Vicky Pryce

All in the mix and the muddle

Plotting the plants

Plotting the plants

I was amused to read that the judge’s direction to the jury in the Vicky Pryce case included an instruction to avoid taking notice of irrelevant detail so that they ‘could see the wood for the trees’ and therefore ‘avoid red herrings’ when deciding upon their verdict. Mr. Justice Sweeney had good cause for making the point, having already had to discharge one jury for incompetence, even though his use of the English language might have been open to debate. It made me wonder if judges are often guilty of introducing mixed metaphors into their summings-up or directions to juries.
A Google search reveals that, in July 2011 in the USA, Kenton Circuit Court judge Martin Sheehan summed up with the following words his feelings about a trial during which a new (potentially harmonious) development had emerged:
‘Such news of an amicable settlement [has] made this Court happier than a tick on a fat dog because it is otherwise busier than a one-legged cat in a sand box and, quite frankly, would have rather jumped naked off a twelve-foot step ladder into a five-gallon bucket of porcupines than have presided over a two-week trial of the herein dispute, a trial which, no doubt, would have made the jury more confused than a hungry baby in a topless bar and made the parties and their attorneys madder than mosquitoes in a mannequin factory.’
No doubt this judge spent some time on crafting his words in order to achieve the courtroom-stopping hilarity with which he was rewarded. Almost certainly, his mixed metaphors were constructed deliberately, which shows that, pace the correct usage that was taught at grammar schools like my own, the mixed metaphor can be legitimately deployed for colourful and arresting self-expression and, by extension, permitted, if used carefully, in ‘serious’ fiction.
I’m even more inclined to champion my last point after looking up ‘mixed metaphor’ on a scholarly publishing site. Here I found the following:
‘The paper explores the phenomenon of metaphors that occur in a close textual adjacency, i.e. as metaphor clusters, but do not share a similar cognitive basis. Clusters frequently mix ontologies and are thus devoid of coherence that can be explained as emerging from a single conceptual metaphor. Evidence to that effect comes from a British corpus (Sun and Guardian) or 675 newspaper commentaries covering the 2004/05 EU referenda (in all, 2574 metaphors).’
Wow! And what I have quoted is only one third of the abstract of the article! I have not read the full article (a full download has to be paid for with sweat and brass), but it might be worth the subscription price, as it would appear to prove the meat and drift of my argument. Furthermore, I’d be very intrigued to read the author’s comparisons between the texts of two newspapers that have until now (because of the rich and fertile loam of their respective word wombs) seemed to me to occupy the opposing poles of the literary spectrum! Could this be the equivalent of mixing bullshit with champagne? Or a blend of codswallop and caviar? Or the gutter and the galaxy?
Too much lead and levity for one day. Must get back to plotting the plants in my next crime novel.

Marriage and crime: a question of coercion?

Wedding ring

The Chris Huhne / Vicky Pryce case raises some interesting questions about marriage, crime and morals.  Before the Married Woman’s Property Act of 1870, married women could not own property – after marriage, de facto everything belonged to their husbands.  It followed that they could not run up debts and some enterprising ladies wrought their revenge by exercising this loophole in the law!  Spinsters and widows could, however, hold wealth in their own right.  Wealthy male landowners and other magnates would sometimes devise ingenious trusts and make provisions in their wills for married daughters, so that their husbands could not get their hands on all the cash.  Even so, it does make you wonder why any woman of substance consented to marry! At the moment I’m reading Wylder’s Hand, by Sheridan Le Fanu, a mid-nineteenth century crime novel that tells how a beautiful heiress was unscrupulously passed around by several men in her extended family so that each could benefit from her wealth.

In the past, as The Taming of the Shrew illustrates, husbands were expected to be allowed to shape their wives’ views and opinions. Women, economically dependent and physically weaker in eras when even aristocrats would resort to physical force to subdue them, were always guilty if they lost their ‘virtue’.  Richardson’s Clarissa died after she was seduced; Hardy’s Tess killed her lover in what nowadays would be called a crime of passion and paid for it with her life.

Until our own times, women have mostly drawn the short straw – though not always. Some, like the Wife of Bath, have prevailed over men through sheer strength of character. However, I imagine that it is because women have habitually been the underdogs of matrimony that laws of ‘spousal privilege’ were conceived.  Ostensibly, these were meant to promote marital harmony, but it is also rather self-evidently true that wives, whether because of collusion or coercion, are unlikely to ‘shop’ their husbands.  If the court could not rely on their testimony, it was best not to ask for it in the first place.

Today, at least in countries where girls and boys receive a similar education, women have more or less gained equality of opportunity and, unless they are in abusive relationships, there is no question of their having to agree with their husbands’ opinions.  Some famous marriages have been built on successfully ‘agreeing to ‘disagree’: that of Denis and Edna Healey, for example.  Can a woman of formidable intellect who has a high-profile career in her own right really be coerced by her equally high-profile husband into breaking the law and compromising her own moral integrity because he asks her to?  I don’t have the answer to that.  Thinking of my own husband, I am convinced that he would not have asked in the first place.  But if he had ….?

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