Season 5 Episode 3 ‘When Things Fall Apart’
What do you do when everything falls apart, and your best laid plans collapse in the eye of a global storm? In this episode of Pantisocracy host Panti Bliss is with three people, photographer Ruth Medjber, novelist Gavin McCrea and singer/songwriter Emma Langford, who each had to answer that question and reinvent their work and world during the pandemic. This episode was recorded in the beautiful surroundings of Belvedere House, in Dublin’s north inner city.
Welcome to Pantisocracy. And this is your host, Miss Panti Bliss.
Thank you to our guests here today. Sitting there pretending to clap. Hello and welcome back to Pantisocracy. And today, well, I’ve upgraded the Pantisocracy parlor a few notches so we are sitting pretty in the gorgeous, glamorous elegance of Belvedere House in the heart of Dublin City with a sky high view over North Great Georges Street and the seagulls and cranes. I think I should probably move in here with my Mr Bliss.
I guess we started thinking about recording here in this grand and beautiful old house when things fell apart and all of our normal studios closed down during lockdown. So while I was fiddling with my wigs and not learning how to bake sourdough, we all thought, well, let’s just try something different. So here we are. And for those of you who are listening on the radio or on the podcast you can check out the videos on Pantisocracy.ie to get an idea of just how gorgeous you all are today and how perfectly I’ve matched my dress to the 18th century décor.
And in some ways, that ties in with our show today as we have brought together a group of interesting people who all in different ways sort of reinvented themselves in a way when things fell apart and their normal day to day work stopped.
So with, as gorgeous as this house, is the gorgeous photographer Ruth Medjber. Whose gig used to be floating around with bands at music festivals and so on, taking stunning shots. But who during the Covid lockdown started wandering the streets at night and created a stunning project of twilight photographs of people, solos or families, every kind of family through the windows of their homes, capturing a sense of the isolation during those months. And it’s a poignant record of a strange time.
So welcome, Ruth. Lovely to have you. On another beautiful sofa across from Ruth is Mr. Gavin McCrea, who was happily immersed, I think, in his third novel, working away as writer in residence at the University of Limerick. When things fell apart and he ended up in lockdown back home in Dublin, living in a tiny flat with his elderly mum. And in the midst of all that began writing something quite new and unexpected, a memoir with his mother. And later, I think you’re going to share a little bit of that with us. Welcome, Gavin. Lovely to have you.
And a third in our trinity is a woman of song, Emma Langford from Country Limerick, who, like so many music artists, was about to gig or tour and do a million things until from mid-March when things closed down, started something totally new and unexpected, Friday night singalong sessions on YouTube and social media, letting go of studio perfection and even taking requests. Basically running live music chat shows online. So welcome, Emma.
Thank you very much.
Anyway, with all of that in mind, I am going to keep the floor for a little minute because I can, because my name is in the title of the show, and today’s Panti Monologue. No, there aren’t many things in life that you can be absolutely sure of, but there is one. And no, it’s probably not what you think it is because Cher is still going strong. So at the very least, she’s cast enough doubt on the inevitability of death to be put in the, let’s wait and see, column.
No, the only thing in life that you can be absolutely sure of is, shit happens. And Dolly Parton has probably written a song about it. Like most of us, I’ve already had a lot of time on my hands this year to think. And one enormous, though simultaneously microscopically small, reason to think about the fact that shit happens. And sometimes you see it coming, you have just enough time to brace yourself or if it’s a bit further off maybe, enough time to scramble for higher ground or maybe McGyver up a raft, maybe even a paddle too.
Or sometimes it happens without any warning at all. Drops on you out of a clear blue sky. And there are times where it never seems to stop happening. You don’t have time to catch your breath before there’s another one and then another and then another and then three at once. And sometimes there’s a lull, shit hasn’t happened in ages. Nothing on the horizon. You keep checking. Still nothing. And after awhile, you get used to it. You stop checking the horizon.
It is plain sailing and you start to think, maybe it’s done with you. You’ve used up your shit quota. But there is no shit quota. And there is no plain sailing. You know who thought there was plain sailing? Kate Winslet. She didn’t even see Celine Dion coming. Shit happens, and it happens to everyone. There are no exemptions, no free passes, no VIP guest list, no doctor’s note. It doesn’t care if you are rich or poor, black or white, good or bad, Gráinne Seoige or Síle Seoige.
It doesn’t care if you’re a factory worker or the queen of England or of Ireland. And it decides when and where and how often. You don’t develop herd immunity and there’s no vaccine. And you can’t really prepare yourself for it either because you don’t know what you’re preparing for until you’re you to your neck in it. There’s no, smash glass in case of shit happening or lists of emergency items to have under the sink, because every time it happens, it’s different.
You know who I bet was prepared, Kate Winslet. She’s the type. But she still ended up on a huge piece of wreckage watching Leonardo DiCaprio die rather than just shifting over a bit. You know, bad stuff happens and there’s not much you can do about that. But you can choose how you deal with it, how you face it or get to it, what you do with it. You can choose your attitude to it. And why should you believe me? Because I know my shit.
It’s one of the few areas of expertise of mine. Because I’ll tell you, if you are the type of person who wants to keep their risk of shit happening to an absolute minimum, do not become a drag queen. Become a Volvo. And dare I say, at the risk of offending my guests today, don’t become a photographer or a musician or a writer either. In fact, you should just rule out all of the arts and the majority of any and all other related lines work. You wouldn’t like em.
But the thing is, do you, I mean do you really want to avoid shit happening at all costs? Because when it happens. Well, it’s not always bad. And sometimes it looks bad at first but after it hits you, it turns out you didn’t give that guy in the Che Guevara T-shirt in college enough credit. Because that was some good shit.
And sometimes, as with so many things in life, it’s a bit of both. Thing is, sure, no one wants to be Kate Winslet, but maybe you do want to be Kathy Bates. The unsinkable Molly Brown. I mean, she survived two shipwrecks, then became famous, got a cool nickname and I am guessing dined out on the story for the rest of her unsinkable life. You know shit happened to Molly Brown that we know of at least twice. And for her, it wasn’t all bad.
I mean, think about it. It wasn’t all bad for Kate Winslet either. I mean, she may have murdered Leonardo DiCaprio and lost a big blue diamond, but she also got rid of that Billy Zane and learned both Irish dancing and how to have an orgasm. Because even when it is definitely bad shit, at the very least you learn from it.
I was young and foolish when I became a drag queen. I could barely see as far as the next weekend, let alone the precarious nature of a career in tomfoolery and shenanigans. I can see it now, of course, looking back and I see what an unsuspecting, naive idiot I was. If I had known then what I know now, about the shit that life throws at you, I would have made a lot of different choices. But here’s the conundrum.
If I could go back and tell myself what I know now, I wouldn’t, because all the shit that happened, all the times things fell apart, made me who I am now. And I am OK with that. I’m fine with that, actually. And at the time, all it took was foolishness to make the choices that I made. But if I’d known the shit that was coming down the pipe, those same choices would have taken a bravery that I didn’t have.
Thank you. Thank you. We are in this beautiful, beautiful house and I’m considering becoming rich and living somewhere like this. Hi. Welcome, everybody. Ruth, I guess I’m gonna start with you because a lot of people already have seen some of the work that came out of this shit happening. And I was very conscious as well when I was writing that last night ad thinking I don’t get the impression that it’s all going to work out beautifully for everybody But that’s, you know, sometimes are the least likely circumstances, so it doesn’t tell us a little about the project.
Yeah so I guess I’m probably the exception in the music industry where I have something to work on and I very much imagined it out of nowhere. So, yeah, I am a music photographer. That’s my game. That’s my business. And I have struggled for this long to become a music photographer. And I finally felt like I was reaching my peak or the jumping off period where I can begin to tour internationally as my main income. It was great crack and I was all for it. And this year was going to be
Cause you were having an exhibition in Australia.
There’s an exhibition in Australia at the moment of all my music photography. I’d just come back off tour with Hozier, last year I did Arcade Fire. I started to work as the Glastonbury photographer for BBC. You know, things are nice. And then shit happens.
Yeah. So everything was snatched pretty, pretty early. So my inbox became really overcrowded with cancellation emails from, I guess from the first or second week of March. Things. Things came really quickly
Emma and Gavin did you immediately have the same fears?
Fortunately, this is financially has been a fine year because my residency hasn’t stopped it’s just gone online. So I’m fine until December. But in December then I’ll be asking the same question.
And Emma you’re a, you’re a musician. Like, did you immediately get the total fear about it.
Yeah, there was a lot of, a lot of hard choices, a lot of executive choices to be made very quickly. It was really hard to know what the right thing to do was. But, you know, it was like I had a month long tour of Germany planned. I was meant to be going to Barbados. I was meant to be doing various things for TV that just all fell through. And it wasn’t just my own health and wellbeing I’d to consider, I have a band around me that needs to be thought about s well.
So, yeah, a lot of stuff fell through. But I, you know, any freelancer in Ireland knows that you find ways to survive, you get creative when you have to and you just you work around circumstances. And thankfully I was able to do that.
Now Ruth. So there you are. You’re feeling really pretty crap about the whole thing.
Yes. Nothing to do of an evening cause everything’s gone. And I’m used, I’m kind of programmed, hardwired at this stage to get my camera and shoot in the evening time, because that’s, that’s tour life. You know, the band walks on stage at nine o’clock on the dot and there I am poised for two hours of shooting.
Well I get that. I’m a night owl. And people always look at you suspiciously when you tell them what time you got out of bed and I’m like, yeah but you were in bed hours before me.
Yeah. Or that, you know, I always sit down and have a cup of tea at 11:00 p.m. and they’re like what. It’s like yes this is my time. So, yeah, I was you know, I’m taking the dog out for a walk and I’m trying to console myself for the loss of my entire industry and, you know, walking just through the estates where I live and I see the at twilight, the flicker of the lights start coming on.
I was like god, isn’t that great? And a part of me was looking at it really like full of jealousy going, I want to be in those houses. I want to be with those people. Because I live alone. So it’s very different, I think, when you’re when you do live alone in isolation. Isolation becomes really isolated. So I started to kind of pine for being in those houses.
So I just decided to do the next best thing, which was peer on them from outside. Stalk these people. Voyeurism, exactly.
Was the first photograph taken, like , in a portrait style of somebody you knew and you would kind of call them up and say will you stand in the window from the first very first one?
Yeah. So listen, I knew the first 16 people in that series because I wanted to just hang out with my mates and I did it through the only way we could, which was through the window. So I called my friend Maeve and her husband Paul, and they had a new little baby that I was desperate to kind of just hang onto connections with. So my text to her was like, what time does Bumblebee go to bed at? Is it nighttime? Is is it dark outside? Can you hold her up to the window?
My friends were like, whatever you want, totally fine. So that was it. It started at eight o’clock one night. And so it was, you know, it was in March that I started doing this.
Then once I had that first photograph of this lovely wee family and the baby, I was like, ah, this is magic.
Just for the listeners, to describe, so the photographs are you’re basically outside on the pavement or whatever in Dublin and you’re taking the photograph through often their front door window or their living room window, whatever’s the ground floor.
And they’re standing bathed in the light from their inside. And it’s Twilight and they’re family portraits or individual portraits.
Yes. So you get this lovely warm glow because people’s, I make everyone turn on the big light, which people hate. They hate turning on the big light. So I get them to turn on the big light, bring some lamps to the forefront of the, put them on the windowsill basically. And it creates this lovely, warm, loving glow inside the house like a Christmas card almost. And then outside is all blue and purple of twilight.
And for the Instagram types out there. They can look, you can see plenty of them on your instagram.
Oh, there’s bloody loads of them. I’ve done
And what’s your instagram again?
It’s ruthless imagery.
Oh yes of course. Ruthless imagery.
There’s about one hundred and sixty odd households now that have been captured.
Wow that’s a lot.
Yeah, I’ve been working every single night since this thing started.
And then, well, I want to come back to you for the story of how that has now become a whole book project and how that came about.
Gavin, so just fill us in a bit on how you ended up back here after twenty years in Spain.
Well, not 20 years in Spain, 20 years abroad, the past six years in Spain. I had just finished my second novel in September of last year, and I applied for this fellowship. And the second novel for me was a big milestone. It’s a larger book than my first, longer. And I felt very proud of myself. And I thought, OK, getting this fellowship is a real step forward. And so coming home for me was the business blinkers were on.
It wasn’t to re-engage with my past. It was certainly not to re-engage with my mother on any deep level. It was, you know, career. My career is taking off. I just graduated from college.
Your first book was super well-received. And critically acclaimed.
Precisely. And I wanted to follow it up with something really much bigger, more ambitious. And I did that. It took me a long time, it took me five years. And so coming home, getting this fellowship was like, okay, I’m going to get paid for a year, a monthly check. This is going to be a really big opportunity for me to follow up with my third novel, Get It on its legs. So I came home and then three things happened.
Yeah. You were sort of hit with a triple whammy of shit happening.
The first thing was I arrived home. My mother very kindly gave me her box room in her flat in Rathgar. And so I moved in and then I began to realize living with her, that she was losing her memory, that she had early stage dementia. And in the family we knew, because she’d see my brothers and sisters they all live in Dublin all around, we knew that she was getting older. But it was only living with her that we realized that she was losing it.
So that was a shock. And so we had to have these family discussions about long term care. So instead of me coming home to kind of like, I’m graduating, you know. It’s oh, actually, maybe I’m going to be a full time carer in the future. Those are the conversations I’m having. That was the first thing.
The second thing in February, two months into my fellowship, I was beaten up in a homophobic attack.
Yeah. Which at the time was covered widely.
It was covered widely. And I was shocked how widely it was covered. But I decided to go public with it, even though I’m quite a private person. And the experience of writing about, from the I. My novels, both of them, one and two are quite distant from me, apparently. You know. They look far away. My first novelwas a 19th century woman. And then the second’s set, the second one’s gonna be in the 60s and 70s in London, Paris and Beijing, again, women.
So it looks quite distant from me, even though, of course I’m in them. But this was my first time to publish, a very short article, from the I. And I actually thought about you a little bit and coming here in the sense of I may be a little bit in drag before and then or the other way around maybe. Or going into drag or something.
You’re revealing yourself.
Yeah revealing myself through it, through that I voice. And I got a great feedback from that. And that was great. And I had to engage with my past and my past with homophobia, dealing with homophobia in my past and all that.
Because I don’t want to put any assumptions on here, but probably, I think like a lot of queer people, Irish people, maybe you kind of ran out of here at one point.
I legged it. I mean, I knew I was going to leave at twelve years old. You know, it was very clear I was going to leave at twelve years old. And then I left in my early 20s. And apart from a couple of, you know, jaunts back, I mean, I was always kind of like jumping back and then leaving again.
And you come back to this post marriage equality and then you get attacked.
Out of the blue. Yeah. In kind of the early evening, you know, no drink or drugs involved just really nothing, you know.
It was a gang of kids shouting faggot.
So that made me have to deal with a lot of things from my own past, which was very positive on many, many levels, deal with a lot of things with my family and my friends and lots of like primary school teachers got in touch with me and all of that, which was fantastic.
Then two weeks later, or three weeks later, the lockdown. So I had these kind of three things. I was now caught in this flat with my mother. No access to the library, no desk in my room. I just had this experience of being beaten up. My mother is losing her memory. And I remember I was just lying, lying in bed one night and I started to keep a dream journal because my dreams had become extremely vivid.
And I said, you know what, this is the moment to write something personal about my relationship with my mother and take it from there. And I just got up in the middle of the night at 3:00 in the morning. The whole structure of the book was so clear in my mind.
God I hate when people say things like that. Like, I had a dream and it all came to me.
Really, I’m not like that. I’m very research, my first two books are research led. I did a lot of research. I really had to kind of get it up, get them up onto its legs. This was the total opposite. I just had it. And I just started writing it. And then I, as a lark, I’m gonna be here for a month I may as well start writing about this.
And then I made the mistake of showing it to my editor and he said, I want it by the end of the summer.
The speed of these things, both you and Ruth, you know, that this thing happens so fast in the middle of all this other stuff. Yeah, well, I’m gonna come back and talk to you about that project.
And Emma so yours. You’re in Limerick and you’re about to go off to Barbados. And then it happens and you’re stuck at home. In your parents house?
Yeah. So I’m at home with my mam and dad and my sister, my younger sister
I shouldn’t say stuck I’m sure they’re lovely people to live with.
No, they are. They’re fabulous, they’re great housemates, they’re brilliant. They’re very accommodating and they always have been. We’ve always had a very good relationship. But yeah, it’s, it’s strained and it’s strange and it’s difficult because the reality of working as a musician is your work is loud and requires silence and everyone else has their own ideas. And when you have time in a house as well, that is shared, obviously people want to start making space in the house and now is the time to start painting everything, and renovating everything which doesn’t suit a musician who needs to record.
And I’m hit with all these, I was hit with all these sudden collaboration proposals that needed me to know what I was doing with a microphone, which I just didn’t. And there was this immense sense of frustration. I couldn’t just go to someone and ask them to help me. I couldn’t just go to a studio, I couldn’t just get someone else to figure things out for me.
You had to upskill in a way the tech stuff.
And there was an expectation from a lot of other musicians that I would know how to do all that as well. So, yeah, it was, it was a lot of adapting and learning.
And so then how did the idea to start doing your, let’s call them online sessions.
Yeah. So it kind of evolved quite quickly. It started out as just occasional pop up gigs where I would do a couple of songs and then I’d do a bedtime story and I started recording little, kind of mini podcasts, for my patreon followers, all that kind of thing with maybe like a little poem that I loved or a children’s book or something like that. And then I started whittling it down to just doing every Friday I would do a two hour session. And then I started having guests on to join me.
So I was doing it on Instagram and then I moved it across to all platforms. And it started building this really gorgeous.
And you’re doing it where?
At home in my, I kind of went, it started in my bedroom and then I moved it down to the kitchen and I started getting my sister and my mam involved and they’d do like little guest pop up slots as well.
Like the Kardashians.
And in a way, it has become a bit like you running your own little mini TV channel.
Kind of. Yeah. I’ve been compared to kind of a Jools Holland style presentation. So I get my guests in and everyone, similarly, everyone has some kind of a little bit of a link. There’s a theme every week and we have a chat about what they’re working on.
So you are basically, in this scenario, you’ve become much more than a musician. You’re a producer and director and all that stuff. Do you enjoy that part of it?
I love it. Yeah. I suppose in the past few months I haven’t felt like writing music. So I in lieu of that, I just decided I’d step into this other role. I’d always wanted to go into journalism or presenting. I’ve drifted in that direction now and I’m really, really enjoying it. I’m someone who I don’t relish the opportunity to go out in social environments and talk to people. But when I have the safety of a camera and a persona that I can use to connect with people.
I wouldn’t understand that at all.
It becomes much easier. And I really enjoy learning about people’s, I suppose, their personal life as much as their careers. It’s quite nice. And the chats I’d have as part of these formal Friday sing songs were as much about people’s personal lives and how they were adapting as it was about their careers.
Well, you’re going to give us a couple of songs today. So the first one, tell us about it.
Yeah, the first one is called The Winding Way Down to Kells Bay. And Kells Bay is a place in South Kerry, which is one of the most beautiful places on earth. And it’s where my grand Uncle Eamon lived since the 60s with his late wife, Brid. So in 2018 myself and my parents went to visit him in South Kerry and he’d been asking us to visit loads and loads. And he has this like monthly sing song that he gets all his friends together and they celebrate songs of the place, which I thought was really beautiful. It was a way of kind of sustaining and maintaining that history, that local folklore.
Do you think that’s what inspired you to do your own sort of.
Maybe in a way. Yeah. That kind of sense of building a community around music was something that really connected with me. He had this little yellow house on a hill and he’d potter down the road to the sea at the end of the road every day, and he’d go into the water and he wouldn’t so much as swim as float. He just, kind of, that was offering to the sea.
He’d just bob in the water for a while. And so the next day, the sun was beating down, splitting the rocks. And he did his little wander down to the end of the road and he went into the sea and he had a massive heart attack in the water. And I would say everyone from Kells Bay, from Cahersiveen was in the water this day. So there was loads of people there. We got a phone call up at the house to say that Eamon had taken a bit of a fall, do we want to come down and just check up on him.
But when we got down there, he had, he was being looked after by first aid responders. And so we lost him a couple of days later when I came back to.
And this was how long ago?
This was in 2018, in July. So we’re just at his anniversary. So I wrote The Winding Way Down to Kells Bay in honor of him, and Cahersiveen, and that sense of community.
Well, that’s like a really beautiful backstory to it. So lets hear it please.
All right. So this is The Winding Way Down to Kells Bay. Feel free to think of someone you’re missing or a place you can’t wait to get back to.
Emma Langford performs The Winding Way Down to Kells Bay.
I was really transported there because we are sitting in this, like, dramatically gorgeous mansion in the middle, heart of Dublin, looking out over North Great George’s Street. And who would have? Well, it turns out that that is actually the perfect setting to hear a song about The Winding Road Down to Kells Bay. So beautiful. One of the great things about doing this show is you get to like have a performance like right up beside you in a tiny setting.
Did you have to train yourself to whistle like that?
No, I didn’t. I, you’ll hear in the next song as well, there’s a couple of tricks I can do. But em.
Because you’re a beautiful whistler. That’s a funny thing to say. But aren’t you like yeah.
Yeah, yeah. There’s a like a tradition of it in different families where, like, certain men of a certain age would have the lilt to the whistle kind of thing. And I just, I just started doing it randomly when I was in my teens and I always got this feedback, oh there a lovely lift to you whistle.
Ruth, I want to come back to you now for a second. So you are, lockdown has happened, everything you had ended. You were quite vocal about, you know, how hard it was on independent artist and so on. And then you had this little idea and you’re starting this thing. And I saw it growing organically because, well, people were sharing them around.
When I put it on Instagram, I obviously put it on Twitter as well and the Irish Times saw it and they were like, Can we run it as a cover? I was like, cool. And then the Irish Time ran it and then CNN ran it, which was gas. And then all of a sudden I had hundreds of people in my inbox who had copped on to where I live who were like, I’m in your area, I’m in your 2k. Can I be part of the project? And I’m, I can never say no to people, especially nice people. I’m like ah grand okay, I’ll be over tonight. So I started doing it street by street and doing maybe four, five, six a night.
And then I kinda got the impression that it was bigger than me. The people were enjoying this for various reasons, you know, because a lot of the imagery that we were seeing during that particular time was quite negative. And it was showing, it was showing the sad scenes. It was showing what Covid had taken from us. But my imagery kind of showed people what it had given us, which was a time to be together at home and to kind of appreciate that and maybe that we should, you know, hang onto it for as long as we can, because there won’t be another time, hopefully, in our lifetime where we’re locked down again.
Yes. And it’s also, it was almost like a historical record. And I imagine to those people that are thinking, especially the younger parents, one day I’m going to show this picture. And I’ll say, you know, when you were
That’s actually who I have in mind when I’m, because the book is gonna be all these photographs but it’s also they’re gonna be paired with maybe 50 or so stories. But I’m writing those stories with the kids in mind because I do want them to sit down and go, what were you on about banana bread? I mean this is it, you know, so I want references to all that. I want it to be a little time capsule of what we’ve all gone through collectively in this mad time.
So, yeah, like, Penguin just came to me and, it’s actually really random how they found me
So they, Fiona who works in Penguin Random house, followed my Instagram because I went on tour with Arcade Fire and she’s a massive fan of theirs. And she was like, we have to have this. So I was like grand. That takes, I don’t have to think about it. I hadn’t even considered a book or anything. So once I got the go ahead to do that and it gave my project kind of a structure and a really defined sense of worth, I kind of felt like, oh, right, I can treat this as a job now as opposed to just something I’m Mickey Mousing with while I’m waiting for the music industry to come back.
So once I kind of got that little bit of a nod from them, a recognition. I said, right, instead of this just being in my 2K in Finglas and Marino, I’m gonna go and represent all of Ireland as best as I possibly can. So I wanted all corners geographically, but I also wanted all types of people, so different ethnicities, different religions, different upbringings, different backgrounds, professions, all that. So that when I could look back cover to cover that it’s a fair representation of Ireland because that’s always what I want to give in any project that I do.
That’s so exciting.
Yeah. Yeah. I’m not a writer though so tips please guys.
That’s why it’s exciting.
You’re writing a book people want to be in. Messages from my family, you’re more than welcome to forget we exist.
Yeah cause I was going to bring that up, actually. Having written a little memoir myself once, I know that some people are, you know, don’t care at all, and some people do. But tell me about Breda, your mother. So tell me about her and how, is she fully aware of the book.
She’s aware I’m writing something. I mean, she’s an amazing woman. My mother would be, I’ve talked to her about writing a memoir, and she is very pro. She’s very supportive in that way. She’s a very broad minded woman. She was born here in Dublin, in the city center on the North Circular Road, in a tenement. Went to school here on North Great George’s Street, just round the corner she went there. And then when the social housing was built in Ballyfermot she moved out there. And then she was taken out of school at 15 and put to work in town.
And then she met my father, who was from Ranelagh and they set up a home in deep south suburbs in Dublin. And she had a family. And then she discovered books in her 30s. No education, no leaving cert, no inter cert, nothing. And so I was raised in a house full of books.
And at that time, it was a close relationship you had with all
I’m the youngest. And she started quite late. So I’m 42 now and she’s 80. So for those times, she started quite late. And so I had her to myself. And we had a very, very close relationship.
And when you came out. How was that?
Uh, good, very early. I’m sitting here in front of you, Panti. I have to say, I would love to tell the story of seeing you for the first time.
Well it depends.
Well, it links into your question because I remember coming home one night midweek, dressed a little bit outrageously, and my father was sitting at the kitchen table and that was when it all came out.
It wasn’t planned in advance.
No, no, no. But what I was coming home from, I was still in school. Back in those days, we didn’t have transition here, so I was 17, just turned 17 in February of my final year and I’d just started going into town, going to the George around that age. And I remember I had my first boyfriend and he used to get us into clubs that I wouldn’t have been able to get into at 17 years old.
Oh God, I’m worried where this is going.
No it’s really lovely. It’s a lovely story. And so the first time I saw you was in the Kitchen nightclub in The Clarence Hotel.
Yes, I used to work there.
Yeah. And I had my school uniform in my bag. Yeah. It was. It was, um. Was that night that used to run strictly handbag?
That’s right. I worked at that every Monday.
It was Monday. Yeah, cause I’d my uniform in my bag. So we were there and they used to pump this dry ice in the kitchen. And then this dry ice cleared. And I saw you sitting on a deck chair or a sun lounger. You ha a cocktail in your hand, this is years before we had cocktails.
And my mind was blown. And it was such an important moment for me because I had such a difficult few years. And it was so interesting to hear you say that, you know, you didn’t know what you’re doing and you were foolish. I saw you as this worldly wise being. You know, it’s like this person has been around and, I don’t mean in that way, she’s experienced and.
That’s one of the things people, you know, they say those kind of things to me quite often, that they at a certain age saw me. And it gave them permission, I didn’t know I was doing it. I was just having fun so I’m not taking credit. But that’s how they interpreted it. That I gave them permission to, you know.
Definitely. And I knew you’d been away and I’d heard on the grapevine that you were home from Japan or something. And so I knew that, that going away was the thing to do.
More than that, I was also very frightened of you in the sense that I was very young and you were very experienced to me and I would never have approached you at the time.
But just the fact, exactly what you said, the fact of having seen you and that that exists and exists in Ireland and someone Irish is doing it.
Of course, good choice not to approach me, because if I found out you were 17, you would’ve been out the door.
I was 17 with my uniform in my bag I remember so distinctly.
Well that took us off track. So back to Breda.
Back to my mother. So coming home from those nights that I would be going out, I should have been studying. It all came to a head around then. My mother was strangely strange about it. My father was kind of adapted to it quicker, even though he was the more conservative one.
That’s similar to my own parents yeah. But then so deciding to write a book that involves her and everything. That’s a big decision, regardless of. And so
I didn’t ask her permission. It’s not something I’m going to do. It’s not something I feel I need to do.
But so you haven’t asked for permission to write the book, but you are having to care for her in every other way. So you are sometimes making decisions for her.
She is very independent.That’s almost the problem. She’s so physically well, and that if the mind goes then it’s a long time.
Well actually let’s hear. So this is, well you introduce it. It’s the prologue.
This is the prologue yeah. It’s just one page. 500 words. And it’s a single long sentence.
I am spending the quarantine in a small flat in south Dublin with my eighty-year-old mother, who, according to the emergency regulations, is not allowed outside at any time or for any reason, but who at ten o’clock every morning having breakfasted and hoovered and watered the pots and decided she can’t spend another moment within these walls, insists on packing her coin purse and a bottle of water into her backpack – she leaves her mobile phone on the kitchen counter –
and setting off on a route that takes her along the Dodder River, through Rathgar, then Milltown, then Clonskeagh into Donnybrook, where, in the only place open, a Spar supermarket, she buys a takeaway coffee and a pastry to be eaten as she makes her way through Herbert Park, Ballsbridge, Ringsend, reaching the River Liffey at Tom Clarke Bridge, in normal circumstances, a busy toll link, but now empty of traffic, which allows her to stand in the middle of the road as she looks across to the port on the other bank, and the moored boats, and the warehouses, and the cranes that seem to be holding up by thin threads the skeletons of new office blocks and I wonder what comes to her mind then, at that spot, taking in the scene, which even devoid of people and cars and in this bright spring weather cannot, I imagine, be beautiful,
is there something specific that touches her, the sight of a swallow returned from Africa perhaps, before she turns around and returns the way she came- eight kilometers each way, sixteen in total- and comes back through the door and takes off her shoes, and I say to her from the kitchen where I am preparing her lunch -vegetarian salads or soba noodles or pilaf or roasted vegetables and, twice a week, fresh fish, for both of us are skinny and live in terror of weight gain – “Did you get arrested,” I say, and she says, “Pardon?” because she’s almost deaf, and I say, “Did they slap a fine on you at least?” and if she hears this, which she sometimes chooses to, she lets out a laugh before going into her bedroom to get changed into her indoor jumper and slacks,
and, because she doesn’t emerge for a while, I call into her, “This is ready, come in and sit down,” but she can never sit down immediately, she has to do something first, like put a wash into the machine, so I am always at the table before her, waiting, already irritated, and when finally she does come, she says, “This is gorgeous,” before she has even tasted the food, and then, “Are you going into town today?” which annoys me further because it’s something she says all the time, having forgotten she said it before, and I say, “Jesus, Mum, not this again,” and she says, “What again?” and I say, “Why would I be going into town? Town is shut down,” and while she can see I am upset, and wants not to upset me like this, she is also wounded by my tone, and I am ashamed then and can only look at my plate, and I decide not to mention that my homeless brother called while she was out to ask her for money.
Is that the page you sent to your editor? Yeah, I can see why. Like there’s so much in that little thing.
Do you have a deadline?
The end of summer, yeah
Whos summer? Ruth, your Dad is I guess responsible for you being a photographer?
Yeah, in a way. I guess, I thought you were gonna say he’s responsible for me being born, I’m like yeah.
Well I would hope so
Yeah so Dad used to sell camera equipment like the old school darkroom stuff.
And just, your surname is Medjber, which, you know, isn’t from the Kells Bay Area.
Not from Kerry no. It’s from Algeria. Dad came to Ireland from Algeria in the late 70s and met my mum, married, had a couple of kids and I’m one of them, but he used to sell camera gear and instead of putting me into childcare he put me in the back of the van surrounded by all the camera lenses and the blower brushes and the fun stuff to play with and really inspired that in me. So I was, I grew up literally surrounded by cameras and never, ever let them go. So I’ve been I’ve been shooting my entire life. It came so naturally.
And was your dad like, was he interested in photography itself or just the selling of the machine?
Dad was interested in making money because there was a recession. So he wasn’t exactly a photographer. No. I think you have to be somewhat quite geeky to be a photographer.You know,
Yeah it’s physics. It’s the physics of light, which I just find so mesmerizing. That’s what I love capturing. And it’s making sure that you capture different atmospheres represented in different types of light, which is what I play with now so.
And, um, I’m gonna go back to your dad. In what year did he come to Ireland and why?
Seventy eight and he came here as part of an apprenticeship. He was an aircraft engineer, young aircraft engineer. There was ten of them that came over with an Air Lingus exchange with Air Algerie. And they all stayed. It was supposed to be a six month programme and I don’t think any of them went back because, you know, Ireland and Europe was such a such a glamorous place compared to Algeria and Algeria then unfortunately suffered.
Yeah with a mess of a time.
Yeah it suffered an awful lot worse tragedies in the 80s and the 90s then especially.
Have you, have you been?
I’ve been, yeah.
Are you very connected to that side of your.
I want to be more connected. So yeah, that’s always in the back of my head that Ireland is not just white Ireland anymore. And it’s not just the Catholic upbringing Irish, we have so many different types of people here that they should be represented. So yeah it is. Maybe that is why, maybe it is my dad in me, you know, and the fact that I was brought up in different mindsets and I had a Muslim father and a Catholic mother, so I want to reach out and see who else is out there.
And Emma, you have another song.
I do have another song.
Now seems like a good time for it to me.
Yeah, absolutely. This one’s called Goodbye Hawaii. I wrote it years ago. I wrote it about seven years ago during the kind of the breaking apart of a relationship. So, yeah, I wrote the song to kind of say I need to stand on my own feet again.
Let’s hear it.
So as I mentioned, there is another trick that happens in this song that I learned to do back when I was writing it and I’ve been perfecting ever since. So, yeah, I often have to warn people that the sound is coming from my face.
The expectations are high now.
Emma Langford performs Goodbye Hawaii
You really set up high expectations telling us about the trick in advance. And they were reached those expectations they were
Can you teach us how to play mouth trumpet or whatever you call
You just swallow a lot of oil and lube and just squeeze that trumpet right on down there. Or get possessed by the ghost of Louis Prima.
It’s such a, it’s a brilliant little, if you wanted a saxaphone player and didn’t have one or something.
Exactly yeah. I started to learn a song that my sister loves called Sympathique by a band called Pink Martini.
It’s good. Gavin, the lockdown happened, something thats a very big thing to deal with for everybody, an existential crisis on a global level or something if I could put it that way. Do you think it changed you in any way, this experience?
Yes. I’m also HIV positive. And so I was looking at things through that lens as well. And that was very interesting for me to see. So on that side of things, that was really.
Yes. I had a similar experience. Like, you’re only catching up now from it.
I’ll tell you one experience I had. I was in the supermarket and I was standing on, you know, the squares they put on the floor to keep your distance.
And I was one square away. And she was paying and I was obviously looking for my phone or something. I was moving, but I wasn’t moving out of the spot and she screamed to me, Don’t come any closer, Don’t come any closer. And I said, Oh, oh, I’m not. I’m standing on the square. I’m not going anywhere near you.
And I just had this flashback of those conversations we as HIV positive people have to have on, like, the second date. I’m not going to harm you, you know, it’s okay. The drugs are, you know, the drugs are working. We’re not contagious. And so those kinds of things were very interesting. And then, of course, there was the, my mother having this kind of new relationship with my mother and having lucid days, were she’s very lucid, and we are having very deep connections. And then other days where we’re fighting. And other days we’re just blocking each other out. So it’s been very, very, very interesting. I do feel changed.
It does sound very intense I have to say.
It does. It is, it is intense. Having been away for so long. And now coming back. And on one level, kind of trying to hold on to her, because I know things are slipping away. And then on the other hand, just trying to see her as she is. And you know.
It’s a lot. Yeah. But you know, you found a creative spark in there too.
Yeah. No, no, I think it’s I think ultimately it’s going to be a good experience for me. Yeah.
Ruth, I mean, obviously it has changed the direction of your work or whatever. But do you think you’ve grown or changed or learned or.
I think I’m still too far in it to have a realization yet. I don’t think what’s happened is gonna hit me for like another year or so at least. Because fair enough, I’m working on this book and I, I kind of I did a bit of a fight or flight, you know, that’s what hit me. I’m still very anxious and tense and very worried about work and income and what’s going to happen in the next year. Because I’m very aware as well that the music and events industry won’t come back in the same way for at least another year.
I think I’m similar to Ruth. Yeah, I’ve always been someone who finds things to do and finds new ways to express myself. And I’ve drifted toward painting and I’ve drifted toward producing stuff. And I’m looking at doing a degree in psychology and whether it’s a case of I’m gonna be studying up in the future. I you know, this whole crisis, for want of a better word.
Are you going to continue with this sing song project?
I’m looking at doing it even once restrictions lift. I am looking at doing it maybe on a monthly basis, but I’m hoping to get maybe some kind of a sponsor for it or something because just to make it sustainable.
But also these things are a huge amount of work. And that’s fine when you’re in lockdown and you have all the time in the world.
Yeah. Once life kind of kicks back into gear, it’s harder to find the time for those kind of things. So it’s great to have support.
Well, thank you all so much for sharing a lot today. That is it for this episode of Pantisocracy. Listeners remember you can catch up on all the episodes in this season on any of your favorite podcast platforms. So do check the videos app also on Pantisocracy.ie and RTE Culture as we’re only gorgeous today. You should definitely see it.
Thanks to my guests Ruth Medjber, who’s book is out in November. Gavin McCrea, whose next book.
Is out next year. The Sisters Mao.
The Sisters Mao. And Emma Langford thank you for those beautiful songs and those weird sounds that I love so much. And of course, all of your stuff is on Spotify
It is and there’s a new album out in September as well
A new album out in September, what’s it called?
I look forward to it. Thank you all so much in listener land. I’ve been Pantisocracy. Goodnight.
For Ruth Medjber 2020 was meant to be a globe trotting series of music tours, festivals and exhibitions, but forced into lockdown, she began capturing the mood of the nation with her twilight walks and window portraits. Gavin McCrea, was happily working away on a novel, when lockdown brought him back to Dublin to look after his elderly mother, and in the midst of quarantine, Gavin began writing a very personal memoir, capturing that time, and his mother’s dementia.
Emma Langford, as her overseas tour and gigs vanished, began video blogging from her bedroom, hosting sing songs and requests and found a new way of creating and connecting. During the show, Emma performs two of her songs, ‘The Winding Way Down to Kells Bay’ and ‘Goodbye Hawaii’ .
Novelist Gavin McCrea shares the opening prologue of his powerful new work, a memoir written during lockdown, which is his most personal and intimate work to date.