Durham Town Hall
Review by Julia Atherley
Stephen McGann is perhaps best known for his role in the BBC drama, Call the Midwife. Written by McGann’s wife Heidi Thomas, Stephen plays Dr Turner: the empathetic doctor who melted the heart of Sister Bernadette along with the majority of the viewing audience. But McGann is not just an actor; he also has a degree in Computer Science as well as a master’s degree in Science Communications from Imperial College London. It is through this background in the sciences that McGann introduces his new book, Flesh and Blood: A History of My Family in Seven Maladies.
The book, McGann tells us, begins in Liverpool in the 1860s. A mother is holding her dying baby daughter in a small bedsit. The room is next to the Liverpool docks, some of the richest in the world at the time and yet this small child has died of starvation. McGann tells us that this scene prompted him to think how this woman, his ancestor, could have carried on under such bleak circumstances.
McGann describes the illnesses by which he structures the book as “the great antagonists” in his family saga as they serve to contest but ultimately improve upon the life of the “goodie”. He is fascinated with medicine and the social history which surrounds it. His family, we are told, are “the dirt poor of the dirt poor”. Like many of us, McGann had hoped for royalty or noblemen when uncovering his ancestry but instead found the poverty stricken but nonetheless extraordinary tales of his working class roots. The process of delving into one’s past is like opening the floodgates, McGann recounts that his family were victims of the Irish famine, survivors of the sinking of Titanic, submarine commanders at the D-Day landings, and he himself a witness to the Hillsborough disaster.
The event in the town hall was warm and full of energy, especially when McGann recalled the first time he met his now wife, Heidi Thomas. McGann is a self-confessed “shameless romantic” and this was certainly evident when he read extracts from his work. When asked by an audience member to form advice to future generations based upon his own family history, McGann answered “don’t betray the young” and never stop trying to see the humanity in all shapes of life.
Cuckoo Review is an arts journalism programme for young writers aged 15-23. Through the Cuckoo Reviewers in Residence programme at Durham Book Festival, young people have reviewed festival events and books, and have interviewed featured authors. For more information about Cuckoo Review visit review.cuckoowriters.com.