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In sickness and in health: Stephen McGann on the diseases in his family’s past

The actor's book is more than the opening up of a family’s secrets. It is a cautionary tale.

Since he was a teenager, Stephen McGann has been fascinated by his family history. Sitting opposite me in the restaurant of the Covent Garden Hotel over a pot of Darjeeling and a smoked salmon bagel, the actor tells me how, as a boy in Liverpool, he began trying to discover “how I got to be me”.

McGann’s father, Joe, fought in the Second World War and landed on the Normandy beaches on D-Day. “There was lots he wanted to forget. There was lots he didn’t like. He made his world-view and he clung to it. There was nothing he wanted to dig up. But I was curious. Well, everyone was curious, but nobody did anything. That was ‘Steve’s thing’.” By “everyone”, he means his three brothers – all of whom have found acclaim as performers – his sister and his mother, Clare.

“Steve’s thing” has now become a book, Flesh and Blood: a History of My Family in Seven Maladies. It isn’t the usual actorly autobiography but rather a tracing of McGann’s family history from the Irish famine of the 1840s onwards, with his and his relatives’ stories told through what afflicted them: hunger, pestilence, exposure, trauma, breathlessness, heart problems, necrosis. It is an artful, honest book, marked by the author’s clear-eyed examination of how his family’s lives were entwined with history’s often terrible markers: not only the famine and the Second World War but the sinking of the Titanic, the Alder Hey scandal and the disaster at Hillsborough.

Steve’s other thing is playing the kindly Dr Patrick Turner in the BBC series Call the Midwife, a show that demonstrates social revolution by stealth, its hard-hitting portrayal of life in postwar east London cloaked by a veneer of cosy Sunday-night drama.

The drama was developed by McGann’s wife, Heidi Thomas, adapted from the bestselling memoirs of Jennifer Worth. McGann is vehement about its commitment to social history. “My wife does an astonishing thing,” he says. “On a Sunday night, before the nine o’clock watershed, she shows one in six people in this country – man, woman and child – what backstreet abortions are like, what happens to a woman who gets pregnant by a married man and is the victim of institutionalised cruelty. She shows what socialised health care was founded for, where our ideas might have come from and how they might change. And all this before nine o’clock!”

McGann’s role in Call the Midwife led to a book, Doctor Turner’s Casebook, detailing the real cases behind the storylines in the series. After its success, his publisher asked if he might like to write another book. He proposed Flesh and Blood, though he was, he says laughing, “too naive to terrify myself adequately” at the prospect of writing it.

Talking to McGann, I sensed his urgent intellectual engagement. Having failed his A-levels “spectacularly”, he forged a successful career as an actor, but his education was always “unfinished business”. After completing a BSc in computer science in his forties, he went on to do a Masters in science communication at Imperial College London.

This, one senses, is his real passion: he understands that true communication happens not with lists of facts or statistics but through story. Flesh and Blood is strikingly personal, for it is not just a book of family history but a book of a family’s living present, too.

McGann writes about the terrible agoraphobia that he suffered as a teenager; he writes about the stillborn twins his mother gave birth to before her other children; he writes about his wife’s beloved brother, David, who had a congenital heart defect. After David’s death, his heart was removed without the family’s consent at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. He writes about the time Heidi nearly died from an obstructed bowel.

Why, I ask, did he choose to be so open? “It just bubbles up at four in the morning,” he says. “If you are going to tell a story about family, it has to be about how a family branches out, where it leads to. You become extinct; people leave other people; people form their own families. So eventually my life had to be there.”

McGann writes frankly about the degrading conditions in which his family lived when it first arrived at Liverpool’s docks from County Roscommon in north-central Ireland. It was a striking experience, he says, to read about that world from the vantage point of his “cosseted media life”.

He and his siblings, he tells me, don’t always agree: “But there’s one thing we all agree on. We feel very strongly that we existed in a social and educational golden age.” They are “beyond livid that the door is closing behind us”.

His family’s history “is a defence of the NHS. How could it not be? The NHS was the nation’s debt payment for my father’s horrific burden of duty. It was the foundation on which my mother reared a large working-class family with the necessary health to learn, thrive and give something back. It’s the greatest expression of humanity through policy that our society has ever demonstrated.”

Flesh and Blood, then, is more than the opening up of a family’s book of secrets. It is a cautionary tale. “I fear that the NHS as I knew it will soon pass away into history through selfishness and public complacency,” McGann says, “and this will prove an act of enormous national self-harm.

“Even the need to defend such an obvious good is a symptom of the deeper malady of our times: a society that’s become careless about inoculating itself against past horrors, and one that now risks disastrous reinfection.” 

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear