Saturday, 12 December 2015

Out of the question

Belfast is a cool and beautiful city. It always was, even back in the dark days.

I didn't know it then. The broken town of the 1970s made strangers of many of us. We did go into the city centre as teenagers. We queued at the Donegall Place check points where babies' prams were searched for bombs. We opened our proud new handbags as we entered every shop. It was vital to visit C&A's and Miss Selfridge and to check out the braver, punkier kids chilling in Corn Market.

But there was no freedom in our relationship with the city. Too many lovely Victorian streets were too close to danger. Once it was dark, it was definitely time to go home.

When I was eleven years old, my parents didn't want to take the risk of sending me to the university area school with which our family had been linked for generations. They had both gone there. So had aunts and uncles and grandparents.

But it was too dangerous for a child of my age to take buses across the city alone then. Out of the question. I was sent through safer suburbs to another school.

That necessary choice meant that during my teenage years I never wandered near the university, bought takeaways on the Lisburn Road, sat in the sun in Botanic Gardens. The danger became less urgent, but I never explored large parts of my own city. I had little sense of its history, beyond its recent infuriatingly troubled past. Belfast became, frankly, an embarrassment, somewhere I wanted to escape from as soon as I possibly could.

It was many years before I changed my mind.

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