A Letter from the Editor
March 21st 2013
Welcome to Issue Nine.
I‘m currently in the process of reviewing Terry Eagleton’s forthcoming book Across the Pond on behalf of the New York Journal of Books. Here, the distinguished professor compares and contrasts the United States of America with Great Britain, pouring unequal measures of bile and syrup upon both. His introduction ponders the “sin of stereotyping”, which “all high-minded liberals have learned to abhor”.
Professor Eagleton goes on to defend the stereotype, stating that “like medical textbooks or prayers for the dying, they focus on what we have in common”. We are asked to receive many of the generalisations that the author makes about the Americans and the British as tongue in cheek, although he does draw on what he believes to be predictable social patterns.
In this age of political correctness, Professor Eagleton’s study is both uncomfortable and intentionally provocative. That is not to say that it is not deeply thought provoking.
In many respects, I fall among the liberals who are suspicious of stereotypes. When StepAway Magazine publishes a collection of poetry and prose examining walking in the city, my focus is on shared experience. Regardless of whether the piece is set in Moscow or Mumbai, our authors are united in their joy of cutting through a crowd and of observing and recording street life.
I also place a great emphasis on the individuality of each story or poem. More often than not, our writers share a unique and personal experience, rather than grandly generalising what it means to walk in a specific city. Two poems about Manhattan may share the same landmarks, but capture a radically diverse mood.
In particular, Professor Eagleton’s ruminations on personal space made me think about predictable social patterns found in specific cities. He writes:
People in the States will say “Excuse me” if they come within ten feet of you, since they are accustomed to having so much of the stuff [space] that they expect you to feel intruded upon. On the Tokyo subway, by contrast, you can sit in someone’s lap for half an hour without them realising. (On the London Underground they would notice but pretend that you weren’t there, fearful of making a fuss.)
This passage, in many respects, underlines the perils of the stereotype. The author imagines everyone riding on the London Underground to be an infinitely polite, stiff upper lipped, bowler hatted businessman. Next time you’re riding the tube, I dare you to sit on a strangers knee. Should they kick up a fuss, please tell them that Professor Eagleton said it was perfectly acceptable behaviour.
However, there are some wry observations to be found in Across the Pond. In my experience, Americans do, in general, prefer a little more space around them when they walk in public space. I remember cutting across the path of a gentleman in the lobby of the New York Palace. Our bodies came no closer that eight feet apart, and yet, I too received an irritated “excuse me”.
Conversely, when riding the Metro into Newcastle a few days ago, a large drunken man stood on my foot. In a Hugh Grant style homage to the English gent, I immediately apologised to him. “Sorry!” Apologising when being bumped, buffeted and trampled by others is a distinctly English trait.
In other cities, there are certain actions that I have learned to expect. In Moscow, I predict that the babushka in the bank queue will stand very close behind me and prod a bony knuckle into my back. Despite living in the largest country in the world, Russians are accustomed to existing in tight proximity. Just look at the width of the aisles in their supermarkets – barely wide enough for two trolleys to pass without clashing. I secretly suspect that many relish that clash.
In the south of Italy, I enjoy the idea of passegiata. Yet, in the act of parading at night in all manner of couture finery, the Italians have forgotten how to give way to one another. Rather than each party steering a gradual path around the other, they adopt a collision course, the weaker willed of the two groups veering sideways at the very last moment. Whether or not this is a conscious attempt to enforce a pecking order, it is fascinating, and, dare I say, rather amusing to observe.
It feels rather indulgent to generalise in this manner. However, Mr. Eagleton does have a point: to examine shared social factors is to understand how a city is bound together by circumstance and by distinct behavioural patterns. And yet it is important not to take stereotypes seriously – these ‘shared characteristics’ are by no means carved into the very being of every inhabitant of a particular city or country.
I am certain that not every Russian grandmother is ready to push me in the back when things are moving slowly, or that every Versace wearing ragazzo is pumped up to play sidewalk chicken as I approach. Stereotypes offer an entry point into a society for the outsider. They are basic, most often flawed, and on the occasion highly offensive.
In as much as it is useful to examine stereotypes, it is equally important to treat them with the contempt which they deserve. We should not forget that the city in all its chaos and beauty is animated by the shared experience of individuals, each of whom bring their own unique muddle of hopes, morals, fears and prejudices to one specific locale. This is what makes walking through a crowd most fascinating and why the mood of any urban space can change within any given moment.
StepAway issue nine opens with “The Red Hat” by Joachim Frank, a sensual walk on Broadway, New York. We are then transported to Queens in “Main Street: Flushing”, a poem by Kenneth Nichols which never ceases to make me salivate with hunger. Next, Van G. Garrett’s poem “Walking: Postcard From the Ghetto Part 2″ charts a path through what for some would be considered a ‘no-go’ enclave of the city. Poets Kenny Fame and Gregory Luce both ride the rails in “Subway Series” and “On the Green Line”. Meanwhile “The Walk” a poem by Anina Robb leads us down to the Riverside, while Adam Berlin’s flash fiction “14th Street Down” skirts the banks of the Hudson downtown. Dana Brown’s “Attention” and Nathan Leslie’s “Down the Line” are two very different meditations on the vast network of power lines which stretch out across America. We close this issue with Colleen M. Farrelly’s “Overtown Store Front,” a poetic glimpse of Miami.
Our cover photograph comes courtesy of Dima Zverev, one of the most talented and imaginative urban photographers working in the field today. His portfolio is a joy to explore.
I hope that you enjoy this issue which marks the second anniversary of StepAway‘s launch. It has been a pleasure to watch this magazine grow over the past two years.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank our contributors and readers for their steadfast support.
Darren Richard Carlaw