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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. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

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

Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?