The Towering Influence?

Sometimes, with a blog like this, you can chase a thought too far until it isn’t a real thing anymore. This could well be one of those times. You can decide… or not. You can just read it… or not. It’s all down to you.

From time to time, the film ‘The Towering Inferno’ comes on TCM in a really nice full widescreen print and, when it does, I find it hard to leave it alone. This month is one of those times, it’s been on twice over the last week or so and I’ve watched different parts of it each time. Last night, it was into its final half between eleven and half past midnight and I reclined on the couch and went along with it for the ride, as I have so often done.

It’s a movie of its time and it looks pretty-darned silly in places now. There’s OJ, breaking down an apartment door that swings open just before he hits it. There’s Steve McQueen, being lowered onto a dangling scenic lift by an unseen helicopter whose blades would have been shattering off the side of the building if it had really been up there (‘always bugged me, that).

But it also has its moments. One sequence, in particular, succeeds in showing how cruel and unforgiving fire can be. When glamorous couple Robert Wagner and Susan Flannery get trapped by the fire in an isolated apartment, the point is well-made that, no matter how brave and resourceful you are, if the fire is between you and safety, the fire will get you.

It was a big movie in my life in ’74. Even at the age of 11, I was something of a buff. I used to buy a movie magazine and read up avidly on what was coming soon to my local cinema. ‘Towering Inferno’ came in with a lot of anticipation. Massive stars, massive budget, an unheard-of co-production from two major studios. I even read one of the books the film was based on, before it arrived. Yes, I was 11 and something of a strange child.

And that leads me to the point of all this movie trivia. I wanted to sandwich the key part of this piece between two sections of boring stuff. If I’m lucky, perhaps nobody will see it in here. Why would that be, Ken? Simply this; it involves me mentioning what I do for a living. Read the blog, all seven hundred thousand words of it, I don’t think I mention my career anywhere in all of those posts. It’s one of several places I choose not to go with these scraps of writing. A part of my life I enjoy enormously but also one which I don’t particularly want to write about.

So here it is.

It’s not something I ever realised back in the day. It’s only these days that I think I see it, when I watch that old movie late at night on a vintage TV channel. Paul Newman’s character, the architect, was probably a key part of making me want to spend my life working in the architectural profession.

Even now, when I watch the film, I am drawn to how well he knows his way around the workings of his building. He opens services ducts and electrical cabinets, he rolls out drawings and points directly to the key places and, when it comes to blowing up the tanks in the roof, he tells Steve McQueen that he may not know how to place the explosives but he sure-as-hell knows where they have to go.

I may have been only eleven but the vision of a person with this kind of knowledge and control over his subject (as well as being cool and handsome and married to Faye Dunaway) was probably a key element in my deciding what I would do with my life.

These days, I actually see the Paul Newman character in a different light. He is something of an impotent fool who allowed his masterpiece to fall through his fingers and be turned into a death trap by unscrupulous money makers. He may run bravely through the burning building, saving lives and being technically proficient, but he fucked up on a much grander level than that and he knows it.

Movies are a funny business, aren’t they?

And, of course, it’s never as simple as all that. By the time I saw The Towering Inferno, fire had already licked its way through my own family. A few years before, my Granny, with whom I was very close, had entered her neighbour’s house while fire burned savagely within. Valued lives, young and old, were lost on that terrible day and Granny spent the subsequent year of her life in various hospitals, undergoing operation after operation. Her injuries were horrific, but she survived and went on to live the remainder of her life with her customary vigour.

Perhaps I was too young but, watching the film back then, I didn’t seem to equate what was happening on the screen with what had happened in my life. Were my parents anxious about me going to see this film, given what I had seen? If they were, I never knew it. When I think of it now, the images on the screen seemed completely divorced from what had happened to Granny in the little house on the hill. I was watching an entertainment, nothing more, nothing less.

But things run deep and we don’t always know that they are running at all. In my work, I have a keen interest in seeing that matters of fire protection are observed and adhered to. I try to keep an eye out for things like that. It’s not totally surprising, when you think about it.

And therein lies my question. When I went into the Savoy Cinema that Friday evening in 1974, was I just seeing the next in a long line of flicks? Or did something more substantial happen that night? Is that the reason why I will still sit and watch ‘The Towering Inferno’ whenever to comes on TCM in that lovely widescreen print?

I don’t really know.

One final word on this. Just in case you might not think that a silly old flick could ever inspire anything of note, my small of amount of research reading threw up this IMDB note.

“After seeing this film, novelist Roderick Thorp had a dream that same night about a man being chased through a skyscraper by gun-wielding assailants. This was the inspiration for his 1979 book "Nothing Lasts Forever" which eventually was made into the film "Die Hard."


Short Fiction - The Cayvee Sleeps

The Cayvee makes its home in the gap between the back of the fridge and the wall. The fridge has not been moved in years and there is a collection of cobwebs there that looks like a quilt or a silky sheer blanket. All of the spiders who created these webs have long since moved away.

The Cayvee dwells among these deserted cobwebs and appears to be a part of these deserted cobwebs. If someone pulled out the fridge and swept the cobwebs away, they would most likely sweep the Cayvee away too without ever noticing that it had been there.

Imagine a translucent grey bat with a single long needle tooth and you may gain some idea of what the Cayvee looks like. You could watch it and watch it, if you could find it, but you would never see it move. It maintains its position, holds its stillness, week after week, month after month, sometimes even year after year. Like the Kangaroo Rat or the Desert Turtle, who can both wait quietly for years for their next drink of water, the Cayvee can exist, dormant, behind the fridge, among the webs, waiting for that rare moment when conditions finally come right and it can at last feed once more.

It had been four years since Linda had last left the fridge door open overnight. It had happened in the dead of winter, so nothing had spoiled. The only tangible consequence was that Kendrick had got up in the morning, padded into the kitchen, and tutted loudly when he found the fridge door ajar and the inside light casting its slender glow out onto the ceramic floor. His 'tut' wasn’t loud enough for Linda to hear. She has fallen asleep again, despite the fuzzy pop song which persisted on the clock radio. The fridge door was closed up and nothing more was ever said about it.

Four years later, it was Kendrick who forgot to close the door fully. He was getting a beer from the container at the bottom, the fourth of the evening, so he never noticed that the door had not swung shut. Linda found it that way in the morning and complained loudly to Kendrick, who had forgotten about Linda’s own earlier failing in the same regard. If he had remembered, he would surely have defended himself more thoroughly. It was summer and thundery, and the milk had turned slightly. It wasn’t the end of the world though. Hardly that.

On both occasions, the Cayvee had awakened at the unceasing throb of the fridge light. It had emerged from its cobweb cocoon and squeezed through the tiny gap at the side of the fridge. It had slipped inside, blind and deaf but alive to the sustenance inside. It had climbed and clawed, pierced with its single fang. 

And then it has feasted.

By morning, it was back among the cobwebs and the milk had turned again. The Cayvee didn’t know. It cared nothing for dairy products.

That Friday evening, Kendrick returned with the food, all fresh and chip-shop-pungent, with as much speed as he could manage. Although the vinegar was already seeping through the double-bagged fare, the chips were still vibrant and ‘roof-of-the-mouth’ hot-hot.

Linda had laid two plates out on the table, but Kendrick eschewed such niceties. The bag was the thing, that intrinsic part of the affair. From hot oil to mouth with minimal interference, that was the key. Only one further intervention was required. The final touch to make everything perfect.

Kendrick cracked open the fridge and foraged in the back, behind the half jar of spaghetti sauce and the ancient bottle of apple cider vinegar. He pulled out the plastic bottle, raised it high and stared.

“Bloody hell.”

“What?” His wife paused in her chip bite.

“I swear, one minute it’s full and the next minute it’s all completely gone.”

“Ketchup isn’t everything.”

“It’s an integral part.”

“Maybe you can squeeze a bit out.”

Kendrick held the bottle up to the light.

“Not a chance. It’s drained.”

“The kids are sleeping over; the food is here. Let’s just enjoy.”

“But the ketchup…”


“It’s like somebody actually drinks it or something. It’s like there’s a 'Ketchup Vampire' lurking around here somewhere, lapping it all up.”

“The movie’s starting.”

Deep in the tiny space behind the back of the fridge, the Cayvee stirs minutely as if something has momentarily evoked it. Perhaps a dark eye opens and peers out but, if so, it is only for the shortest moment. Its belly is full, and the world is secure for the foreseeable future. It is time to rest and rest and wait.

A time to feast will come again, some day.

The Cayvee sleeps.

Umbrella Genesis

When I was thinking about what to write this week, my mind kept coming back to my umbrella. Not sure why, it just did.

Perhaps it was because it was raining, Ken? Perhaps. Your guess is as good as mine.

In case you don’t know, I carry an umbrella with me almost everywhere I go. If it’s a marvelous bright sunny day with zero chance of precipitation then, no, I won’t have it with me but we don’t get many days like that here in the Wild West of Ireland. So, generally, yes, I have my umbrella when I’m out walking.

Although it rains a lot more over here than in other places, you don’t see as many umbrellas as you might expect. It’s even less common to see a man wielding an umbrella. The guys here are too rugged for that kind of thing. So I’m a bit of a rarity. Some people I meet on the street call me ‘The Umbrella Man’ and it’s often the subject of discussion or wry comment. Sometimes they call me The Writer Man too. I'll take either. 

So, yeah, when I was thinking about what to write this week, I thought I’d better write about my umbrella. The trouble is, I’ve been writing this blog for a long time now and I tend to forget what I’ve written about before. I looked back and found I had written about my umbrella and me twice before.

Where does that leave me for a blog post this week, when I’ve already covered my brolly so thoroughly? Genesis, perhaps. Where did it all start?


I didn’t always tote an umbrella. In fact, I wasn’t an umbrella guy at all when I lived in London. I was a hat guy. I wore a black trilby back then. I don’t think I could carry off a trilby now and, full disclosure, I don’t think I ever really carried off wearing one back then either.

If was only when I came back to Ireland in 1997 that the umbrella thing started.

In returning home, I left a practice in Upper Camden where I had worked very happily for five years. It was something of a wrench for me and, although I was going home, I was very sad to leave.

We exchanged small presents, the partners and me. I got a copy of The Oxford Companion to English Literature. It’s still there on my shelf behind me as I write this. Wait… I’ll take it down.

On page 43, there is a tiny insert, the type is the same size as all the other entries. It reads:

ARMSTRONG, Kenneth (B. 4 July 1963)
Irish Writer – following world voyage wrote first radio play, one success after another following in the footsteps of M.M. while working as an architect in London. Returned to Ireland in 1997 to expand horizon, keep dogs, drink, fish, improve golf handicap. During this period his writing suffered while his family grew. Finally produced masterpiece, sold 1,000,000 copies and film rights to Hollywood.

It was a cute little gag. Although it wasn't entirely a gag. I had written several radio plays by then and I was a little fixated on M.M, who is still going strong. It didn’t all come true, of course. I don’t have dogs, I don’t fish, golf or drink hardly at all. My horizons have gone the other way, if anything.

But I’m still trying with the writing. I wouldn’t say anything suffered while the family grew. Everything was perfect.

I’ll put the book back on the shelf now. It doesn’t come down very much, to be honest, and it’s still as spruce as it was on the day that I got it, though you can tell that a book is old, can’t you?

My present to the partners was an Oxford English Dictionary. It’s funny how we both chose rather similar books for each other. Inside I wrote, “I could not find the words,” and I thought that was pretty cute.

I got another present too, along with the book. You’ve guessed it. An umbrella. A simple note attached read, “You’ll need this.” I have.

That umbrella is long gone. Left in a coffee shop or blown inside-out by a gale, I can’t recall. But the encouragement to have an umbrella and to carry it with me is something that was given to me and something I have never let go of, whatever the weather.

That other encouragement has been much the same.

Perhaps I would have been the Umbrella Man all by myself but I really don’t think so. I don’t often hold on to good ideas on my own.

I have to be encouraged a little.

(Remembering Ian and Philippa and Son Coll)