Thursday, May 11, 2023

Flesh and Blood, by Stephen McGann

Yesterday, I think I signed off on one of the five books I've been working on simultaneously. Work continues on the others - next week, I hope to go dig through a box of paperwork about David Whitaker that has newly come to light, in the hope I can weave it into the biography I'm well into writing up.

All this activity has meant little time for reading other than checking quotations and references. But last night I finished Flesh and Blood - A History of My Family in Seven Sicknesses by the actor Stephen McGann. He's been tracing his family history since his teens, and follows a line from the the Irish potato famine to the slums of Liverpool and then on to the present day. The Irish history is material he's already mined in the drama he produced and starred in with his three brothers, The Hanging Gale (1995), while it's easy to see how his wife Heidi Thomas has also drawn from personal experience in the series she still oversees, Call the Midwife (2012- ).

Of course, McGann plays kindly, compassionate Dr Patrick Turner in that, which means I heard a lot of the medical explanations in the book in that same warm, reassuring voice. The seven sicknesses - hunger, pestilence, exposure, trauma, breathlessness, heart problems and necrosis - are explained and contextualised in a straightforward, readily comprehensible style.

What really brings the book to life is the specific, human stories - many of which are astonishing. Stephen's great uncle, James McGann, was a fireman on the Titanic, survived the sinking and gave evidence at the enquiry that followed. As a result, his own voice is preserved in the Yorkshire Post of 23 April 1912, an eye witness to the last moments of Captain Smith.

Stephen himself witnessed the disaster at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989 - he was in attendance at the football match, along with his brother Paul. As well as his testimony of what he saw that day, I'm struck by what happened afterwards. It took hours before fans were permitted to leave the ground. And then:

"As Paul and I walked down a Sheffield backstreet, dazed by tragedy and wearing our scarves tight against the evening chill, we suddenly heard a shouted profanity above us, directed against supporters of Liverpool. Pieces of paving stone were thrown from a high balcony in our direction. Shocked out of our daze, we ran for cover." (p. 76)

There's personal tragedy, too, and lots on the mechanics and infighting when you're one of five children - which I found very easy to relate to. There's also McGann's fascination with historical documents, and the sense that going through old papers suddenly gives of your own contribution to history through the papers that bear your name. But what I especially like is how different this is from most biographies and autobiographies.

McGann tells his own and his family's history, but it's actually a history of all of us. How we live. How we sicken and die. What legacy we leave behind us.

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