I'm in Belfast. I was last here in the mid-1980s, somewhen. It seems a different life, and certainly a different city. To take around 40 years to revisit an important part of my own country seems, at best, thoughtless. And I have never ventured into its glorious hinterland although I've been to Ireland, the republic, half a dozen times. Not everyone here would say that this place is "my own country", of course, and I do understand why.
Until I read a review of Fergal Cochrane's Belfast: The Story of a City and its People, I had no idea that Philip Larkin lived here for a few years in the 50s. He memorably wrote about it in The Importance of Elsewhere.
Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,
Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech,
Insisting so on difference, made me welcome:
Once that was recognised, we were in touch.
Their draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint
Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable,
The herring-hawker's cry, dwindling, went
To prove me separate, not unworkable.
Living in England has no such excuse:
These are my customs and establishments
It would be much more serious to refuse.
Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.
"draughty streets, end-on to hills" strikes an immediate chord as you walk around, although "dockland" in Larkin's sense seems long gone as must have the sound of the selling of the silver darlings. But the lines brought back smell and taste memories of my grandmother frying fresh herring in oatmeal for tea.
We're working here with people native to this place and I'm looking forward to listening to, and talking with, them about it as the lives of people here receive so little consideration in the rest of the UK, and when they do it is usually through the lens of political division whether within Stormont or clouded by Brexit.
When asked about environmental education in Northern Ireland, apart from the splendid work of Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful, I usually profess a degree of ignorance that ought to put me to shame considering it's a part of my country. Maybe aspects of "elsewhere" will be come less of a mystery after these few days.