A few days ago, a flock of sheep was herded through Westminster. An odd sight, you might think. Sheep don’t belong in the big city. Oh but they did it to get publicity? Almost certainly right, but why sheep? The people involved would have got as much or more publicity if a young woman had run naked down the corridors of power. Yes, but the sheep were intended to highlight the impact of Brexit on farmers. There were six sheep involved and they were led past government buildings to get attention for the Farmers for a People’s Vote group. Could they not just have called a press conference and said they were opposed to Brexit? They could, but the presence of the sheep gave a reality to their cause that no words could give.
The same principle of making it real is at work in the Irish Times this morning. The paper has given the link to footage of the original hard border in Ireland. It’s old British Pathé newsreel and shows Irish Army soldiers and members of the RUC in 1924. They are joking and laughing together. The setting is a border town. Again, they could have just had a man talking to the camera, explaining the notion of partition and showing a map. Instead they chose to take a small group of security people from either side of the border.
This will seem unrelated but be patient. On Thursday I was in Belfast Central Library where a group was discussing a J D Salinger short story. In the story, an American soldier is befriended by a precocious 13-year-old girl. They meet and chat in a London tea-shop shortly before D-Day, and she promises to write to him and hopes he’ll return from the war “with all your faculties intact.” The second half of the story shows the soldier in Germany post- D-Day, in a distressed state after the things he has seen. Then he receives a package which contains a watch – the girl’s dead father’s watch, which she treasured. She has sent it to the American and it brings a ray of light into his dungeon-dark gloom. Again rather than try to show scenes from the D-Day landing, or thousands of men broken in body and mind, Salinger focuses in on one soldier and the effect one act of kindness can have.
This is the mistake the media have tended to make with regard to Brexit and the border. Instead of presenting us with the picture of an individual farmer or a small group of them, and show us in detail what a hard Brexit will do to their lives, the emphasis has been on the numbers – thousands of jobs going, thousands of cattle having to be destroyed, thousands of small businesses damaged beyond repair.
Our minds can grasp the meaning of what is said, but it’s only when the camera goes to close-up that we really begin to appreciate what is about to happen.
As Stalin is reputed to have said: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”