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

Harry Styles. Photo: Getty
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How podcasts are reviving the excitement of listening to the pop charts

Unbreak My Chart and Song Exploder are two music programmes that provide nostalgia and innovation in equal measure.

“The world as we know it is over. The apo­calypse is nigh, and he is risen.” Although these words came through my headphones over the Easter weekend, they had very little to do with Jesus Christ. Fraser McAlpine, who with Laura Snapes hosts the new pop music podcast Unbreak My Chart, was talking about a very different kind of messiah: Harry Styles, formerly of the boy band One Direction, who has arrived with his debut solo single just in time to save the British charts from becoming an eternal playlist of Ed Sheeran’s back-catalogue.

Unbreak My Chart is based on a somewhat nostalgic premise. It claims to be “the podcast that tapes the Top Ten and then talks about it at school the next day”. For those of us who used to do just that, this show takes us straight back to Sunday afternoons, squatting on the floor with a cassette player, finger hovering over the Record button as that tell-tale jingle teased the announcement of a new number one.

As pop critics, Snapes and McAlpine have plenty of background information and anecdotes to augment their rundown of the week’s chart. If only all playground debates about music had been so well informed. They also move the show beyond a mere list, debating the merits of including figures for music streamed online as well as physical and digital sales in the chart (this innovation is partly responsible for what they call “the Sheeran singularity” of recent weeks). The hosts also discuss charts from other countries such as Australia and Brazil.

Podcasts are injecting much-needed innovation into music broadcasting. Away from the scheduled airwaves of old-style radio, new formats are emerging. In the US, for instance, Song Exploder, which has just passed its hundredth episode, invites artists to “explode” a single piece of their own music, taking apart the layers of vocal soundtrack, instrumentation and beats to show the creative process behind it all. The calm tones of the show’s host, Hrishikesh Hirway, and its high production values help to make it a very intimate listening experience. For a few minutes, it is possible to believe that the guests – Solange, Norah Jones, U2, Iggy Pop, Carly Rae Jepsen et al – are talking and singing only for you. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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