From Siegfried Sassoon to Sinead O'Connor, those who write open letters know their power

A whole lot of young men and women have just had their first introduction to concepts like women’s sexual freedom, structural oppression and liberation, and mental health stigmas by means of the Miley/Sinead debate.

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.

The boldness of this passage; the opening sentence of Siegfried Sassoon’s public letter to his Commanding Officer, still has the power to shock. I know this because several years ago as an A Level student I opened my set text, Regeneration by Pat Barker, and seeing these words was taken aback by their frankness and courage.

In making this ‘act of wilful defiance’ Sassoon knew of the risks he was taking. Lauded as a war hero and decorated with the Military Cross, he was now risking not only his reputation, but also his life - he only avoided a court-martial because he was deemed to be shell-shocked and not in his right mind. Yet Sassoon was in his right mind, and did know what he was saying. He was trying desperately to bring to an end the slaughter of his friends, his comrades and of similar young men fighting on the other side.

The letter, which was read out in parliament and printed in The Times, did not bring about an end to the war. It did, however, create unease and tension by drawing attention to the brutal realities of World War I.

We care about this letter now as a historical document, a reminder of why we wear poppies on November 11th - but there is more to it, I think, than that. It is also a cry against suffering and war. Its continued power is its timelessness - it is at once very specific to the war that Sassoon fought in and simultaneously something which can be applied to many conflicts, highlighting the terribleness of lives wasted for an inch of land.

43 years later, another letter would be written which would become representative of the ways in which Open Letters can effect change. The letter, written in a cramped jail cell on the margins of a newspaper, became known as Letter from Birmingham Jail. In this letter its author Martin Luther King addressed his fellow clergymen, responding to a letter they had written calling for an end to anti-segregation demonstrations, claiming these were ‘unwise and untimely.’  The response was to leave a far greater impression than the piece it sought to answer.

The letter, gentle yet unyielding in tone, perfectly mirrored the spirit of non-violent resistance which it advocates: ‘You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.’

It was published in The New York Post, The Christian Century and Atlantic Monthly, becoming one of the most influential texts of the Nonviolent Resistance movement. The letter, alongside King’s other work, doubtless played a part in bringing about an end to segregation in America. We care about this letter today as an example of the power of the written word - it is much anthologised perhaps because it proves true the old maxim about the pen being mightier than the sword. It demonstrates that the open letter can absolutely work as a convincing polemic.

But there is something going on with open letters which takes them beyond the traditional remit of a polemic. Rather than opening with a direct assertion, an open letter lays its ground. It addresses an individual or a group, addressing the correspondent at once directly, through means of the letter, and indirectly, through the public and other commentators who will read and have a reaction to the letter.

Open letters are designed to provoke discussion, and therein lies much of their strength. There is also something defiant about the open letter as though it is saying ‘I defy you not to respond.’

This was very much the case with Émile Zola’s famous letter to President Félix Faure. The words ‘J’accuse’ blazoned atop the front page of leading newspaper Aurore, was deliberately and importantly provocative. It had to be were it to succeed in its goal - that of drawing attention to the horrible injustice done to Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army who had wrongly been convicted of espionage and exiled to the evocatively named Devil’s Island.

By pointing the finger at those responsible in a public address, reciting J’accuse before a list of names like an incantation, Zola set himself up to be challenged, knowing this was the only way to lead to Dreyfus exoneration. Soon after the letter Zola was erroneously found guilty of libel and fled the country, but the tale of Dreyfus’ unfair conviction was out there and could not for long be suppressed.

Do we still need open letters and should we still care about them? Was last weeks open letter from Sinead O’Connor to Miley Cyrus important, or was it, as it has been widely portrayed, a salacious 'catfight' between female celebrities?

I would like to argue that yes, we should still care about open letters. The freedom to express oneself, thanks to the internet, is greater than ever, but this does not need to dilute the discourse or stop the momentum of the important open letter. Open letters nowadays, if anything have more momentum because they can reach a wider audience.

Was O’Connor’s letter to Cyrus important? Perhaps. It is not a letter which will spark a revolution or dramatically change society, but it raises issues which we need to talk about. Does the music industry exploit young women? Do young women feel compelled, by society, to behave in a certain way? Should we be concerned about young stars?

That the letter has opened up discussion on these fronts is important. A friend who is studying for a sociology doctorate made the following point - ‘Ridiculous bickering and bantering notwithstanding, a whole lot of young men and women have just had their first introduction to concepts like women’s sexual freedom, structural oppression and liberation, and mental health stigmas by means of the Miley/Sinead debate.’

I think she makes a brilliant point.

Was Sinead O'Connor really just one half of a 'catfight'? Image: Getty
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Donald Trump's rise is a reaction to Obama's two terms as president

This week, from Barack Obama’s legacy to memories of Angela Carter.

My children can’t believe that I grew up in a racially segregated Alabama, or that I reported on the election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa (for this magazine). One of their earliest memories is of helping a family friend sell coffee and hot chocolate in sub-zero temperatures to the crowds celebrating the inauguration of Bar­ack Obama in Washington in January 2009.

My past is ancient history to them. I strongly recommend that anybody who still feels that way watches In the Good Ol’ Days, the YouTube trailer for a documentary called 13th by Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma. It splices physical abuse of black people at Donald Trump’s rallies (and his taunts about how they would have been “carried out on a stretcher” in the past) with documentary footage from the 1960s. It’s chilling.

When Obama won the Democratic nomination for president, I went back to my old school in Montgomery to see how attitudes had changed. It was no longer segregated, of course, but it was still predominantly white. A former classmate told me that when he was five, the family handyman got chucked over a bridge and left for dead by the Ku Klux Klan. We never heard these stories in school. Then I met the progressive headmaster, who assured me that everything was non-discriminatory now. But, as I left, I was escorted to my car by the school bursar, who told me he didn’t trust Obama because he was a “Muslim”. The way he said it made it sound like the N-word to me.


Going South

There has been surprisingly little discussion about the extent to which the rise of Trump has been specifically a reaction to Obama’s two-term presidency. Yes, we have heard how Obama’s legitimacy has been questioned by the “birther” movement and we have listened to Trump crow about forcing the first African-American president to produce his papers (or rather his birth certificate). But when even a former grand wizard of the KKK – an absurd title – says that Trump talks “a lot more radically” than he does, it is impossible to ignore the racial dimension to this election.

The two big states that Trump still hopes to swing his way are Pennsylvania – memorably described by the Clinton adviser James Carville as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with “Alabama in between” – and Ohio, where my mother was born. She is from the northern Democratic stronghold of Cleveland; Cincinnati, she used to sniff, was the South. She didn’t mean geographically.


Bill and Hill

There are many good reasons to be wary of Trump but I have never felt comfortable with Hillary Clinton. The governor of Alabama in my day was Lurleen Wallace, who was in office because her notoriously racist husband was ineligible to run for a consecutive term. She didn’t even bother to disguise that she was a proxy candidate and ran as Mrs George C Wallace, while he became known as “the first gentleman of Alabama”.

Admittedly, Hillary Clinton is far more her own woman than Lurleen ever was but Bill Clinton, remember, is a former Southern governor, of Arkansas. Bill and Hill had the idea long ago of a “twofer” run at the White House – and they’ll definitely have known about the Wallaces’ example. Alas, it’s too late to dwell on how much better it would be if the first female president of the United States hadn’t already been its first lady and Bill Clinton hadn’t set his sights on returning as first gentleman. But it’s Trump v Clinton and, thus, no contest.


Granny knew best

Enough about the US elections, hard though it is to tear our eyes away from the car crash. Last week, I went to the launch party at Daunt Books of Edmund Gordon’s wonderful biography of Angela Carter, a literary heroine of mine. I was a young publicist at Virago in the late 1980s when I visited Carter at home in Clapham, south London, where she was living with her much younger husband, Mark, a potter, and their little boy. She looked like a magnificently eccentric granny to me, with her shock of thick, wavy, grey hair. I thought that she was ancient because she’d had a baby at 42 but, as ever, she was just ahead of her time.


Partial eclipse

I’d no idea until I read The Invention of Angela Carter just how many Virago novelists she had nurtured. Pat Barker, for instance, the author of the Regeneration trilogy about the First World War, was one of her protégées. The photographs, though, show Carter with the young men who eventually eclipsed her: Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro. She taught Ishiguro creative writing at the University of East Anglia and introduced him to
her agent, Deborah Rogers. He told me at the party that there were only half a dozen students on the course with him and the university couldn’t be bothered to find enough people to fill the places the following year. Yet it has since become the stuff of legend.


Lost treasure

Carmen Callil, Carter’s great friend and the founder of Virago, was also at the party. She told me that her joy in publishing faded when Carter was offered only £60,000 for her last novel before she died of lung cancer in 1992. By then, the men – Rushdie, McEwan, Amis, et al – were getting far bigger advances of several hundred thousand pounds, even though she was every bit as good as them (or better).

At the end of her life, her thoughts were on money and how her “two boys” – her husband and son – would manage without her. She told her literary executor, Susannah Clapp, to give permission to everything and anyone who wanted to use her work for commercial purposes, however naff or vulgar. Her last book, by the way, was to have been a fictional life of Adèle Varens, the vivacious young ward of Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre. How I would have loved to read it.

Sarah Baxter is a former political editor of the New Statesman and the deputy editor of the Sunday Times

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood