a blue herring


The phrase "a blue herring"appears in Zadie Smith's review on Edward St Aubyn's Patrick Melrose trilogy. She wrote:

Now the Melrose books are suddenly in vogue, and it's tempting to chalk that up to the tidal wave of poshness presently crashing over England: a royal wedding....Downton Abbey on the telly. But that's a blue herring. St Aubyn comes not to praise the upper classes but to bury them...

Does anyone know what "a blue herring" hints here? It seems to me a metaphorical expression.

Thank you.
  • Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    A "red herring" is something that mislead or distracts. It is also sometimes used to refer to a fallacious argument, and I think that is what Smith means here. She uses "blue" instead of "red" because blue is the colour of the nobility or "upper classes" (they supposedly have blue blood in their veins). You might also recognise the allusion at the end to Mark Antony's speech in Julius Caesar; Smith expects her readers to be well-read and make these figurative leaps.

    suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    A red herring is an established phrase meaning a false trail or a misleading/ distracting point shifting focus from the important issue. Don’t ask me why!!

    I guess the author swapped red for blue to make a point about political bias. Blue = right wing, red=left wing.
    The author under discussion is not, apparently, a true blue tory.
    Last edited:


    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    I agree with Jack that the change from red to blue is to represent royalty/poshness, i.e. bluebloods.

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    Equally possibly Tory blue b
    For me, it was "a royal wedding" that gave the idea, but it was "the upper classes" that clinched it. I don't see any allusion to politics (but I know nothing about the books being reviewed).

    In another context, a "blue herring" could well refer to the British Conservative party, the American Democratic party, the French nation, the British police or extreme cold.

    suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    Really I don’t see a big difference. The upper crust in the UK are 99.9% Tories. In this text upper class and Tory are virtually synonymous.

    Not everyone who watches Downton or a Royal Wedding is a tory, obviously, but you’d struggle to find many Tories who are not fans of this cultural blanket.

    Smith’s piece is pointing out that Aubyn’s work is not as sycophantic to those upper class / Tories as some people might think.

    That might make Aubyn more of a red than the blues suspect.
    < Previous | Next >