Guest Post by BK
Clifton’s Roundabout marks the junction of the A20 with The South Circular, the point where any traveller to North-East Kent must make the big decision; M2 or M20. It is often referred to by the name of whichever business is occupying its south-east corner, it’s been the Big Yellow Roundabout, Maplins Roundabout and in the 1990s and early 2000s it was known as the Land Of Leather Roundabout.
The roundabout hosts a key scene in Wide Open, Nicola Barker’s prize-winning 1998 novel of life on The Isle Of Sheppey.
The novel opens on the old bridge linking Sheppey to the mainland. Ronny, a chemical sprayer with a contract on the island becomes intrigued by a man who stands at the middle of the bridge waving to the traffic, one day Ronny stops to talk. The other man is also called Ronny and is carrying a box which he claims contains his soul.
A few days later, Ronny is driving home when he sees Ronny standing in the middle of Clifton’s Roundabout waving a gold watch. Ronny pulls into the car park at Land Of Leather. (Barker has this as World Of Leather; at the time there was Land of Leather, Kingdom Of Leather, World Of Leather and possibly other realms of leather that filled the millenium sitting rooms of Britain with Italian, cream leather sofas). The Two Ronnies talk, the watch belonged to Ronny’s father, who was also called Ronny. Ronny persuades Ronny to drive with him back to Sheppey. Ronny then tells Ronny that he is giving him a new name, Jim.
The rest of the novel takes place on Sheppey. Ronney has an out-of-season rental for a chalet on Shellness beach. His neighbour is Luke, a photographer who makes money from join-the-dots pornography (sorry!) and who has rented a chalet to get away from it all. The farm nearby is run by Sara who rears wild boar and her teenage daughter Lily who worships a deformed boar foetus that she calls The Head. They are joined on Sheppey by Ronny’s estranged brother Nathan who works in London Transport Lost Property at Baker Street and by Connie, an optician from Gravesend who is trying to find out why her father left his estate to Ronny rather than to her.
Barker interweaves the bleakness of the land and seascape; the damaged bodies of the protagonists (one Ronny has alopecia, the other only has four toes, Lily looks perpetually dirty, Luke smells of fish) and their damaged lives.
The title, Wide Open, is ironic. The book is all about secrets and concealment. Ronny’s soul and Lily’s idol are in just two of the boxes that the characters keep. Nathan has an erection when he licks sealing tape ‘How beautiful this closed tight thing was. This sealed thing’. Sara masturbates inside a bird-watching hide. Even the join-the-dots pornography is a means of concealing the forbidden image.
Shellness lies at the far South East tip of Sheppey; drive through Leysdown until the road runs out and turns into a very bumpy track. At the end there is a car park, mainly used by bird-watchers, dog walkers and frequenters of the naturist beach.
‘The sea was brown. It wasn’t even the sea, really. It was the channel. This place is truly the back of beyond, Luke thought smugly. It was grey and bleak and very flat. It was like the moon, in fact…The sky was massive. Flat land, flat sea, and a great big, dirty, mud-puddle of a sky’.
Luke and Ronny’s chalets are among a number lining the beach on the other side of the sea wall from the track. They are in various states of occupation and repair.
At the far end of the track is Shellness Hamlet. The Hamlet is a gated community of more substantial brick-build cottages. It is in single private ownership and surrounded by Keep Out signs.
‘Lily pointed at a cluster of houses; small purpose-built chalets. “That’s where you people go….The Hamlet. It’s fenced off, see? That’s where all the temporary people go. Nobody permanent has anything to do with them. We think they’re weird.” ‘“It’s a private community. They think the locals are all freaks. Anti-social. In-bred. So they put the fence up to distinguish themselves. And we tend to think they’re weird because they come here principally on summer weekends to use the nudist beach.”’
Further around from The Hamlet is The Blockhouse, a concrete fortification that is all that remains of a WWII defensive line to prevent U-Boats sneaking up The Stour to attack Chatham Navel Base from the side.