The Municipality Rampant
Belfast City Council’s new ‘B’ is an unusually metaphysical statement for a local authority. Just ‘B’. ‘B’ good, as ET said. The design of the venerable ‘B’ veers away from the standards of local authority logos in Northern Ireland, not just in its accidental philosophizing but in its pseudo-smart rejection of any attempt to make a connection between the local authority’s image and the place it represents. And as we know, the price for this is that the ‘B’ in Belfast is the ‘B’ in Blackburn and in Barrow, and so Belfast is no place at all.
This ‘B’ sign of our post-historical, post-geographic times isn’t yet replicated by other local authorities across Northern Ireland, and probably shouldn’t be. Using a logo to create brand identification and loyalty is tricky enough for a private company but when you’re a local authority, with more or less nothing to sell and a captive audience, it’s not even very clear what you want your logo to do, other than to pick out your own bin lorries from any private operator who might come along. Many local authorities exist in twilight spatial zones which are mere administrative units rather than identifiable areas or locales, so there is no reason to brand the locality too heavily. Good examples of this at its extremes are the old Education and Library Boards, which cover relatively arbitrary (if slightly gerrymandered) areas. So the South Eastern Education and Library Board (which covers North Down and Castlereagh) has as its logo a square-shouldered Pacman who is reading a book and swallowing an orange, or maybe a tennis ball, at the same time. This figure haunted my own childhood, though having spent a bit of time in my early years in their library in Dundonald I know there is some truth in all aspects of the logo – the aliens, the physique, and a general sense of the library as a place to eat rather than read.
Outside Belfast local authority logos fall into several categories. The most pretentious are those who use their crest as their logo. Heraldically-speaking these crests show a universally immodest preponderance of animals ‘rampant’. Typical would be Ards Borough council which has a relatively unremarkable crest flanked by lions rampant. Cookstown and Lisburn (it’s a city, you know) also show their crests to the crowd. Larne has rampant swans, which was a new one on me, and much more frightening than the Ards lions. Then again the chances of being attacked by a rampant lion in Ards are relatively small, while there may well be rampant swans in L.arne. If I was a swan in Larne I know I’d be rampant. Castlereagh has stags (yes, they are rampant too) either side of its crest, while the crest itself has a red hand on it – ingenious. Castlereagh also uses a small white castle, designed rather like a rook from a primitive electronic chess game. The castle in chess, you’ll note, can only move in straight lines and is used primarily to defend the king. There used to be a move in chess, an expression of defensive loyalty, so that when your king was under attack you performed a move called a ‘castlereagh’. This was later shortened to the verb to ‘castle’. Hence the castle logo for Castlereagh.
Not all crests are equal. Armagh’s is classy, as befits a genuinely ancient city, while Ards’ is over-elaborate, as befits a kind of Victorian makey-up place. Coleraine Borough Council offer welcome relief to the somber attempts to make a Borough Council look like it descended directly from a medieval township – their rampant dragons are block-coloured and slightly distended, and so there is a hint of abstraction, even modernity in their appearance. When councils dispense with the crest and go for a more ‘modern’ look, a weirdly uniform appearance seems to occur. Even stranger is the recurrence of the same colours across Borough Council logos. I know that the Northern Ireland football team use green and blue (and white) in their kits but when did the green/blue combination come to be semi-official colours in Northern Ireland (maybe all other colour combinations were already taken)? Where abstract designs are used, they are rarely purely abstract – in some way or other they tend to attempt to represent the local area. Magherafelt’s logo is an identifiable landscape of water (blue), hills (green) and trees. The trees are acute blue (not green) triangles, and a finely-tuned rural eye will note that these are resonant of an area recently planted with pine (probably Sitka spruce) trees, a non-indigenous cash crop which is not good for local soil. So there’s a reason to love Magherafelt.
Other councils have logos which are defeated by the need to be relevant to their domains. North Down has a crest and a blue wave (probably Strangford Lough), Banbridge has a wavey bridge. Newtownabbey is symbolised by an orange and blue tulip (why?). Moyle has a faded blue squiggle, a faded green squiggle, and between them a yellow line. This dominance of dual colours is pragmatically, no doubt, about the cost of reproducting the logo. But maybe also it’s a subconscious recognition of a ‘divided’ society, a repeated fascination with binarism signified through colour. Antrim Borough Council’s logo has two blue-and-green stick people who share one very long arm, making their’s an unusual, Siamese-twins approach to the dichotomies of Northern Irish life. This fatefully-conjoined couple dance, or prance, and their arm holds out a disproportionately large leaf. Maybe it’s an olive branch. Or a palm welcoming the Saviour to Antrim, though it looks like a leaf from a monstrous beech tree.
There is little enough invention, then, in local council logos. Derry is able to fall back on the skeleton on its crest as an old reliable. Second prize goes to Newry and Mourne District Council which advertises itself as ‘Gateway to the North’ – which is meant to encourage tourism, though it does suggest that its function is as a disctrict is to be passed through. It might be worth stopping for their logo though. It’s inner circle is Newry and Mourne as rendered through the landscape art of the Mr Men. Adding to the note of utopian surrealism, the sky over this version of Newry and Mourne is dominated by a large, floating bishop’s hat. Good. First prize goes to Strabane. Despite their reliance on blue and green, with brown added, their logo seems to involve actual photographs of real places in Strabane – a bridge, a house and a living person. That’s local.
[The Vacuum, December 2008]