Liverpool's Failed Utopian Commune
Estate kids and Transcendental Meditators still live side by side in Skelmersdale.
Traditionally, if alternative communes are found in the UK at all, they're sited on the grounds of decaying National Trust properties in the sleepy, bucolic Home Counties. So when a bunch of Transcendental Meditators decided to start their own utopian village in a failed urban planning experiment in 1970s Merseyside, one has to wonder what the locals made of it.
Well, I can tell you that the answer to that question is 'not much', because I grew up at a Transcendental Meditation community known as the "The European Sidhaland" in Skelmersdale, West Lancashire. Uprooted from my early childhood home in Spain, I was taken there by my parents to receive an education based in Vedic philosophy from their old hippy friends, the wisdom passed down by the guru and leader of the Transcendental Meditation movement, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
I returned to Skelmersdale recently with VICE photographer Chris Bethell to see how the place had changed. It brought back memories of wandering the area in a navy blue sweatshirt, with the tree of knowledge circled by the words "Maharishi School for the Age of Enlightenment" embroidered on it in gold thread. I grew to learn when I should take said sweatshirt off (before reaching the chip shop) on my way home from school in fear of being set upon.
I often thought about standing my ground, and once I actually did it. After being told I was a "fuckin' meddy" by a couple of kids on my street, I sent a stammering "fuck off" back to them, only to turn the corner and be confronted with 14 angry, bored-looking teenage girls dossing about on the local greenland. I remember flaccidly falling to the ground on the first punch, and that's about it. Younger kids I've spoken to, who still live in Skelmersdale, say that that's never happened to them. They "wouldn't be that lippy".
Saying that, I wouldn't trade my experience for the world. I've benefited a lot from being exposed at an early age to both social intimacy and the unusual. In the midst of drunken attempts at getting laid, I can also feebly attempt to slur something about enlightenment, maybe even misquote a sentence or two from the Bhagavad Gita, a 700-verse Hindu scripture. If inner-peace and cosmic consciousness can't get people in the mood for inebriated sex, then what can?
I lived off-site, so to speak, in an estate about ten minutes walk from the Sidhaland. Friends from school wouldn't come as far as mine, as they were too afraid of running into the local kids. But apart from one or two incidents (no more than your average teenager), life was pretty subdued.
Looking back, it's hard to pinpoint exactly when I first noticed the strange dynamic of the area. I started out in one of the local schools, but soon became a fully-fledged member of the community. We began and ended every day with meditation and yoga asanas; Imagine a bunch of year nine students, all sat in in a portacabin in the grounds of a restored barn, learning how to transcend thought, occasionally disturbed by the sound of a controlled explosion resonating from the nearby quarry, and you'll get the picture.
Transcendental Meditation (TM) itself is a fairly common practice. Popularised by the likes of David Lynch and Russell Brand, the technique has been rebranded since the days when The Beatles absconded to an ashram in Rishikesh to achieve enlightenment. Ringo Starr would later describe it as a "spiritual Butlins", but I've never really been able to describe it to people. It's not all turn on, tune in, drop out, new-age philosophies and buckwheat; its (grass)roots are firmly set in a 1960s interpretation of Eastern ideals. Nowadays, it's stopped being an all-consuming, holistic lifestyle choice, and is more often something people dip into occasionally to make themselves feel better about their lives.
Very few people know about Skelmersdale, and one of the main reasons for that is because it's in the middle of fucking nowhere. The development of the new town began in 1961 in an attempt to solve the housing crisis in Merseyside. Stacks of families and individuals from Kirby in Liverpool were moved to a newly built series of estates on the edge of Lancashire, equipped with an array of factories and a general disregard for things like public transport, entertainment facilities, suitable housing and general living standards.
In socio-economic terms, "Skem" is not doing well. Some blame the obvious ghettoisation, but others are convinced it was the testing ground for an experiment conducted by professor Nathaniel Butler, the lead scientist in the alleged Mind Reader programme.
According to conspiracy theorists, the Mind Reader programme involved Butler placing something called an Aspiration Dipersal Field generator in a disused mineshaft in Skelmersdale. The machine allegedly produces a hum that, to this day, creates a suffocating blanket of "low-level aspiration" which contaminates the surrounding area, leaving residents despondent, disengaged and sapped of all ambition. In Skelmersdale, the field was said to be channelled through the various pieces of public art situated on its many roundabouts.
The area's abundant roundabouts cover up the sprawling underpasses that connect the different estates. These function like airport terminals, non-places in which Transcendental Meditators and local residents pass each other by. Obviously, Meditators are heavily outnumbered in the town, but you still catch glimpses of them, wearing a spectrum of beige accompanied by an indifferent gaze, walking towards the shops or en route to the Dome, a place at the commune where people can congregate and meditate in groups, practice yogic flying, celebrate auspicious days and generally indulge in activities which are being extinguished by many other TM communities wary of their hippy-trippy image costing them the business of timid dilettantes.
One of the members, who is now in charge of PR within TM, tried to identify why Skelmersdale had a bit of a strange reputation in comparison with other TM communities around the world. "In Fairfield in the States for example, there's a lot of stuff that makes it extremely normal, whereas we don't quite have that, we just have a community." Fairfield is a larger TM community in Iowa which houses the Maharishi University of Management. That focuses on sustainable living and green technology. He put it down to America's diverse population and how alternative lifestyles have fallen out of fashion in the UK.
"When I was your age, everybody had heard of TM, they knew what it was. Nowadays, nobody has heard of it. It's a shock to know that that's happened, it's fallen out of awareness."
Transcendental Meditation has had all types of wild accusations thrown at it in the past, and that seems to be one of the reasons the community has retreated into itself in recent years. When I arrived back in Skem to catch up on things, the reception was slightly hostile. They wanted no mention of the area in the media, instead referring me to the recent activities and developments of celebrity meditators. They've been burnt by journalists, who have tarred the practice without ever visiting the area.
I have old school friends who haven't told anyone about their upbringing, opting instead for vague descriptions of where they lived, ciphering off tales of state schools received from their friends in an attempt to pass off as normal. Personally, I've had a few odd reactions after telling people about my upbringing. Once, after it was brought up in conversation at a work party, a colleague turned round to me and said, "Oh, so you're like a Mormon, then?" Turns out, in life there are two camps; Mormons and everyone else.
I asked around for people's old photographs of the Dome, the school, anything that illustrated the bizarre juxtaposition of the area and the practice. But obviously the idea of putting a face to the experience was too much of a leap of faith. No one was willing to give up their old shots of celebrations in the Dome, parents dressing their kids in ethnic accessories and the one time we held the yogic-flying Olympics.
However, some old acquaintances and friends were more than happy to fill me in on recent developments. The daughter of my old Geography teacher, Ruth, told me that not long ago a couple of members of the British Humanist Association protested outside the Maharishi school as they were convinced it was teaching creationism because one of the subjects is called the Science of Creative Intelligence (SCI).
SCI taught a mixture of Vedic philosophy and lifestyle tools, but steered away from faith and religion of any sort – it was merely the use of the word "creative" which riled people up. "They said we were being brainwashed, but once we spoke to them, they were really cool, they told us about their practice and it was really interesting. We were going to take the mick and pretend we were all robots."
With more people coming from an ever-increasing catchment area, the community kids have said it's been "a real eye-opener, mixing with different people. We do need to be more integrated."
Ruth carried on to say that "people do judge you when they meet you" and that she tends "not to talk about the school". Her older sister pitched in, with a story about going away to university, "I recently told my academic advisor that I grew-up practicing TM and he just said, 'Ohhh...peace and love.' I was like, you're a fully grown man, who's in academic circles, and you still believe that!"
Moving on from the school, Chris (the photographer) and I headed towards the neighbouring estates to ask what people thought about the community and Transcendental Meditation. The response was odd; none of the younger ones seemed to have even heard about it. When I lived in the area, the TM community was a contentious topic, now it's unknown. Most confessed they'd stopped venturing into different estates and prefer to stay in the same area, since a recent spate of murders. They were more interested in pissing about with Chris's camera than talking about TM.
A couple of older ones knew of the Dome and had walked past it, but nothing else. I got similar feedback from the meditating kids I spoke to – no one dosses about on the streets any more, preferring to stay indoors. Everyone said the same thing: "There's fuck all to do round here."
When the first waves of Meditators moved into the area, ambitions were high. Speaking to an older Meditator, an Alan Moore-esque figure and self-proclaimed "perpetual parasite" of the area, I found that moving into Skem had brought him many benefits; the main one being a love of Liverpool FC. Football has always been a steady ground between locals and Meditators, as both groups would often flock towards Anfield to watch a match. They used to organise weekly games too, but that died out over the years.
It's shame because neither community even know of each other, let alone hang around together. "I don't have many friends outside of the Dome site," said one kid. "It's just the way it's happened. Kids from Skelmersdale are a bit more ignorant about TM, so you don't really talk about it." A lot of the pupils attending the school now come from the larger surrounding area, while there's now another community in Suffolk, which means the collective has started to haemorrhage southwards and disband, leaving an even greater disconnect. I asked Zac, another kid from the school, if his parents integrated with the locals. "They're even more reclusive than I am," he replied.
Skelmersdale's weird enclave of Transcendental Meditation was a pretty innovative idea for its time. But as its practicioners began to hang up their collective ideals and eradicate any endearing eccentric tropes, so the idea of a holistic lifestyle seems to have waned in the new build town. Instead of striving for better relations in the area, the community has veiled itself and turned inwards, landlocked by the local housing estates and the legacy of a has-been alternative lifestyle.