Urban planning is a tricky business. The development of places for people to live is much more complicated than arranging roads to channel traffic and locating schools near residential areas. There are no options in Sim City for dealing with the interactions between hippies and the working poor, for example. On a computer, you can raze a neighbourhood and start again, but in meatspace the reality is that decay starts before the paint is dry and never really ends.
The unplugged version is also full of memories – some happy, some banal, some tragic – that present a psychological challenge to the cartographer’s reductionist sense of space. Maps don’t mark out where young kids gathered to race bicycles or discuss David Bowie; where first glances were exchanged or bullies waited for their prey. These experiences are sometimes highly personal, but the memories of them are closely connected to the spaces arranged by planners. The collective memory of them has a lot to do with identity.
Britain’s new towns – the cities built in the period of renewal that followed the Second World War – were designed with a certain optimism. Basildon, East Kilbride and Milton Keynes were conceived as open, rational spaces, in which the inhabitants could develop in greater harmony with their surroundings. That promise brought to one of these towns, Skelmersdale, an influx of followers of the Transcendental Meditation movement.
The arrival of a large group of TM practitioners in a town with no history was an event outside the urban planners’ contemplation. It shaped, not only its identity, but also the psychogeography of its inhabitants.
The Magnetic North’s first album was inspired by Orkney, where Erland Cooper had been raised. Legend has it that Cooper was visited by the spirit of Betty Corrigal, an 18th century Orcadian, and awoke from a dream with a list of track titles derived from places on the island. Band-mates Hannah Peel and Simon Tong joined in, creating music that grew from Orkney’s rocks and the small community that clings to them.
The second album from The Magnetic North shifts location to Skelmersdale, or Skem, where Tong grew up. Tong’s parents had been TM practitioners, and parts of The Prospect of Skelmersdale directly reference the influence of rhe Maharishi. “Jai Guru Dev,” named for a uniquely Skem greeting, features found sound from the dedication of the Golden Dome meeting place created by the town’s TM community in the 1980s. Other songs touch upon TM themes less self-consciously, interweaving them with expressions of optimism and departure.
The desire to leave a place is one of the strongest feelings one can have about it. The planners of Skelmersdale didn’t provide an easy exit, which helped to shape Tong’s relationship with the town. It’s been a while since he moved, but on this evidence he hasn’t entirely left it behind.
If a third album, describing Peel’s version of Barnsley, is on its way, we’re keen to hear it.
The Magnetic North play in London on 14 April 2016 and in Salford on 1 May 2016.