for the public to visit and enjoy.

It's a unique and ambitious plan that is starting to become a reality. One thousand acres have already been planted with saplings raised, whenever possible, from local seed. The level of activity has also been increasing year on year; this season just over 300 acres were planned, up from 180-190 acres just three years ago.

"How long we can go accelerating I don't know, if I went on at the rate we have over the last five years then I should think in about 10 years time I'd be planting the whole of Warwickshire, so that obviously can't happen," he says.

I teasingly suggest that he's in danger of succumbing to a tendency for excess.

"Yes, if it's not drugs and sex and rock-and-roll and money then it's bloody tree planting!" he chortles.

Over time and as more land is acquired the hope is that the plantations will cease to be a patchwork of individual woodlands separated by large areas of monoculture, merging instead into contiguous treescape interspersed with areas of grazed woodland pasture.

"I'd like to see it at 40 or 50 thousand acres, I think that's impossible but I won't stop saying it , I've done 1,000, only 49,000 to go!" he says, adding that an eventual size of somewhere between 10 and 20 thousand acres is the more probable outcome.

Not only is land the constraining factor it's also inevitably the biggest expense; alongside a typical purchase price of 4,000-6,000 per acre there is also a significant hidden cost involved.

"Planting the trees destroys your asset in so far as its saleability is concerned," explains Felix, adding that each planted acre is typically reduced in value by 2,000 - 3,000 on the balance sheet. "As I'm not interested in saleability this doesn't concern me but that's the real cost, you destroy your asset value."

In order to ensure the long term future of the forest a charity and trust structure have been created. 'Forest of Dennis' Felix emphasises, is the name of the charity and not of the forest itself

"A forest gets named by the people that live in or around it, so I don't care what it's called," he says.

Until now the project has been predominantly financed by Felix. It's not a situation that can continue forever, external income streams will have to be found and eventually an organisation will evolve, Felix will relinquish day to day control and take a back seat. The ability to do so has, he says, been one of his greatest strengths in business over the years, and this will be no different, but for now it seems he's getting too much satisfaction from his direct involvement so he adds, "Not yet, please not yet."

Time is up, and the BBC are about to arrive, and there's just time for one last question "Poetry, trees or publishing - how do his priorities now stack up?"

"I was writing a mock epitaph the other day, just for some amusement" he replies "and I noticed that without thinking I'd written 'Poet, Publisher, Planter of Trees,' but I suspect that I did that because of the metre of the words and that the last two should be reversed, but I'm not going any further than that."

Felix Dennis' latest book of poetry, Homeless In My Heart (Ebury Press 12.99) is available now from all good bookshops.

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