Michael Portillo’s railway journey on BBC 4 was from Kilkenny to Athy, a distance of no more than thirty miles, but thirty miles in which Portillo found things of which we were unaware, despite having lived in Kilkenny for five years. One’s home place looks different when one tries to see it as a visitor might.
There is a moment in Monica Ali’s “Brick Lane” when Chanu, the husband and father of the household, decides to take the family on a visit to London. It seems an eccentric decision, don’t they live in London, anyway? But off they go to see the city, as if strangers visiting it for the first time.
Reading the novel, the idea of visiting your own place did not seem so strange. Working in an Ulster parish that dated from the days of Saint Patrick, an anniversary festival in 1995 included a bus tour of the parish, not for outsiders, but for the parishioners themselves. An archaeologist from Queen’s University was numbered among the people of the parish and was our guide for the tour. An Ulsterbus was hired and, at the most distant point, from where we started we must have been three miles from where we had begun. What had seemed a piece of silliness when it was planned, became an experience people were to remember. Each pile of stones, each fold in the hill, each grassy mound suddenly assumed an identity of their own. Standing at the gate of a field, in which a single wall standing alone was all that remained of a medieval building, he described the archaeological digs that had taken place there and how what was found told the story of the everyday lives of the people who had lived there. A place passed everyday became more than just a stone wall in a meadow.
Moving from Dublin five years ago, having lived on the southern edge for eleven years, there is a sense now of returning to the city as a stranger; neither my accent nor my address hint at a decade in the capital. To return to Dublin as a visitor, as Chanu ventured out on his tour of London, demands no great effort; carry a camera, and the appearance of being a tourist is complete.
Only my son ever thought it odd that I should appear thus, once asking “Dad,why do you have a camera? This is Dublin. You lived here.”
“Because I see things now that I did not see before.”
Through the eyes of Michael Portillo, the countryside around us reveals things we never saw before.