A Free Man on Sunday by Fay Sampson

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We all know see that the title of this book comes from “The Manchester Rambler” by Ewan MacColl, right?   “I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am a free man on Sunday.”  In addition to being a singer-songwriter from Lower Broughton, and the father of the late, great Kirsty MacColl, Ewan MacColl was one of the leaders of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, the 90th anniversary of which will be marked on Sunday, April 24th.  Anyone who’s ever felt trapped in a workplace, especially in a densely-populated urban area, and especially if they’ve ever suffered from mental health problems, will be able to identify with that feeling … and that’s partly why a group of mainly working-class people from Manchester and Sheffield, largely organised by Benny Rothman from Cheetham Hill (let me get the North Manchester bit in there!) campaigned so hard for walkers in England and Wales to be given access to the countryside.  As they put it, it was a “working class struggle for the right to roam versus the rights of the wealthy to have exclusive use of moorlands for grouse shooting”.

Opinions on the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass vary.  Some people think that it was a big turning point as regards public access to the countryside, and was what led to the creation of the Countryside Code and the National Parks.  Some people think that it wasn’t a big deal.  A lot of people admire the Trespassers, but some people from landowning backgrounds point out that trespassing is inappropriate – five of the trespassers were jailed for public order offences – and say that mass trespasses hindered the movement towards greater access.  I’m from North Manchester, OK.  My paternal grandfather was the same age as Benny Rothman and grew up in the same part of town as he did.  Maybe they even knew each other. In fact they may well have gone to the same primary school, maybe been in the same class.  I love North Manchester, but it’s a very built-up, densely populated area, and it’s extremely important for me to be able to get out into the countryside for some “green therapy”.  So I was always going to identify with the Trespassers:  I’m not going to pretend to be unbiased about any of this!

During lockdown, there were a lot of pictures in the papers of crowded public parks in Manchester and other cities, and tut-tutting about the number of people there.  Well, that was because we weren’t allowed out of our local areas and, wonderful as our parks are, there are a lot of us living near them.  For the number of people, we don’t have a lot of green space.  And we need it, especially during tough times – and 1932, in the middle of the Depression, was a very tough time, just as lockdown was.  We need access to the countryside.  Thank you again to all those who helped to win it for us.

And I was hoping to be able to say that I loved this book.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t very good.  But it tried.

It’s a children’s book.  It says that it’s aimed at children aged between 10 and 13.  Our heroine is Edie Ramsden, who lives in a fictional town called “Oldway”.  I tried to work out where it was meant to be, but I couldn’t.  The surnames are all very Lancastrian, and yet there’s a mention of someone having worked at the Yorkshire Evening Post, and there’s also reference to the best-known climbers in Derbyshire and being on the other side of “the county”, so maybe the author was trying to show that this was a joint effort.  Or maybe the author, who comes from Devon, doesn’t actually know that much about Northern England, and I’m totally overthinking things!  TBH, that’s probably accurate.  Everyone works in a cotton mill and goes to chapel.  I was just waiting for the cloth caps and whippets.  Oh, and apparently they can see both Kinder Scout and the Mersey from Oldway, which is, er, interesting.  It really does read like a book written by a Southerner!   But never mind.

Edie’s dad is very involved with rambling, but they are a chapel-going family, and her mum and their friends are rather shocked by the idea both of rambling on a Sunday and of the involvement of the Young Communists in the rambling/trespassing movement.  That’s obviously a perfectly valid viewpoint, but I found it a bit odd.  The whole point of being “A Free Man on Sunday” (and the author does acknowledge that the song hadn’t actually been written at the time of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass) is that you can do what you want on a Sunday.  Sabbatarianism doesn’t really mesh with that, other than not actually doing your job of work.  A lot of the people involved were communists, and or Jewish, and the others presumably weren’t bothered about either attending Sunday morning services or strict Sunday observance in general, or they wouldn’t have been going on long Sunday rambles.  I’m not quite sure why the author chose to bring Methodist sabbatarianism into it.  I’m not criticising it, I just don’t really think it fits with the main plotline, i.e. the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass.

OK, enough moaning.  On the positive side, the book makes a big effort to emphasise how important access to the land is to working-class people.  And it points out that a lot of the ramblers were women: it wasn’t just a male thing.  It also makes the point – and this is something which came up a lot in 2020 and 2021, with so many people “staycationing” – that visitors to the countryside need to respect it.  It doesn’t belong to anyone: it belongs to everyone.  No swinging on gates and possibly breaking them.  And, although the book didn’t mention either of these issues, no dropping litter and no letting horrible dogs attack sheep.  But it also shows that the Trespassers were treated very harshly by gamekeepers.

Edie’s dad goes off to join the Trespass.  Edie decides to follow him.  She has a problem with the wheel of her bike.  Two men stop to help her – and they’re none other than Benny Rothman and his mate Wolfie Winnick.  They all reach the top of Kinder Scout … and Edie’s dad is one of those arrested.  The book ends with him being one of those jailed for public order offences, and Edie dreaming of the day that he’s free again and they’re all free to climb Kinder Scout.

It wasn’t the greatest of books, as I’ve said, but very few books do address this important event in the history of the British countryside, so I’m grateful to Fay Sampson for doing so.   Thank you to her, but, most of all, thank you again to all of those who fought for the right of the public in England and Wales to enjoy the countryside.   It’s a very important right, and may it never be taken away.