Stephen McGann was a sickly child. Childhood asthma and a bout of pneumonia left him chronically short of breath. Given the McGann family circumstances – five siblings crammed into a modest terraced house in Liverpool – it’s easy to read his symptoms as the clichéd fight for oxygen.
McGann, best known as Call the Midwife’s Dr Turner, is deeply interested in disease as metaphor, but his new book, Flesh and Blood: a History of My Family in Seven Maladies, reaches confidently beyond cod psychology.
Spanning 150 years of social history, it’s a detailed meditation on the way lives and histories are shaped by health.
“I was always the kind of nerdy kid who wanted to know why things happened,” says McGann, 54. “I’ve been interested in genealogy since my teens. I went on to study the relationship between science, medicine and society [he holds an MSc from Imperial College, London] and of course, as an actor, I’m professionally concerned with the mechanics of human motivation. The book, I suppose, is my way of bringing these different strands together.”
Each chapter in Flesh and Blood deals with a specific malady and its iterations down generations of McGanns. The family history begins in the 1860s when, driven out of Ireland by famine, McGann’s great-great-grandparents emigrate to Liverpool, only to see their English-born baby die of malnutrition in the slums of the North End.
On one-year-old Teresa McGann’s death certificate the cause is recorded as “marasmus” but this, McGann points out, “is just a lovely word for starvation”.
Hunger would return to stalk the family in the Second World War, when Billy McGann was interned by the Japanese in Batu Lintang camp in Borneo. McGann remembers family parties where Uncle Billy would swallow flowers snatched from vases.
It was a peculiar point of family honour that “Billy could eat anything”; only later did McGann learn how his uncle had survived as a prisoner of war sustained by rotten potatoes and hatred of his captors.
Links between disease management and social justice are clear. “When you’re talking about a family rising from subsistence level in the 19th century to relative prosperity in the present day, the conclusion is unavoidable: history is politics and politics is history,” says McGann.
“Before the post-war consensus my family survived, we were OK; we could labour in the docks or serve in the armed forces. After Clement Attlee’s reforms, we had a stake in society.”
Flesh and Blood’s most urgent argument is found in the chapter on pestilence, which segues from death by smallpox to the notion of “moral contagion”. Dr William Duncan’s 1842 report on sanitary conditions in Liverpool directly accuses Irish immigrants to the city of “lowering the standard of comfort among their English neighbours… and fast extinguishing all sense of moral dignity, independence and selfrespect”.
This same slur, McGann points out, was repeated down the generations, finding terrible force in the tabloids’ attitude to Liverpudlian victims of the Hillsborough football disaster in 1989.
McGann was at the match with his brother Paul, saved from asphyxiation in the crush by random ticket allocation. “Hillsborough taught me that a stone can still be thrown down at my family from the higher balconies of the nation,” he says.
Certainly the family has suffered at the sharp end of history. A great-uncle was a fireman on the Titanic who survived exposure in the North Atlantic. McGann’s late father, a former Royal Navy commando, never really recovered from the trauma of the D-Day landings.
His wife’s brother (McGann is married to Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas) was one of the patients at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital whose organs were unlawfully retained. No less affecting is the personal tragedy of McGann’s mother, whose first-born twins were lost to polyhydramnios (a complication of pregnancy arising from an excess of amniotic fluid).
“I told my mother’s story to Terri Coates, our medical advisor on Call the Midwife, and Terri just burst into tears,” says McGann. “She said: ‘But we can spot that condition so easily now!’ At that time my mum didn’t even know the name of the thing that killed her children.”
As Flesh and Blood progresses, it’s clear that the flip side of a close family dynamic is the struggle for individual identity. The days when the McGann brothers were a travelling band of players, starring together in musicals and TV series, are remembered fondly, but without nostalgia.
“The all-singin’, all-dancin’ McGann Brothers, that was just a funny little suit of clothes we put on in the past. It’s nothing to do with the men we are now.”
With its mix of readable science and passionate sensibility, Flesh and Blood is essentially an attempt to heal the old rift between science and art. “I absolutely believe you can write artistically about science and scientifically about art,” says McGann. “When we take possession of both, our lives are richer for it.”
To order Flesh and Blood: a History of My Family in Seven Maladies (Simon & Schuster) for £17.49 incl p&p, please call 0344 245 8092 * quoting RTBOOKS32