For Gran

It’s a cliché for people to say their grans are strong. And maybe most of them really are. But my gran could beat up your gran. No question. Under the skin of those scrawny arms were iron pipes. Her legs were twin pistons. She could walk for days, and her will was made of steel. After getting the biopsy which eventually diagnosed her lung cancer, she walked a mile to the shops and back. She survived cancer and having two thirds of her lung removed. She lived through a war. There’s a reason you can’t spell “granite” without “gran”: she was old-school hardy.

Physical strength was never her problem.

My gran, Mary “May” McLeish, has always been a massive part of my life. By the time I was 5, my mum was raising my brother and I in France, and Gran would travel over from Scotland to look after us, even though she didn’t speak a word of French. At 6 years old I was her translator/enforcer. A story she used to love to tell was the time a waiter gave her Spanish Pesos for change, and ignoring her protests, I ran back into the café to confront him.

When we moved to Scotland she became a staple of our lives. In fact for the first 6 months she opened her home to us. A deeply religious woman, she accidentally imparted on me a lexicon of words with which I unintentionally blasphemed regularly. I remember the first time I – in my French/English accent, at 9 years old – said “Oh my God!”. She almost wet herself laughing. Then told me to never use the Lord’s name in vain.

I don’t remember ever being disappointed with visiting Gran, or having her come round to our house. Sometimes she would babysit us with my great-aunt Alice and the two would sit on the couch, telling stories, cackling with laughter (maybe Alice more than Gran), and drinking from a bottle in a brown paper bag which they euphemistically called their “medicine” to dissuade us from trying it. One night I convinced Gran to let me tape Die Hard to watch the next night – I set the VHS recorder to the right channel and time, and went to bed. The next night we all sat down to watch it together. I hit play, and up came some blurry-lensed channel 5 softcore “erotic thriller”. I’d accidentally (I promise) set the machine to tape the wrong channel. My brother and I stared confused (OK, entranced) but Gran leapt to action and switched it off, suggesting we see what other videos we had.

Once, on a visit to Gran’s when I was really young I told my mum I wished I had a different mum. Not out of malice but as one of those stupid, thoughtless, greedy things children sometimes say. The memory still haunts me. A few years later I told Gran how guilty I felt, and how I was worried she didn’t know how much I loved her. Her answer was simple and reassuring: “She knows”.

Gran died on Tuesday 5th of May, 2015. Four days ago. And all I hope is that she also knew how much I loved her.

And although she died on Tuesday, we started to lose her a long time ago. Having swatted away every one of life’s assaults, she eventually succumbed to the most insidious of all: an attack on her mind. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 4 years ago, and her descent was relentless. The first time she failed to recognise me, I realised too late what I – what we all – had lost. I regret not having taken greater advantage of knowing this incredible woman while I still could. For years I had planned to record her life story, and now it’s lost. I regret not showing her how much she meant to me while she could still appreciate it. And since her diagnosis I regret not having visited more, to support her at her weakest.

I take some solace in having been with her for her final 24 hours – I’m glad I could give her that much. In her last days she was surrounded by generations of family: siblings, children, grandchildren. Even at her weakest she found a way to bring us all together. We reminisced, we contemplated, we joked, we cried. Her last days rolled back the years to the times when we would gather in her house for a weekend, as a family. Over the last 4 years we had lost that. Yet in her passing, she still managed to leave us a gift.

Rest in peace, Gran. I have so much more I want to say, but I know what you’d reply: “I know”.



My ‘Conference on World Affairs’ Appearances

I recently had the tremendous honour of attending the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, Colorado, as a panellist and solo presenter. The experience was incredible, and I’m working on a blog post all about my week there which I’ll post here very soon.

In the meantime, audio recordings from my panels were made available online, so I thought I’d share them up here for posterity.

The Panels

The format for all these panels (bar my solo presentation) is that there are 4 speakers, each begins by giving a 10 min talk about the subject (you only get given the title, no other info), then a brief round of back-and-forth discussion from the panel members, then Q&A with the audience.

(I’ve listed the panellists in order of appearance, so you can skip to a specific participant’s bit. I would recommend listening to the whole thing, though. And the Q&A is where some of the best discussion happens)

The Internet: The Real Weapon of Mass Destruction
Panellists: Guy Benson, Andy Ihnatko, Seb Charrot, David Brin

Building the Best Workplace
Panellists: Seb Charrot, Jules Pieri, John B. Smith, Nina Richardson

Talkin’ ‘bout Our Generation: Millenials in the Workplace
Panellists: Seb Charrot, Andie Grace, Whitney Kroenke, James Tanabe

Should I Stay or Should I Go: Scotland, Northern Ireland, the UK and the EU
Panellists: Martin Parker, Seb Charrot, Feargal Lynn, Andrew Safir

We Want Privacy, but We Can’t Stop Sharing
Panellists: Seb Charrot, Jamais Cascio, Charlie van der Horst, John Tirman

Love, Sex, Death, and the CWA Archives
Presenter: Seb Charrot

Is Artificial Intelligence Good for Humans?
Panellists: Seb Charrot, Andy Ihnatko, Seth Shostak, Sanho Tree

All Other Panels

The entire conference is fascinating, and the discussions vary massively. I’m planning on spending the next month listening to all the panels I couldn’t attend as a participant or audience member, so I highly recommend checking the others out on the CWA Archive Page.

To bed, but not to sleep

At some point in the last 10 years, I’ve managed to convince myself that I knew a quote from Hamlet that wasn’t in fact from Hamlet. The quote is:

“to bed, but not to sleep”

My (false) memory tells me this was part of some Hamlet soliloquy referring to insomnia caused by concerns of dead dads and murderous uncles.

For close to a decade it’s been in my brain’s bank of Facts I Know, ready to be deployed at the appropriate time. That time came tonight, and as soon as it passed my lips I began to doubt myself.


Surely a quick Google search would corroborate my assertion?

Uh oh

Hmm… no obvious hits. But c’mon it’s a famous quote, right? Let’s cut to the chase and just search within the text of the play itself.



No dice. So I have to come to terms with the fact that the quote is not – and has never been – in the play “Hamlet”. Worse yet, no variation of the phrase exists in any of Shakespeare’s plays. I can only imagine I attributed the quote to old Will because of its similarity to the famous line “to sleep, perchance to dream”.

But if so, where does the “to bed” quote come from?


Searching for “to bed but not to sleep” isn’t very useful – it seems that a million and one people have used the phrase at some point or other. The number one hit for the exact phrase (in quotes) is a TripAdvisor review.



No citation for the quote (thanks Ann R), but here at least we have a slight variation on my initial quote – this one begins with “And so”, which sounds more complete, and therefore more promising. What does a Google search for that give us?

Well, apparently those are lyrics from David Cassidy’s Where is the Morning – a song I’m convinced I’d never heard before today.

A dead end.

Let’s think this over – the phrase seems to have been used a number of times. Who coined it? Can I trace this back to its nexus? This has become a search for the genesis of a phrase.

Onto Google NGram, a project which allows you to search for phrases across millions of digitised books, and see how their use changed over time.


OK I don’t really know what that tells us. At its peak, 0.00001% of all Google’s digitised books for a certain year contain the phrase “but not to sleep” (the full quote is too long for NGram). Google has digitised about 30 million books, so that means in the late 1700s, 300 books were written containing the phrase. At least the NGram gives me a rough time period to search for – nothing appears prior to 1700, although that could just be how far back the archives go.

So what if I search directly in Google Books?


Aha! The oldest book Google has digitised containing the phrase “to bed, but not to sleep”. The knowledge is like an oasis in the desert. Let us crawl to the water’s edge, plunge in our heads and drink deeply.


The Strange Adventures of the Count of Vinevil and his Family is a book by Penelope Aubin, written in 1721. Personally I think the subtitle could have left a little more mystery but it’s certainly descriptive:

Jeez, spoiler alert, Penny.

And the excerpt itself, courtesy of Google:



Don’t get me wrong, Penelope seems to have written the oldest recorded instance of the phrase, but other notable authors were hot on her heels, including:

  • Henry Fielding – The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742)
  • John William Polidori – Ernestus Berchtold Or The Modern Œdipus (1819)
  • Charles Dickens – All the Year Round vol 2 (published at some point between 1859 and 1895)


And that, as far as I’m concerned, is as satisfying an ending as I think I’m entitled to tonight. Were it not close to 2am I might try to delve deeper into the etymology of the phrase, any tie-ins to other languages, how it spread and who spread it… I may even have tried to find out exactly where I personally had come across the phrase in the first place.

But it’s late, and I’m heading to bed. And to sleep.


Paris Update in Film Noir #3

Photo by Barbro Uppsala CC BY
Photo by Barbro Uppsala CC BY

Day six and Lady Luck finally flashed me her brassiere. Met a mope named Gilles said he had a lead. An artist surprise surprise. Unshaven, unintelligible, and stinking of wine, I went to meet him. Told him I had more leads than a dog-walker – and more balls. When he finished talking my jaw was on the floor. So was the rest of my face; I passed out. This thing goes higher than a pothead in a zeppelin.

Valentine’s day in the city of love and the only card I need is this ace up my sleeve.

Paris Update in Film Noir #2

Photo by Darrell Berry CC BY
Photo by Darrell Berry CC BY

The plane landed like a legless cat on a sidewalk. My ears rang worse than Notre Dame. I shoulda told the broad in 4B to pipe down, but along with locks I’ve learned to pick my battles. First day back in Paris and it’s like I never left. Cigarette smoke burning the inside of my nose, money burning the inside of my pocket. Last night I scoped a place called the Suckling Ferret, looking for leads. Place had more Jean-Pauls than the Vatican. I’m still no closer to cracking this case, so I’m cracking a case of scotch instead.