I went into a pub on Sunday. That was the first time in a pub since Monday March 16th. 126 days. In that time I’ve had four pints at home. On Sunday I drank three beautiful pints of Harvey’s in a couple of hours. I felt the effect until about midday the day after. I’m seriously considering how much I want to carry on drinking as much as I used to. Apart from anything, my weight ballooned up. Having gone from over 14 stone on March 19th to 12 stone 4 pounds on July 1st, I’m now around 12 stone 9 pounds. On the other hand, it was great to see Dave. I’ve had a number of phone conversations, text messages and Zoom calls with him but it was actually very strange to see someone in three dimensions and actually talk to them. Since lockdown started on March 23rd, I’ve actually seen Roo (obviously!), Peter, Pete, Steph, Roo’s sister and now Dave. That’s all.
So, after the excitement of actually seeing someone and drinking Harvey’s, yesterday I was back to a phone conversation with my sister and a WhatsApp video call with Peter while he was driving North to see his son. It was a very pleasant call with Peter, but it is not the same – there’s the time delay, muffled sound and frozen screens. I asked Peter what music he was listening to in the car. He had listened to a Van Morrison compilation I had given him a few years ago and we had a good conversation about the lyrics to “Into The Mystic”. He said that he had also been listening to “Prospects Of Skelmersdale” and he started to tell me about it. I replied that I also had the album. We had never mentioned to each other that we both owned this album. Since yesterday, I’ve played it non-stop and read up a lot about it. It’s a hugely interesting and enjoyable album.
In 1976, I got my first teaching job in Harlow, Essex. Harlow is a “new town”; in fact at one point it was called Harlow New Town. The “new town” project was given much emphasis after World War II when there was a huge need to house people from London after the destruction caused in the Blitz. There were many new towns built, including Crawley, where my great friend Andy lives. Every time I go to Crawley, I feel like I’m back in Harlow. I lived in Harlow for sixteen years. I never felt it was a place that anyone would choose to visit but it was a brilliant place to live. The amenities were excellent – cinemas, a theatre, a park, a brilliant sports centre, cricket and rugby clubs, pubs and a lot of green space. The only real drawback was that most pubs served Greene King or McMullens.
The Magnetic North are a British group consisting of Simon Tong, Hannah Peel and Gawain Erland Cooper. Simon Tong was in The Verve for three years and was a key member of the band when they recorded “Bittersweet Symphony” and “The Drugs Don’t Work” from 1997’s “Urban Hymns”. He was born in Skelmersdale. Erland Cooper has released two solo albums and, with Simon Tong, is a member of Erland And The Carnival who have released three progressive folk albums. He was born in Orkney. Hannah Peel has released five solo albums. She was born in Northern Ireland and grew up in Barnsley. Peter and I saw her perform when she was the opening act for The Unthanks a few years ago in St. George’s Church, Kemptown.
In 2012, The Magnetic North released an album called “Orkney: Symphony of the Magnetic North”. The fully formed concept for the album came to Erland Cooper in a dream in which he was visited by the ghost of Betty Corigall who had committed suicide in Orkney in 1797. Erland Cooper said “When I told Simon about the dream, I expected him to say, “Fuck off, you’re mad” but he was up for talking more. The landscape of Orkney would dictate how the record sounded; it meant that couldn’t help being grand.”
Skelmersdale isn’t quite as romantic as Orkney. It lies between Liverpool and Wigan and was designated a new town in 1961. The photos that accompany the album remind me very much of living in Harlow. In many respects, it’s difficult to distinguish Harlow from Skelmersdale. One of the following photos is of Harlow and the rest are from the booklet for “Prospects Of Skelmersdale”.
After making an album about Orkney, The Magnetic North decided to make their next album about Skelmersdale. (Maybe their next album will be about Craigavon, Hannah Peel’s birthplace?). There are so many interesting things to write about this album. I have used three fascinating articles for the next bit and they are all worth reading. They are linked at the end.
One of the sad things about Skelmersdale is that businesses were given large subsidies to move there but once they had pocketed the money, they closed down. House prices fell and unemployment rose until, in the early Eighties, the Beatles’ guru stepped in. True. Unlikely but true. The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi set up the UK base for Transcendental meditation in Skelmersdale along with an award-winning school, a gym, a business centre and new houses. This was the reason that Simon Tong’s family moved there. “We moved there in 1984 from Bolton. My dad wanted to be a part of the TM movement in the town. He wasn’t ever a hippie; he’d been more of a beatnik in the ’60s. Growing up in Skem as a teenager, I hated the whole TM thing. When I got to 16 and started practising it for a few years, it worked. I became a lot less miserable and angry.”
The opening song is called “Jai Guru Dev” which Beatles fans will recognise as a lyric from “Across The Universe” written by John Lennon and finally surfacing on “Let It Be”. This is a sanskrit phrase which literally means “Glory to the shining remover of darkness”. John Lennon used it in the song as an example of a TM mantra.
The music is not what one would expect from reading the above. Whilst we might expect doom-laden, depressing urban synth-heavy sounds, the opposite is true. The Magnetic North are a tuneful group, categorised as “post-rock” on Wikipedia. Hannah Peel has a lovely voice which is showcased on a beautiful song called “Little Jerusalem”. The song evokes adolescent boredom and hopelessness while musically referencing The Cocteau twins. I think it’s not possible to appreciate the music without looking at black and white photos of new towns in the Sixties. Evocative of another time and place. Beautiful in its own way.
“Cergy-Pontoise” is a song titled after Skelmersdale’s twin town, just outside Paris. The lyrics consist of just six words “Get down – I won’t get down”. In Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s excellent Guardian article (see below), he explains, as a former resident of the town, why this is significant. “It’s a call and response that I’d forgotten completely but was a constant refrain when you were growing up in a work-in-progress. There was always something to climb on. It was always possibly dangerous.”
The video for “Signs” is fantastic, using footage from a much longer documentary about Skelmersdale. It begins with a reference to “Utopia” by Thomas More. It shows the documentary maker driving into the town, sporting a brilliant balding late Sixties haircut and beard. “The first pleasant surprise for a visitor to the new town of Skelmersdale is that he arrives earlier than he expected. That doesn’t surprise the people who built Skelmersdale though. They planned it that way.”
New Towns: a great concept, often unfairly maligned. “The main reason for the new town project was to decongest larger industrialized cities, rehousing people in freshly built, new and fully planned towns that were completely self-sufficient and provided for the community.” (Wikipedia).
“Prospects of Skelmersdale”: A great album. “It creates a sound – temporally disjointed, difficult to pin down – that appeals to the part of our subconscious mind that ‘remembers’ possible but unrealised futures, and does so in a way that is both hopeful and melancholy. It is a rare album that manages to be socially aware without being preachy, sonically vibrant without being derivative, but this one ticks all the right boxes. A superbly refreshing listen.” (Folk Radio)