I love Belfast. I can’t articulate exactly what it is I like about the place, though most of it is down to familiarity. It’s where people can pronounce my name and laugh at my jokes. Yet the Belfast I live in now is different from the Belfast I grew up in. My experience of the city has had various phases, from childhood on a new housing estate, when I played on building sites and in the neighbouring fields, to middle-class comfort on the other side of town. In between, I have seen violence and peace-making, the conversion of the seedy docklands into a salubrious tourist attraction and the clearing from the sky of much coal smoke.
When people marvel at change in Belfast, they think of how there are no longer army foot patrols, bomb blasts in the night or checkpoints on the roads. Change for those of us living here is also measured in the appearance of cycle lanes, the proliferation of fine dining and the emergence of more artful murals than the traditional gable-wall propaganda. The cover of Feargal Cochrane’s Belfast perfectly captures the city I knew as a child. It shows a little girl swinging on a rope from a lamp-post. I did that a thousand times when I was young; when I grew older, I tied up the rope for the smaller children behind me. Children here don’t do that any more; you have to be nearly my age to recall that thrill.
While there is a Belfast that has gone, however, in some ways the place feels the same. The hills still shelter us almost like a comforting arm; the planes flying into Belfast City Airport, now named after George Best, follow the old flightpath, right over my house, and