I won a prize in primary school for an essay called My Home Town. The teacher was most impressed by the opening line: "From the beginning, Belfast is different. The boat goes in backwards."
I decided not to mention that I had got the line from a BBC radio travel programme. Perhaps I was always destined to be a journalist. Later, I assuaged my guilt with a line of my own.
"Belfast is different - the only major Irish city with no county to its name." Depending on which side of the Lagan they live, citizens who follow the GAA opt for Antrim or Down - or maybe depending on whether they want to be also-rans in hurling or football. The reversing ferry and the absence of a County Belfast are part of the same story. Unlike other urban centres, my hometown did not grow naturally. It was constructed.
Belfast, Ireland's second port, has no natural harbour. That belongs to Larne. The whole thing was dredged artificially and they built the shipyard on the sludge. Technology allows today's ships to do an amazing 360° turn in the lough. Otherwise they would still have to go in backwards. All this happened so recently that the county arrangements were already long in place.
This week, my first employer, the Belfast Telegraph, marks its 150th birthday. The 150th anniversary of the granting of city status to Belfast is not due until 2038.
In 1870, this astonishing creation was in its prime. The modest market town of 20,000 people in 1800 was by then an industrial and shipping powerhouse with a population 10 times bigger.
By the end of the century that would double again and be greater than Dublin's. The Baird brothers who founded 'The Tele' were making use of the communications revolution brought about by the invention of the telegraph. Not to bring instant news to Belfast, but instant prices from the London stock exchange.
The business of Belfast was business. It can be argued that the rest of the country has never quite come to terms with the sudden eruption of this monstrous carbuncle. That mattered in the past, and it may matter just as much in the future.
Given its size and significance, Belfast can seem strangely invisible. There is that Cork business, where the most republican of cities is loud in its claim to be the second city of Ireland. Dublin has regained the premier spot, but Cork second? Really?
In fairness to Corkonians, they are probably not mistaking the republic for the whole of Ireland, as we all do from time to time. The problem is Belfast. Is it an Irish city? Really? As the centenary of partition approaches, there will again be wonderment at the apparent lack of knowledge, or even interest, among the southern political leaders about the fifth of the island's population living in the greater Belfast area (and producing far more of its GDP).
It's not as if Belfast was, or is, an entirely unionist city. That's the trouble. The flood of rural immigrants, mainly Catholic, to feed the linen mills turned a town noted for its tolerance, even republicanism, into a place of bitter sectarian tension and strife. But even for Belfast nationalists, the rest of the island can seem foreign and far away.
The hills rising all around probably don't help. But it is a curious fact that northern nationalism seems to require dual leaders - one from Belfast and one from Derry: Harry Diamond and Eddie McAteer; Gerry Fitt and John Hume; Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.
Right now, it is hard to say who is in charge of what, but the pattern may well repeat itself. Nationalist or unionist, if you haven't got Belfast, you haven't got anything. This is where things are at present and, once again, Dublin does not really know what to do. It is not just nationalists who find it hard to think of Belfast as any kind of capital city. Even after 50 years in office, unionists never really managed to make it feel like one.
A capital is where government sits and does its business and neither side has been much interested in governing. Unionists feared taking it too seriously might weaken the union and nationalists were convinced running the place effectively would reinforce the Border.
Bizarrely, the one thing which seemed to weaken the resolve of everyone to keep Belfast provincial is Covid-19. One could sense the local surprise when Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast were lumped together in the national UK news as of equal importance because the virus is a devolved matter.
Dealing with the pandemic required policy and decisions from ministers - all very unusual and uncomfortable. Intriguingly, there were signs that Ms Foster and Ms O'Neill were beginning to grasp what government meant, and how it could be important, even rewarding. There was palpable relief among their followers when some hoary sectarian issue arose to take them back to their comfort zones.
The old shibboleths prevented the development of a coherent strategy for what is, as many medical experts pointed out, an island. Instead of joining Dominic Behan in thanking God we're surrounded by water, politicians fretted about whether the virus was nationalist or unionist.
We will have to do better in the post-Brexit world. Whatever anyone says, the Irish constitutional question, supposedly settled in the Good Friday Agreement, has been re-opened. That does not guarantee a happy ending, as so many nationalists so readily assume. Belfast will suffer most if things turn out badly. In economic terms, Cork can now make a good case to be Ireland's second city, as the North's economy dribbles away in poor productivity, qualifications and demographics. But the rest of the island will lose out too, while a return to disaster is far from impossible.
With Northern Ireland a member of the EU in all but name, it is time for Belfast to think of itself as the centre of a unique entity; one with a presence in Ireland, the UK and the EU. The opportunities are immense, as are the dangers.
It will also require Dublin to treat Laganside as seriously as it would Edinburgh and Cardiff - or London for that matter. Belfast will never work as Ireland's second city, but it might as Ireland's other capital.
The Belfast Telegraph celebrates its 150th anniversary today. To celebrate, it will unveil a new layout and publish a 32-page historic supplement. The Belfast Telegraph is available online at www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk