We take flowers to the hospital when we visit the sick and dying without reflecting on the irony that cut flowers are already dead and their scent is to shield us from the smell of dead dreams. 

A skeleton reading a book illustrates the smell of dead dreams.

A Literary History of the Smell of Dead Dreams

We see on our death bed, not our whole life flashing before us – as with a drowning man – but an endless sequence of all the things we had wanted to do and had never done. As the body shuts down, it rids itself of excess CO2, a process called acidosis, the sour stench characterising the smell of dead dreams, that sense of waiting and dissatisfaction that accompanies our half lived lives.

When my father was dying, I rushed to the hospital. He was sleeping when I arrived. I had coffee with my mother. She went to the bathroom and I went alone to the ward. My father opened his eyes, smiled and said: Hello, son. Then closed his eyes and died. The smell of dead dreams was absent. He had lived his life without regrets. Dad had forged his birth certificate at 17 to join the Royal Navy. He travelled the world in the war and came out unscathed.

Dreams are about the future. Dad had seen boys having their future ripped from them, frozen in the Arctic seas, chopped in half by shrapnel, blown to pieces. He lived for the day. He had a kind word for everyone and seemed as he went about his day as if what was most important to him was to make other people happy. He didn’t eat health food, meditate or practice gratitude.

Writing the Smell of Dead Dreams

I am nothing like my father. I don’t spend my days trying to make other people happy. I spend them in front of a computer screen herding words as if they are cats or rats or flies with an innate desire to go astray. Every sentence that emerges on the metaphorical blank sheet is a challenge: could it be better, shorter, more poignant or powerful. Do we need that adverb or adjective. Does it make the point. Does the reader want to read the next sentence. The smell of dead dreams hangs about writers as the sword hung over the white neck of Damocles and that smell is the pungent, oily breath of failure, it’s approaching shadow, its cockiness and inevitability.

Cyril Connolly felt it. After going to school with Eric Blair, who became George Orwell, he spent his entire life wanting to be George Orwell and instead of living his own dream he wrote the biography of the friend he envied and probably despised.

Connolly is most famous for writing the epigram: There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall. But he had other sayings worth repeating: Lend a friend a fiver and you have an enemy for life. And the tawdry but sadly true line appreciated by writers: Showing someone a manuscript is like showing them your semen in a handkerchief. The words come back to me like the smell of dead dreams when I yield to the temptation. 

Connolly’s most deadly axiom must surely be: ‘Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising.’

I have an adage of my own: Writing is like taking poison and even those who can’t write but imagine they can can’t wait to swallow it.


Clifford Thurlow photo from website

My thanks to members of CAC
who have commented on my blogs.
Do come and day hello
if you see me at the bar.

Posted in Blog.


  1. Jim Morrison: “Did you have a good world when you died? -enough to base a movie on?”

    Mark Duffield: “are your memories good enough for your death – for memories are all we take”

  2. Wow! Simply wow! Though I am feeling the impact of what I just read, to really ‘grok’ it, I’ll need to revisit these ideas quite a few more times. And even then … Wow!

  3. Loved this – it’s a really good point that cut flowers are already dead! Liked the point about being described as “promising”, too :))))

  4. Sometimes dreams are all we have in life..

    With the passing of Easter, Christ reminds us what it means to suffer for the cause. – how he was made to drag his crucifix through a baying crowd being whipped, jeered, kicked and spat at – for what? For saying he was King of the Jews – if only…

    Jesus was too good for this world – he wasn’t going to hang around and was fast tracked to Heaven. But it was not in vain.

    It never is…ask a writer. A writer can relate to Jesus because writing is about life and death, sacrificing yourself and having faith in a story however far fetched, and a belief in yourself when no one else does.

    Indeed, if Jesus was around today would he be a writer? Would he be extolling the virtues of God on Insta and X or writing self-help bestseller’s on how faith can inspire you to greater achievements. I bet he would be – there’s an outlet for everyone these days.

    Being a writer is about belief not just in yourself, but something bigger.

    Like Jesus, they seek a deeper understanding of the human condition – a certain compassion and goodwill that come from a higher calling. It is for the benefit of others that a writer hopes to reach, make a difference and touch people’s lives and who knows, maybe even gain a following.

    Even Clifford’s graphic image of semen in a handkerchief, the writer can dream of an immaculate conception that will bare fruits on the page and miraculously, words will spring forth that go onto to be published.

    But what if the dream fails to materialise and you’re left with the smell of death. Then Easter makes us appreciate rebirth is at hand – if we fail we can always fail better – if you don’t keep the dream alive, there will be no dream to dream. The rewards are only be reaped by those who are brave and talented enough to stick with it.

    To dream a dream, and keep to it through thick and thin is to have the same courageousness of spirit and belief in yourself that you need in Jesus Christ.

    Dream on, for the crowd shows no mercy, tomorrow you’ll be yesterday’s news. Dreams can be elusive but faith must remain constant. The sacrifice must be made, regardless.

    For a writer, the smell of death is never far away – it is part of the daily survival guide – an ongoing battle to stop the rot setting in and eating away at the soul.

    The need for stories and art in all its manifestations are a very human necessity, and artists need God to look down on them favourably to help them along the way.

  5. Heavy stuff Clifford and indeed, thought provoking. Never thought of cut flowers as dead and have often viewed their wilting as things of beauty. Irving Penn’s exquisite book of Flowers demonstrate how he intentionally chose flowers that “have passed the point of perfection, when they have already begun spotting and browning …” but I digress….I will continue to ponder..

  6. I like your work. We met briefly when my wife aided and abetted your choosing a jacket in Peter Jones some months back. I thought I’d read you in the Oldie but it was the CAC members notices. Hello again fellow member! My wife, Stephanie, continues with her book…

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