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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Anti-semitism and the left: something is rotten in the state of Labour

Labour held three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within its ranks during the first part of 2016. A new book by Dave Rich investigates how we got to this point.

The relationship between the left and the Jews has always been a complex one – ostensibly harmonious but with an underlying unease. For decades, the left’s ideological stance against racism and intolerance made it – in Britain, at least – a natural home for Jews. Its largest party, Labour, could rely on a majority share of Britain’s Jewish vote. Yet the 19th-century German socialist August Bebel, who described anti-Semitism as “the socialism of fools”, understood that, like a tumour, it has always existed in the left-wing body politic.

It is this duality that Dave Rich seeks to explore in his impressive and important book. How, he asks, did we get to the situation in which Labour, the party whose founding principles include opposing bigotry, felt the need to hold three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within its ranks during the first part of 2016?

For so long, the dichotomy was simple, consisting of a clash of two notions of the Jew: an oppressed figure deserving of the left’s solidarity and the perennial embodiment of socialism’s great enemy, capitalism. In the words of (the Jewish) Karl Marx:


What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money . . . Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man – and turns them into commodities . . . The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew.


Whether or not Marx meant the words ironically (as many academics contend), he articulated the most prominent leftist critique of Jews of his time. However, as Britain’s former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks has argued, anti-Semitism, like any virus, must mutate to survive. Now the most significant word in the quotation above – which Marx uses figuratively – is not “money”, as he would have seen it, but “Israel”.

As Rich notes, the link between British Jews and Israel is almost inviolable. While support for Israeli policies is mixed (there is much opposition to the settlements), he records that 82 per cent of British Jews say that the country plays a central role in their identity, while 90 per cent see it as the ancestral home of the Jewish people. Set against this is his (correct) observation that: “Sympathy for the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel have become the default position for many on the left – a defining marker of what it means to be progressive.” He argues that once you discover what someone on the left thinks about Israel and Zionism, you can usually guess his or her views on terrorism, Islamist extremism, military intervention and British-American relations.

When Stalin’s show trials and bloodlust finally discredited communism, many on the left, bereft of an ideology, fell into a dull, almost perfunctory anti-Americanism, dressed up as “anti-imperialism”. Intellectually flaccid but emotionally charged, this strand of thought became – to those on the hard left who had for so long been confined to the margins – all-encompassing. The dictum “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”, in effect, was adopted as its slogan. Any Middle Eastern or South American dictatorship that “stands up” to the US ipso facto is an ally, as is any Islamist hate preacher who does so. Israel, viewed as a US-backed colonial outpost, became the physical manifestation of all that was wrong with the world.

With Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader last year, this particular leftist world-view entered the heart of the party. In 2008, Corbyn wrote of the Balfour Declaration – the UK government’s promise to British Jews of a homeland in Palestine – that it had “led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the expulsion of Palestinians . . . Britain’s history of colonial interference . . . leaves it with much to answer for.” The description of Israel as a colonialist enterprise, rather than a movement for sovereignty through national independence, and the culpability of an “imperial” Britain, encapsulate the twin impulses that drive Corbyn’s beliefs about foreign affairs.

The problem, Rich argues, is that it is just a short step from these beliefs to the ideas that Israel should not exist and that its Western supporters, who include most Jews, are racists. Combined with a resurgence of social media-charged conspiracies about Zionist wealth and power, the left has formed an anti-racist politics that is blind to anti-Semitism. Jews are privileged; they are wealthy; they cannot be victims.

Thus, “Zionist” has become not a term to describe a political position but an insult; thus, Jews, unless they denounce Israel (their “original sin”), are excluded from the left that now dominates the Labour Party. When such ideas become normalised, anything is possible. Jackie Walker, the recently suspended vice-chairwoman of the Corbyn-supporting group Momentum, can claim with sincerity that “many Jews” were the “chief financiers” of the slave trade, a modern myth and piece of bigotry popularised by the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan – a notorious anti-Semite – in a 1991 book.

By the middle of this year, as many as 20 Labour Party members had been suspended or expelled for alleged anti-Semitism. At times, Rich appears bewildered. Though he never articulates it, the question “What has happened to my party?” echoes through these pages. Is it a case of just a few bad ­apples, or is the whole barrelful rotten? The answer, Rich concludes convincingly, in this powerful work that should be read by everyone on the left, is sadly the latter. 

The Left’s Jewish Problem by Dave Rich is published by Biteback, 292pp, £12.99

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