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Summary

Stephen McGann is Dr. Turner in the BBC hit drama series Call the Midwife. His family survived famine-ravaged Ireland in the 1850s. His ancestors settled in poverty-rife Victorian Liverpool, working to survive and thrive. Some of them became soldiers serving on the Western Front. One would be the last man to step off the SS Titanic as it sank beneath the icy waves. He would testify at the inquest. This is their story.

Flesh and Blood is the story of the McGann family as told through seven maladies - diseases, wounds or ailments that have afflicted Stephen's relatives over the last century and a half and which have helped mould him into what he now perceives himself to be. It's the story of how health, or the lack of it, fuels our collective will and informs our personal narrative. Health is the motivational antagonist in the drama of our life story - circumscribing the extent of our actions, the quality of our character and the breadth of our ambition. Our maladies are the scribes that write the restless and mutating genome of our self-identity.

Flesh and Blood combines McGann's passion for genealogy with an academic interest in the social dimensions of medicine - and fuses these with a lifelong exploration of drama as a way to understand what motivates human beings to do the things they do. He looks back at scenes from his own life that were moulded by medical malady and traces the crooked roots of each affliction through the lives of his ancestors, whose grim maladies punctuate the public documents or military records of his family tree. In this way he asks a simple, searching question: how have these maladies helped to shape the story of the person he is today? Hear Stephen's incredible story told in his own words in this magnificent unabridged audiobook.

©2017 Stephen McGann (P)2017 Simon & Schuster UK

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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Blood, sweat and tears


Stephen McGann’s interest in his family’s history when at the age of 17 he read in a parish record book that in 1868 his great-great-aunt had died in a Liverpool slum at just 18 months from ‘marasmus’ the medical name for starvation. What he has found out since then (he’s now 54) fill this moving account of his Irish family fleeing to Liverpool to escape the potato famine the nineteenth century only to find unspeakable slums and starvation. It’s also a well-informed social history of deprivation and disease amongst those impoverished classes from which he comes.

There are some wonderful stories here which are manna to the family history researcher. There could be a complete book on the life of his great uncle James who was a fireman on the Titanic and miraculously survived as one of the last men to leave the ship with the Captain, only to die of pneumonia not a great many years later. (The analysis of the diseases and infections that killed before antibiotics and vaccinations is a recurrent theme). The most moving section is McGann’s long talk with his mother as an old lady relating how at just 21 her twin boys died at birth and she was never allowed to see them or know where the babies’ father had them buried in an anonymous person’s coffin (which McGann later found for her). The lingering trauma of untreated grief is another of McGann’s themes. (His father’s undiagnosed depression following his war experiences blighted his life and those of his family).

I give this 4 rather than 5 because I felt it was a misjudged indulgence to give so much detail of the birth of his son and the terrible near fatal illness of his adored wife Heidi (Heidi Thomas producer and writer of the Call the Midwife series in which McGann plays the gentle Dr Thomas). It was all very vivid and intense but seemed to lose the powerful theme he had been exploring until that point. I also found his delivery over-sentimental in places – the extremely moving content didn’t need it.

But overall this is a excellently researched and intelligent book which recreates the lives of the McGann family who like countless others have suffered and struggled - and been forgotten. McGann has given back to his family their lives which without his researches would have been lost to him and to us.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Interesting listen, unique concept well delivered.

Never heard of the author or his theatrical family before, but I did hear him describing his book on the radio which tempted me to get the audiobook. He has put together a pretty good book which he reads excellently. It’s a bit slow at times, especially when describing medically the various maladies, but mostly it is very entertaining. The author revels a tad too much in his own glory as an actor for my taste, but I guess to be fair he is primarily doing so to contrast his professional success and social acceptance with the ghastly situation his Irish immigrant ancestors faced in the mid nineteenth century. Has a major dig at one of his brothers which not sure was necessary to the story or whether I’d have included in a public book myself. Overall its faults are minor, it’s pretty good listen, and I recommend the book.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Very different

The different chapters relate to Stephen's family but told in a way that included their illnesses and anxieties and how illness affects our lives . The chapter about his mother was my favourite but his father 's story was heartbreaking , as for his wife's illness , it's heartbreaking and his description of it was both shocking and scary ...the book is a wholly different way of telling a story and it kept me up all night listening to it . Wonderful book .

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Very overwrought writing.

Having read so many good reviews I was excited to read this book - but the fact it's so wrenchingly written became tedious very quickly.

Im Irish and grew up in Liverpool and was hoping to find a familiar world in this book. That partially happened, but there are also wild inaccuracies (Liverpool and Everton football teams never having been sectarian for instance - it's not well known in the city, but it was certainly true at the start of the clubs).

this lack of research outside of the genealogical and medical which McGann so obviously loves was annoying when teamed with such overly emotional writing.

That said you're a super fan of the McGann's or filled with passion for family research this may well be for you.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Ann Non
  • Dublin 4, Ireland
  • 11-03-18

a heart wrenching tale in places

I loved this story from start to finish and what a treat to hear it from the author's mouth. I especially liked the structure of each section where the malady is described in a detached way imparting the medical descriptions and explanations before returning to the stories of these real people. Heidi's story was especially pogniant and had me in tears!

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Wonderful and uplifting read

I absolutely loved this book. A beautifully constructed narrative leading the reader through a journey of collective history. Like a finely woven cloth we see both separate strands and then the whole emerging. Paul McGann’s narration is what you would expect from a gifted actor. The book is sad and joyful as we get to know Paul’s ancestors. Ultimately it is an uplifting work and left me eager to look back across the years of my own family narrative!

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Loved it.

Love the narration. I have a lot in common with the Irish and Merseyside history.

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Not the “run of the mill” autobiography!

In most autobiographies there is subtext to provide a little extra insight into the author’s being. In Flesh and Blood, Stephen McGann has elevated the value of the subtext to that of the main story. Clarification of historical events, along with social and medical conditions, serve to ensure that the reader has a full understanding who Stephen McGann is, rather than just what work he has done and how many famous people he knows.

This is thoughtfully written and excellently narrated. Flesh and Blood is a most refreshing read and much more than an autobiography.

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Moving, captivating, and a great listen

This is such a beautiful way to tell a family history. From the very beginning I was captivated by the descriptions of maladies intertwined with the stories of family life over a century and a half. There were intensely moving moments where tears streamed down my face, along with informative aspects of medical developments. Being just one year older than Stephen with a family history connected to Liverpool’s lower classes for nigh on 3 centuries I’m finding myself inspired to find out more than the data on a page. Thank you Stephen.

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Truthful and thought provoking

My first audio book and I loved and will buy the printed version too as I prefer to read rather than listen