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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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