The topic of the Natural Law party came up in the comments on my post about the Australian Election. For those who don’t know, the Natural Law Party is a political off-shoot of the Transcendental Meditation movement.
Now as an exile from the verdant land formerly known as South Lancashire aka the United Republic of Merseyside, Greater Manchester and some other bits of Lancashire, I cannot talk about Transcendental Meditation without talking about the geographic centre of weirdness in my land of origin: the town of Skelmersdale.
The first thing to note about Skelmersdale is that it has no letter-L in its name. You might think “Yes, it does — it’s right there between the ‘ske’ and the ‘mer'” but you’d be wrong. It’s not there, you literally just imagined it and then imagined it again when you went to check. People in the know pronounce the first syllable as “Skem”.
The town is also geographically confused. Wikipedia says “the town forms part of the Wigan urban area”, except Wigan is in Greater Manchester and Skem isn’t. Observers will note that it is an offshoot of Liverpool, except Liverpool is in Merseyside and Skem isn’t. The next nearest town is the quaint town of Ormskirk (which is manifestly the name of a forgotten island in Earthsea) which has a church with both a tower and steeple to confuse map makers. Despite their proximity, Skem has nothing in common with Ormskirk and they are clearly in totally different parts of England.
Historically it was some sort of Viking settlement nestled below the small hills that separate it from Wigan. Post-war though, things happened to it. Specifically, the idea of a ‘new town‘ — a modernist attempt at creating a pastoral idyll for the inhabitants of the decaying homes of Liverpool. The new towns were at best a mixed success but Skelmersdale was very much on the ‘mixed’ part of that spectrum. People left established communities in Liverpool (with associated support networks) and ended up in public housing at a time when the whole of the North West of England was entering into a prolonged economic decline. People went from having no job and living in poverty in Liverpool to having no job and living in poverty in Skelmersdale. Worse, although not that far from Liverpool, the public transport back to the city was limited — further isolating the people who moved.
The town is full of big roads and wide roundabouts, some of which extend beyond the town’s footprint and into what looks more like classic English country side. The design endeavoured to separate foot traffic from road traffic, so there was a parallel network of footpaths and road bridges and underpasses. At the centre was a shopping centre (i.e. shopping mall) called the concourse. In short the town was unintentionally designed to be a disorientating art installation about the nexus of the mythology of mazes and the alienation of people from the modern world.
Add to this the 2000’s conspiracy theory about mind control experiments and the Aspirational Dispersion Field…No, I’ll save that for another time.
If you Google Skelmersdale (you’ll need to type the ‘L’ that isn’t there for safety reasons), the powers that be will suggest places to visit that are pointedly NOT in Skelmersdale. One of which is Ashurst Beacon, one of two stone beacons for warning fires, with the second on another hill a bit further south. In olden times people approaching Skem from the north, south or west would be in sight of two beacons to warn them away if something was occurring. As I have already mentioned, the eastern approaches were guarded by a church which needed both a tower AND a steeple. And while the road network of any town might be described as a protective maze, it is notable that Skem’s separate car and pedestrian networks means it has TWO such mazes superimposed on it, with the foreboding Concourse at it’s centre. I was told as a child, with greater sincerity but zero etymological accuracy, that Skelmersdale was an old Viking term for “The Devils Valley”*.
Now, obviously, I’m a rational man and I’m NOT saying that buried underneath the centre of Skelmersdale is an ancient evil, that the post-war atomic age British government built thaumaturgically designed town plan over the top of in a plot borrowed from an as yet unwritten Charles Stross novel. However, I am saying that if such a thing HAD happened it would look a lot like Skelmersdale.
“Yes, but what about the transcendental meditation?” Right, yes. I’ll get to that. Skelmersdale has a Golden Domed temple which beams out positive energy to the rest of the world because of course it does.
So, it is the early 1980s. Thatcher is in power. Liverpool is wracked by riots. Boys From the Blackstuff is on telly, a bitter mining strike is looming. Things feel pretty damn apocalyptic in the North West of England. Skem was never great economically but things are terrible now. Also, lots of people have left — after all it is better to live in poverty in Liverpool (which at its worst is still Liverpool) than in a place that looks like a nicely designed zoo exhibit for humans that mystifies the aliens running the zoo because all the captive humans look so sad and listless.
Enter a piece of Thatcherite legislation: the right to buy. This was a pernicious scheme whereby people in public housing could buy the property they rented. While it was a boon for some, the net impact was to reduce access to affordable housing and push more Britons into housing debt (which would really hurt decades later when the GFC hit). However, I’m not one to never acknowledge the positive aspects of bad policy.
For Skelmersdale the legislation meant the local council could sell under used housing. The housing stock itself was not terrible and the economy was shifting in the 1980s. More kinds of post-industrial jobs were coming into being (mainly in London and the South East of England at first but in the cities as well). Skelmersdale, despite either mind reading experiments or a buried ancient evil, is within commuting distance by car of the CBDs of both Liverpool and Manchester. At one point you could buy a house in Skem for a few hundred pounds (or even less).
Enter the Transcendental Meditationists. Looking for a new home for their movement they picked out Skelmersdale. Cheap housing, great road connections and, if you could escape the labyrinthine psychic wards, bucolic countryside nearby.
So the TM movement set up shop and built a temple https://www.goldendome.org.uk/ Of course, they immediately turned their spiritual powers to lifting the economy of the local area. And behold! The local economy was lifted! Now a sceptic might say “obviously the local economy got better, there was a sudden injection of middle-class disposable income into the area from people with good jobs, low housing costs and strange choices in religious practice!” To which the practitioners of TM would shake their wise heads and speculate on how much they could do for the nation if only the government of the land followed their same beliefs in “natural law”.
By 1996 they are claiming that “The Maharishi Effect: research shows a 13.4% drop in crime in Merseyside when the Maharishi Golden Dome opened” Which is doubly interesting when you remember that Skelmersdale ISN’T IN MERSEYSIDE but people think it is.
“You are making all this up.” No, I’m not it’s all true…sort of. Look, here’s a piece from Vice Media https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/mvwya3/liverpools-decaying-yogi-commune and here’s a piece from The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/may/22/prospect-of-skelmersdale-magnetic-north-housing-new-towns
And here is an article from the Liverpool Echo, which is worth reading just for the correction at the start of the article:
“In an earlier version of this article, we stated that a children’s sandpit, linked to an increase in enteritis cases, had been designed by town planning artist Ian Henderson. This was incorrect.
Dr Henderson was the first artist to be appointed to a UK new town development corporation. He was Skelmersdale’s New Town Development Corporation Artist between 1964/66, and a member of the design teams building the new town. He had nothing to do with designing the sandpit. We apologise to him for the error and any embarrassment caused.“
Yes, the sandpit is another story but as it does not connect to the role of transcendental meditation I’ll skip over the notorious sandpit except to note that Doctor Henderson was NOT responsible.
The meat robot started its wandering some decades ago, and while I’ve returned once or twice to the hills that overlook the town, I haven’t set foot in Skelmersdale since the 1980s. I’ve seen faint echoes of it in Canberra — the curves in the streets, the low-rise but high density housing, the sense of something evil lurking in the centre of the town but in Canberra that’s mainly just Tony Abbott.
If you are in the area then you should probably not visit without sufficient wards, just in case. Maybe just observe from a safe distance from Ashurst Beacon. If you do, avoid the sandpits.
*[That is true in the sense that I really was told that but it was by somebody who did not have a sound grasp of reality and it doesn’t stand up to any basic research.]