Place of violence: the arcades of the Uffizi in Florence. Photo: Getty
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Will Self: First impressions last longest – and Florence is still a slap in the face

Usually my mother didn’t mind me filling my metaphorical trouser bottoms with earthy words, but in Florence she’d seen vermilion and struck out, ensuring that for me, for ever, the city would be associated with violence.

Arriving at the Stazione di Santa Maria Novella I feel like a bit of a Rodin’s Messenger of the Gods: after all, I’m in Florence merely to make money, while all around me people are purely intent on having a good time. I walk towards the centre of town; the throng of tourists swirling about the flanks of the basilica church parts for a moment, and beside one of those hat stalls that have sprung up the world over (selling panamas, trilbies and caps of many colours, none of which you ever notice anyone wearing), I see a man with no feet lying on the pavement and begging, the ends of his stumps apparently smeared with mercurochrome, or something else that stains them an obscene reddish-orange.

Turning the corner into the Via Tornabuoni I’m confronted by the plate-glass windows of a number of fancy Italian shoemakers – Gucci, Baldinini, Fendi – and I reflect on how teetering about on these high heels would be as precarious as trying to hobble on . . . stumps.

If you wish to experience a place light-heartedly, gaily and creatively – let alone spiritually – you need to go there with a good heart; moreover, I believe places are like people and the genius loci is a sort of soul, which means that, as with human encounters, first impressions are lasting ones. My mother was quick with her hands – you wouldn’t see the blow coming, just feel the stinging ringing of its impact. As I stood in the loggia of the Uffizi, my head tintinna­bulated with pain. Mother strode back into the gallery to admire Botticelli’s Primavera, I slumped down on a stone bench and lifted my paperback to blot out the hordes – it was, as I recall, The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams, and its setting was perfectly in tune with my own ten-year-old’s predicament; wasn’t I, too, compelled to perform a repetitive action over and over again in order to escape from my guards?

Usually my mother didn’t mind me filling my metaphorical trouser bottoms with earthy words as we vaulted our way through the Renaissance, but in Florence she’d seen vermilion and struck out, ensuring that for me, for ever, the city – and by extension any appreciation of its art – would be associated with violence.

Not for this Pavlovian doggie the sensation reported by Marie-Henri Beyle (aka Stendhal) on contemplating the city’s magnificence: “Life drained from me, I walked with the fear of falling . . .”, or, rather, I do walk on towards the Ponte Vecchio feeling faint and dizzy, but only because it’s occurred to me for the first time that perhaps my entire antipathy to crowded art galleries had its origins in that 1970 slap. Really, I consider, a lot of Lebensraum could be created in the world’s most popular visitor attractions simply by encouraging parents to slap their sulky children – obviously it’ll take a number of years to feed through, but given enough corporal punishment now, come 2040 the Uffizi could well be empty. I’ve been back to Florence a number of times since Mum pasted me, but the city’s art treasures remain beyond my ken.

Instead, on this visit – as before – I confine myself to the streets. However, while I may be walking in crowded alleys, the singularity of my mercenary purpose renders me curiously invisible: I am like Cosimo I de’Medici, striding along the snaking rooftop corridor Vasari designed for him, so the Grand Duke might walk from the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti without having to mingle with his subjects. I buy olives and Provolone in a delicatessen and eat them sitting on the weir that bisects the Arno; I look up at the bridges and see they are festooned with the cream of western art-loving girlhood – thousands upon thousands of them, stroking their hair, strumming their guitars and sketching with their iPads. Florence has been providing a safe haven for posh-girls-who-paint since the Victorian era; in the 1880s there were several English-language dailies published in the city, and even if you did manage to secure a room with a view there was every likelihood it would be a key component of someone else’s . . . view.

My room looks out on the gloomy defile of the Borgo San Jacopo; moreover, I’m not allowed to smoke in it. I go down to the river terrace to make a little sfumato of my own, and as I squint at the Ponte Vecchio through its fine embellishment, a man who’s puffing alongside me retells the old anecdote about how the bridge was spared during the German retreat of 1944 on Hitler’s personal orders. But the creatively destructive Nazis did blow up all the buildings at either end, which is why there is now a curious blend of the medieval and the modernist on show as the cubicular retrobotteghe merge with the much newer blocks. My self-appointed tour guide keeps on: did I know that originally the shops on the bridge were all butchers’, but the Medici replaced them with goldsmiths in the 16th century?

Well, no, I didn’t, but there’s something a bit Messenger of the Gods-ish about the way he’s banging on, so I take myself off to bed. And sleep fitfully: some time in the small hours the carousing of the PGWPs and their boyfriends merges seamlessly with the tap-tapping of leather pieceworkers in the sweatshop immediately opposite my room. I cram the pillow over my head and struggle to recapture the substance of my dream; where was I . . . ? That’s right: arriving at the Stazione di Santa Maria Novella . . .

Next week: Real Meals

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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It’s been 25 years since the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive were released – what’s changed?

Gaming may be a lonelier pusuit now, but there have been positive changes you can console yourselves with too.

Let's not act as if neither of us knows anything about gaming, regardless of how old we are. Surely you'll remember the Super Nintendo console (SNES) and Sega's Mega Drive (or Genesis, if you're an American)? Well, it's now been 25 years since they were released. OK, fine, it's been 25 years since the SNES' debut in Japan, whereas the Mega Drive was released 25 years ago only in Europe, having arrived in Asia and North America a bit earlier, but you get the idea.

Sonic the Hedgehog by Sega

It's amazing to think a quarter of a century has passed since these digital delights were unveiled for purchase, and both corporate heavyweights were ready for battle. Sega jumped into the new era by bundling Sonic, their prized blue mascot and Nintendo retaliated by including a Mario title with their console.

Today's equivalent console battle involves (primarily) Sony and Microsoft, trying to entice customers with similar titles and features unique to either the PlayStation 4 (PS4) or Xbox One. However, Nintendo was trying to focus on younger gamers, or rather family-friendly audiences (and still does) thanks to the endless worlds provided by Super Mario World, while Sega marketed its device to older audiences with popular action titles such as Shinobi and Altered Beast.

Donkey Kong Country by Rare

But there was one thing the Mega Drive had going for it that made it my favourite console ever: speed. The original Sonic the Hedgehog was blazingly fast compared to anything I had ever seen before, and the sunny background music helped calm any nerves and the urge to speed through the game without care. The alternative offered by the SNES included better visuals. Just look at the 3D characters and scenery in Donkey Kong Country. No wonder it ended up becoming the second best-selling game for the console.

Street Fighter II by Capcom

The contest between Sega and Nintendo was rough, but Nintendo ultimately came out ahead thanks to significant titles released later, demonstrated no better than Capcom's classic fighting game Street Fighter II. Here was a game flooding arcade floors across the world, allowing friends to play together against each other.

The frantic sights and sounds of the 16-bit era of gaming completely changed many people's lives, including my own, and the industry as a whole. My siblings and I still fondly remember our parents buying different consoles (thankfully we were saved from owning a Dreamcast or Saturn). Whether it was the built-in version of Sonic on the Master System or the pain-in-the-ass difficult Black Belt, My Hero or Asterix titles, our eyes were glued to the screen more than the way Live & Kicking was able to manage every Saturday morning.

The Sims 4 by Maxis

Today's console games are hyper-realistic, either in serious ways such as the over-the-top fatalities in modern Mortal Kombat games or through comedy in having to monitor character urine levels in The Sims 4. This forgotten generation of 90s gaming provided enough visual cues to help players comprehend what was happening to allow a new world to be created in our minds, like a good graphic novel.

I'm not at all saying gaming has become better or worse, but it is different. While advantages have been gained over the years, such as the time I was asked if I was gay by a child during a Halo 3 battle online, there are very few chances to bond with someone over what's glaring from the same TV screen other than during "Netflix and chill".

Wipeout Pure by Sony

This is where the classics of previous eras win for emotional value over today's blockbuster games. Working with my brother to complete Streets of Rage, Two Crude Dudes or even the first Halo was a draining, adventurous journey, with all the ups and downs of a Hollywood epic. I was just as enthralled watching him navigate away from the baddies, pushing Mario to higher and higher platforms in Super Mario Land on the SNES just before breaking the fast.

It's no surprise YouTube's Let's Play culture is so popular. Solo experiences such as Ico and Wipeout Pure can be mind-bending journeys too, into environments that films could not even remotely compete with.

But here’s the thing: it was a big social occasion playing with friends in the same room. Now, even the latest Halo game assumes you no longer want physical contact with your chums, restricting you to playing the game with them without being in their company.

Halo: Combat Evolved by Bungie

This is odd, given I only ever played the original title, like many other, as part of an effective duo. Somehow these sorts of games have become simultaneously lonely and social. Unless one of you decides to carry out the logistical nightmare of hooking up a second TV and console next to the one already in your living room.

This is why handhelds such as the Gameboy and PSP were so popular, forcing you to move your backside to strengthen your friendship. That was the whole point of the end-of-year "games days" in primary school, after all.

Mario Kart 8 by Nintendo

The industry can learn one or two things by seeing what made certain titles successful. It's why the Wii U – despite its poor sales performance compared with the PS4 – is an excellent party console, allowing you to blame a friend for your pitfalls in the latest Donkey Kong game. Or you can taunt them no end in Mario Kart 8, the console's best-selling game, which is ironic given its crucial local multiplayer feature, making you suspect there would be fewer physical copies in the wild.

In the same way social media makes it seem like you have loads of friends until you try to recall the last time you saw them, gaming has undergone tremendous change through the advent of the internet. But the best games are always the ones you remember playing with someone by your side.