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Mapping memories in our ever-changing city

I have never had a sense of inhabiting the whole city of Belfast. There has always been suspect terrain beyond the familiar for me and that is how it was for everyone I knew.

Partly this was because of sectarian division. When I lived in Riverdale, even as a child before the Troubles, I was wary of going beyond the railway line at Finaghy, not because I thought all Protestants were hostile, but because I knew some were.

But as a teenager extending my range through the housing estates of Andersonstown, I encountered as many dangers from Catholic boys.

People would pick on me as an easy target because I was small, perhaps, or because they thought I was a bit of a geek.

I'm really not sure why they did it, but I knew streets not to walk through alone. The pity was that some of them were on the route home from school.

For a time, I worked for a milkman called John Milligan. He had an extraordinary route to follow, around the Whiterock and Springfield in the mornings and 'over the bridge' in the afternoon to a cluster of streets on the Newtownards Road. We often delivered milk there after dark.

The trips to Kennedy's Dairy acquainted me with Tate's Avenue, where I felt rashly safe one day and came closer to being killed than at any other time during the Troubles, but the loyalists who had detained me scattered when the Army turned up.

The city was expanded for me in several directions by education and girlfriends. I would go down the Falls for ceilis in the Ard Scoil in Divis Street and later to dances at the Astor.

One girl brought me home to Rathcoole and I would visit her there on Sunday afternoons in the spring and walk the parklands and beaches, usually looking for nooks to snuggle in away from peeping toms. Another lived out the Cregagh Road and worked at the City Hospital.

On the week internment was introduced, when all the street lighting was out, I walked home down the Woodstock Road, across town and up the Falls, suspecting that I went untouched because people out at that hour were as nervous of me as I was of them.

Later I went to the College of Commerce up the Antrim Road at Hopefield Avenue and discovered a route home through Alliance Avenue and the West Circular Road.

So the map of Belfast that I could have drawn from personal knowledge was expanding and still is.

It occurs to me that it was specifically my own. Probably no one else would have drawn one exactly like it.

And that makes me wonder if there really is a city that we all share, or if we all have our own conceptions of what Belfast means and if those conceptions aren't really more about our lived experiences, about time, than about geography.

At the start of the Troubles, I worked on The Sunday News in Donegall Street. This was Belfast's version of Fleet Street, a centre of newspaper culture, which is about a lot more than producing printed pages. This was a garrulous drinking culture, proudly cynical and protective of its professional self-esteem.

It was centred for me on The Duke of York pub and Kelly's Cellars. One day, the barman of the Duke of York said: "The fog inspector has been in looking for you." At first I wondered if this was one of the recondite jokes for demonstrating to a young man how little he understands about his job, but no.

The 'fog inspector' was a black journalist called Marc Crawford who was reporting on Northern Ireland for Ebony magazine. This was at least gentler than some of the other language about other cultures that were common.

As children we had, for instance, joked about Jews. I was never conscious of having met anyone Jewish until college, yet we had a stock of jokes that recycled the familiar prejudices. God knows why these stories even interested us.

On a black taxi I saw women sneer at black soldiers: "We paid out black baby money to get them out of the trees and this is the thanks we get."

In the decades that followed, when Belfast people retreated to the spaces they felt safe in, there was little challenge to such humour. Fear defined the city parameters for everyone.

Suburbs evolved to provide all the things you might travel to a city for and the centre shut down at six. The signs of recovery in the late 1980s were two busy Italian restaurants on an otherwise bleak Great Victoria Street.

Peace was clearly a priority when couples would queue in the rain outside Speranza for a pizza. But if everything else was suddenly changing, that nasty disdain for foreigners would come to disgrace us in a world that no longer wanted to hear it.

Belfast came to be described in the media as a 'race-hate capital'. And with thousands of people settling here from abroad, that easy racism would resound discordantly in streets on which foreign languages were now heard everyday.

My own personal Belfast certainly feels more congenial and safe now that it ever has since I was a small child.

Yours does too, I hope.