Flesh and Blood

A History of My Family in Seven Sicknesses by Stephen McGann

Simon & Schuster (2018) ISBN: 1471160815

The McGann brothers Joe, Paul, Mark and Stephen were Liverpool royalty in the 1980s and 90s, and Stephen McGann has achieved international stardom in the hit TV series Call The Midwife since 2012. Yet his memoir is written in a spirit of humility. He never wanted, nor expected, to find grand ancestors hidden in the public records and he writes as candidly about his ‘slum blood’ as he does about the courage and determination of his forebears. McGann’s genealogical search began aged 17, with romantic fantasies of a triumphant return to his Irish roots. In reality it took 35 years of largely unproductive searches, only sporadically stumbling on crucial pieces of the puzzle – such as a snippet in a reprinted book which led him to a sensational 1912 newspaper report in the New York Tribune, and his ‘lost’ great uncle, James.

Flesh and Blood is a memoir written as drama, and the drama is a rich mix of deprivation, tragedy, mystery, skulduggery, high adventure and even heroism. You don’t often need to be wary of ‘spoilers’ in reviewing a memoir, but McGann’s ancestors bore witness to some of the great tragedies and horrors of the 19th and 20th centuries. He chronicles their progress from destitute Irish immigrants, fleeing the potato famine, through decades of poverty and squalor in Liverpool’s slums, to a slow elevation from illiteracy, starvation, and disease to education and affluence with surprises and shocks aplenty.

He tells his family story through the metaphor of seven maladies: hunger, pestilence, exposure, trauma, breathlessness, heart problems and necrosis. Now, extended metaphors can be tricky beasts, apt to turn and bite you – and it can’t have been an easy task, interweaving social and family history with medical and scientific elements – but McGann manages it all in great style, combining a natural empathy with an actor’s ear for storytelling and the dramatic.

The book is dedicated to his wife, Heidi Thomas (writer and producer of Call the Midwife on TV). An entire chapter is given over to her – not, as you might imagine ‘Breathlessness’ or ‘Heart Problems’— but the one entitled ‘Necrosis’. An unromantic subject to dedicate to the love of your life, perhaps – yet it could be the most searing, painful and heartrending love letter you will ever read.

Flesh and Blood is thrilling as a tale of discovery, but it is far more. This thoughtful, reflective, scientifically literate, often poetic work is an illuminating and deeply moving exploration of family, society, and the human condition.