How can you see your own country with the eyes of an outsider? How can you follow your curiosity and discover new things about a place you already know?
In this interview, Roz Morris talks about finding fragments and tiny miracles while exploring England and how we can experience our own land from a new perspective, increasingly important while we can’t travel in the way we used to.
Roz Morris is the author of Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction, literary novels, My Memories of a Future Life, and Lifeform Three, as well as books for writers.
- The joys of discovery when traveling without direction
- Seeing your own country with new eyes and following your curiosity
- Finding unusual and interesting places to stay
- Visiting sites out of season
- How writing fiction can be inspired by travel
- On using a specific notebook for travel and why that matters
- Personal connections to a place
You can find Roz Morris at RozMorris.org
Transcript of the interview
Jo: Roz Morris is the author of Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction, literary novels, My Memories of a Future Life, and Lifeform Three, as well as books for writers. Welcome, Roz.
Roz. Hi, Joanna. It’s great to be here.
Jo: I’m pleased to have you on the show. I want to start with the title of the book because I always know my direction.
Why is it so compelling for you to be without a sense of direction?
Roz: Several reasons. I’m also very focused most of the time in what I do. I go running. I ride horses. I write books. I have a lot of deadlines in my life. I’m always really focused. I’ve always got a task in mind and somewhere that I’m heading.
But when I go out wandering, the kind of travels that were in this book, they were more with my mind off the hook. They were about just noticing what was around me. It’s a different state of mind. It’s like browsing.
Another thing I love is junk shops, so just looking around them and finding little pieces of history just in what’s in front of me instead of having to have a goal and going somewhere. But there’s also another aspect to that part of the title, Travels Without A Sense of Direction, which is that I have no sense of direction at all.
My husband, Dave, who figures strongly in the book, he’s my counterpart traveler in it. He will say things like, ‘Look, just turn south.’ I say, ‘I turn what?’ And I can’t even split the world into left and right. It’s all a different experience. I just notice odd little things when I’m in that mind zone. That was one of the things I wanted to capture, just the joy of discovery, noticing where you are, noticing what’s around you.
Jo: Even before you leave, how do you decide where to go? Do you and Dave agree you’re going to go to a particular place or is it really that you head off in the car just somewhere?
Roz: Yes. We do know where we’re going when we start off. Most of the tales in this book are when we have decided to go somewhere. So we decided to go and stay in a little folly in Somerset or something like that for a week. Then once we get there, we’re thinking, ‘Okay, let’s just see what’s around us’.
Some travel books are written about someone who sets out to do something like walk the Pennine Way or walk across Australia or something like that. We don’t tend to do that. We just go somewhere and then see what it’s going to bring us if we just open our eyes.
Jo: That’s what I like about the book. I think it’s a much more gentle travel book than a lot of the things we talk about, certainly on this show. We’ve had people who’ve cycled around the world for like four years and stuff. And it’s like, ‘Hmm, really? I’m not sure I want to do that.’ But your trips tend to be …is gentle the right word?
Roz: I think it is. That’s a really good word for it. And, I think, it’s because it’s my writing sensibility. All writers are noticers, and that’s part of the pleasure, to notice something and think, ‘That speaks to me in some way. I’d like to look at it a bit longer or find out more about it.’
Who is it who wrote a poem about stopping and starting? It’s like that. It’s a different way of life. And the other part of the title actually is Not Quite Lost.
This book is also about things passing away from our notice and getting hidden and then being rediscovered.
Jo: I see what you mean. So, when you think you’ve lost something, but then it doesn’t turn out to be lost, and you can find it again. In what sense do you mean that?
Roz: A lot of the things that really sparked my imagination were things like a line of bricks in a field. I think, ‘That was a house once or a wall.’ So, this place looked different. What was it like? How did people use it?
Under our feet is a great sediment of life, and sometimes this emerges, and we can see clues to it. But I’m absolutely fascinated about these details that something can show you what was there before. I love looking at houses and seeing what’s been altered about them because that’s a different way it was used. That really is powerful for me.
Jo: Now, you mentioned a folly in Somerset as an example. Of course, I’m in Somerset. I think you stayed in a folly near me in Bath.
Roz: I did. Yes. Do you know Beckford’s Tower?
Jo: Yes, I do. I walk past there quite a bit.
Roz: It’s there. It’s very tall. It has a tower, and there are 150 steps, and at the top is a little lounge-like I suppose a flight control tower. And you have this immense view over Bath. It’s amazing. But the building that it’s attached to was once, I think, a crematorium chapel so there’s all sorts of history waiting in its walls. It’s fascinating.
Jo: And you do talk about all these very interesting places you’ve stayed in the book.
How do you find them and what are some of the more unusual places you’ve stayed in?
Roz: Most of the ones we’ve stayed in belong to a charity called The Landmark Trust, which is a bit like the National Trust. It looks after interesting old buildings. The Landmark Trust hires them out as holiday places.
Basically, they have this beautiful catalog, which is probably all online now. But it’s got these pictures of really seductive looking towers and places deep in woods. And it’s an absolute joy, just the book, let alone staying in these places. And we stayed in towers.
But another one that we stayed in was a Martello tower, which was a Napoleonic gun emplacement on the edge of the Suffolk Coast. And that was actually the last surviving building of a village that had fallen into the sea. You stand in this bleak place, although it’s quite comfortable inside, but it’s a bleak-looking wind-swept place.
You’ve got waves that occasionally come so high, they break over the roof. And you really feel like you’re in a completely different place. It’s just wonderfully wild. You can sit in the window and watch ships going across the horizon. It’s like trying to look for the minute hand of a watch moving. They’re just sort of inch across, and they are gradually moving. But you’ve got an immense amount of space around you. I just find that so romantic.
Jo: It sounds glorious. I went on that website after. You put it in the book, and you talk about the different places. And it’s funny because I find myself always choosing or not always but preferentially choosing to leave England and even to get on a plane and go somewhere else when we have a break. And yet the places you’re writing about could well be another country half the time.
Do you feel like you’re choosing foreign places within our country?
Roz: Definitely. That’s such a good way of putting it. Yes. The way of life there is very different, especially if you’re on the coast whereas you spend most of your time, like I do, living in a city. Then the sights and smells around you are totally different.
Night feels totally different. It’s actually dark, for instance. If you live in the city, it’s never dark. It’s kind of amber-colored, and you can always see where you’re going. But true night in the countryside, you can’t see a thing.
Jo: Absolutely. And then a quote from the book, which made me laugh, you said, ‘November in Penzance everything is closed.’ And I have also been to Cornwall in November, and it’s so funny because, of course, I was living near you in London when we went. And I just assumed that everything would be open, but it really was everything was closed, even Tintagel, which is basically a rock. But there are some appealing things about visiting places out of season.
What do you think about visiting places out of season?
Roz: Oh, I love them out of season. I would love to visit all these places with no crowds, and, of course, if they’re out of season, the crowds are taken care of for you. There just aren’t any. But there’s also an added appeal that the weather is often a bit difficult.
You might find yourself tramping around in the pouring rain, looking at places. And somehow that makes it all real. It’s like you’ve seen it kick its shoes off. I somehow feel a more genuine connection with the place if I’ve experienced it like that.
And the people also, they’ve forgotten the ways that they deal with tourists if they’ve been without them for a few months. They look genuinely surprised to see you. They’re often a lot more chatty, or they’re kind of pleased to show you around.
There’s one place I went to that was an aeronautical museum, and there were volunteers in there who were just there for the love of it. They were polishing all these beautiful airplanes and helicopters. And you could just see the love of what they were doing because they were mostly all the people there. There was this community atmosphere.
That’s another thing about travel. It’s not just about the places you see and that you’re allowed to poke around. It’s the people you meet, the inhabitants of the place. And I find that going to places out of season, you get a more real connection with both the place and the people.
Jo: It’s interesting you say that because I’m clearly more introverted than you are in that I just never speak to people in general. I much prefer staying away from people. All my winter travel pictures are architecture and nature, and there are never any people in my photos.
How do the interviews and the people that you talk to play into the book?
Roz: There are again random encounters that turned out to be surprisingly interesting or haunting. There was a guy who took us around all the various landmarks around the Glastonbury area and Cadbury, the Arthurian places. He took us on this tour of all the villages, various standing stones, Glastonbury Tor.
He also told a story about how he had met his Vivian, who is the equivalent of one of the mythical characters from the Arthurian legends. He said he often had people saying to him, ‘I think you’re Merlin.’ Then he had to say, ‘Oh, no, please don’t call me that.’
But there’s also a strange false modesty in that. He’s actually delighted to be called Merlin. You could tell. So he had a sort of act that he did, and I found that very interesting because, I think, I wasn’t a very receptive person for the act because I’d say, ‘Oh, come off it.’ And so most of his act wasn’t working.
He was also claiming to have clairvoyant powers, and there’s no way that’s ever going to work with me because I’ll just pick holes in it. But there was one thing that he started to say. He said, ‘Actually, I’m really glad to be showing you around today because something very special and unusual has happened to me. I have met my Vivian.’
So I said, ‘Oh, really. Tell me more about her’ because this suddenly seemed real. It was obviously a romance that was going on in his real life. He sort of teased that out, too. I think he was using that as a spiel in some way. It seemed real in some ways and not real in other ways because he’s quite evasive about it. So, it might have been an act, but it might not have been.
But what I found quite interesting was I was thinking, ‘I really wanted that to be true’ because I’m a huge romantic, and I was thinking, I want this back story to be true that he’s set out and then he’s got to go home, and there’s this little new light in his life, that kind of thing. That’s part of the surprise of just chatting to people and getting to know what they’re up to.
Jo: And, yes. We’re all missing people. As we record this, you and I in England are in the second round of lockdown. Who knows how many more there might be. But it’s interesting because another quote from the book, you say, ‘They were only fragments too trivial to be documented in the books but discovering them seemed a tiny miracle.’
This idea of curiosity like you were saying with that Merlin man and the tiny things are more important when we cannot even travel very fast.
How do you pay attention to those little things, the fragments, the tiny miracles?
Roz: I think you’ve got to find what really sparks your imagination. For me, it’s fragments of old buildings, signs that things were not as they are now. So, for the kind of people who that tour guide was showing around, the great fascination for them was trees that had fold into strange shapes that were sacred in some way.
He put a lot of emphasis on hills that were in the shape of a goddess and things like that. This is all the same thing. It’s finding your magic in the environment, finding your personal magic. And for some people, it’s the shape of the hill.
For some people, it’s a beautiful wood, and I love beautiful woods as well. I don’t just sniff around old buildings looking for fallen fireplaces and things! But there is something that is fascinating to you and really gets your imagination going. It makes you feel connected and in a place where you can stop and stare, really.
Jo: I always think it’s changing your perspective to that of an outsider in that we or both of us have an audience in America as well as our own country. I often look at things here in Bath, and I’ll put a picture on Instagram because I know that even though I’ve seen these things before, lots of other people haven’t.
It amuses me, every single year I put pictures of conkers on Instagram. And, of course, we have conkers, horse chestnuts, and lots of people call them different things around the world. So, understanding the world as an outsider, I guess.
Roz: Yes. And nature is another thing that’s constantly changing and evolving. Anyway, you mentioned horse chestnuts. Because I ride horses, I notice how the colors of green change all the time throughout the year. You can tell what time of year a photo is taken just by the color of green that everything is.
That kind of thing gives me joy, too. It’s going to be different around the world because the seasons look different, and, I think, Boston probably has the most spectacular autumns of anywhere in the world. And we’re not going to get autumns quite like that.
Jo: Yes. Obviously, you write novels as well.
How do your travels inspire your fiction?
Roz: The environments do a lot, and I hadn’t realized how much actually until I wrote Not Quite Lost because I went back through a diary that I’d kept. I found the seeds of my novels in that diary from travels I’d done 20 years before I actually wrote the novels, and I hadn’t realized how far those experiences and the impressions they’d given me.
I hadn’t realized how far they’d stayed with me. So that was quite a revelation. I found that my novel Lifeform Three, which is set in an unspecified time in the future when all the countryside is gone, except there is one country state that’s been preserved because it belonged to somebody, and it has trees and valleys and hills and a ruined house in a wood. And there’s nowhere else left like that in the entire country. And that came from the travels I’d written about in this diary and had forgotten about. So the environment really, really inspires me.
Jo: Me too. Pretty much all my settings and my thrillers are based on my travels.
But Lifeform Three, I think, is also inspired by your love of horses.
Roz: Yes, it is. And that came from another aspect. I was just saying actually that when you’re with horses, they make you very aware of the environment. I noticed the different colors of grass changing all the time and leaf buds and things like that.
A horse makes you very aware of it because a horse experiences the environment in a very different way. It can hear things that you don’t even know are there. It notices smells and sounds that you don’t know are there. So it makes you very aware of your environment.
One day, I was riding on an old path, and I thought, ‘Under this path are probably the footprints of other people and other people on horses maybe,’ and it just made me feel there was a huge story about buried things and things that had gone. And it was the horse that made me realize that we have this connection to nature.
And then I thought, ‘Well, what if you wrote about a place where all that had nearly gone,’ and horses are like a conduit back to it. In Lifeform Three, the character dreams he’s riding a horse, but nobody’s ridden horses for years. But it sets him off on a quest where he feels, ‘I’ve somehow got to do something about this dream. It’s given me feelings that have made me really itchy to do something.’
Jo: You mentioned the seeds that you found in your journals, and I’ve also found things like that, ideas. Before I even ever thought I would write fiction, I found things written in my journals that became novels later. So I definitely understand that.
And also it’s a bit like you said about the buried things. We had that thought. We wrote it down, and then we buried it over time. And then as you say, it’s not quite lost. It emerges again.
Roz: Yes. We wanted to dwell in it in some way. I know you’re very inspired by the places that you go to, and you put all these pictures up. And I can imagine standing in such a place and just thinking, ‘I need to spend time here. I need to understand it somehow.’
Jo: Absolutely. Well, that’s an interesting point because my books are very much set in a particular place, but yours are more inspired by a place.
Do you feel like you need to go to places to write about them, or do you find online research and travel and documentaries and all these types of things useful?
Roz: Yes. All of that actually. Before I wrote books for myself, I was a ghostwriter, and I was having to write about places that I couldn’t afford to go to, and the publisher wasn’t going to send me to. So, I had to gather up people’s experiences of them.
I got very good at finding out what would make the authentic experience of going to say Chennai in India or the Australian Outback. I’m quite good at traveling in my mind and finding the details that will make it real to a reader and also it’s an environment that will cause challenges for the characters.
The novel I’ve just been finishing actually is partly set on Mount Everest, and I have not climbed Everest. And after all the things that I have read about it, there’s no way I’m going to try. I became really fascinated in the whole experience of being there, and I managed to find people who could talk to me about it and make it come alive for me.
Jo: I have absolutely no desire to do that either. I like lakes and mountains, and I like walking in mountains. But I have no desire to do that.
I think that’s almost what’s so lovely about travel is you can talk to someone who’s climbed Everest, and even though we might not want to go there, we can still tap into the emotion of wanting to achieve some kind of goal or wanting to go to a different place. And it’s almost like that feeling of travel is the same. We know, even if you’re visiting a folly in Bath, it’s still somewhere new, something that you want to visit.
Roz: Yes, it is. And exchanging your experiences is also very interesting just to see what they felt about going there and what it gave them because everybody’s experience of a place is different. You could read 100 books about Kathmandu, for instance, and nobody will have had the same experience.
Jo: Yeah. Absolutely. I also wanted to ask because you wrote your travel journal entries in this quite unusual book.
Tell us about the Visitor’s Book and why you wrote in this special way.
Roz: I’m a notebook junkie, and I know you are as well. I’ve seen pictures of your beautiful volumes and people’s giving me notebooks as well. Actually, since I published Not Quite Lost, I’ve had so many travel notebooks sent to me. I’m really spoiled now.
But that one started out as a visitor’s book. It’s a leather-bound visitor’s book like the kind of thing that people would leave out in restaurants and was supposed to write, ‘Left me a meal. Thank you.’ And this book had actually belonged to my husband’s mother. It was given to her.
She said, ‘I never write in it. So do you want it?’ And it was this very handsome thing. I brought it home, and I thought, ‘I know. I’ll have that as my holiday notebook.’ It always lives in the suitcase, and it’s bound in leather. It’s got gilded pages. It’s actually a landscape. It’s sort of wider than it’s tall.
So, you open it, and you’ve got these wide pages. And it just feels very different to write in it. I built the tradition that I would use that as my going away notebook, and it’s got visitors written on the front. I told myself, ‘That’s what I will write in whenever I’m a visitor.’
Jo: I love that. And do you think that, as you said, it changes your perspective? And did you also have other journals with you? Because I always take a journal, and I normally just write in the same one, whether it’s a business note or a more emotional thing or research or whatever. I always just write in whatever my current journal is. Was it quite a different experience writing in that notebook?
Roz: Yes, it was, and it was part of the experience of being away. I’d try not to make business notes while away because I was meant to be not doing any of that kind of thing. And I do have another notebook in the car, which is just for anything important like shopping lists or stuff, but it always ends up being notes for whatever I’m working on or whatever I must do when I get home that’s to do with my website or something.
But that book, it makes me feel different. I get it out, and I open it, and I think, ‘Right now I’m here. I’m in a different mindset. I’m in the exploring mindset, really.’
Jo: I think that exploring mindset and that noticing. You said, ‘All writers are noticers.’ I certainly agree with that. I do get the feeling that this book Not Quite Lost was a bit of a surprise book in a way, and you’ve never seen yourself as like a travel writer in any way.
Have you got the bug now? Are you going to do more of these types of books?
Roz: Yes, I hope to. I absolutely loved doing this one. It was such a joy and a very different kind of writing for me. In some ways, it’s a very different kind of writing, but also, I realized it’s the kind of writing I always did for myself.
I just loved to talk to myself about things that I’d noticed and enjoyed and wanted to just puzzle over for a bit longer. Yes. It revealed to me that I could do another kind of writing, really.
Jo: I certainly enjoyed it. Having known you for a number of years, I could hear your voice in this one, which with your novels, the voices of your characters. So I really felt like this really was Roz speaking, which, I think, is lovely as part of a travel memoir. It gives people an insight into your life.
Of course, you talked about your family in the book and family home. So it got pretty personal, I think.
Was that anything you were concerned about in terms of sharing your personal story?
Roz: Not really. First of all, I had to make the decision to write it, and my concern with that was who would want to read a memoir by me. I’m not famous or anything, and I didn’t have an overall great journey to talk about. I haven’t done anything remarkable. I’ve just been around some places and noticed things. So that was something I had to get over.
But everyone I talked to about it said, ‘Oh, yes, that sounds great. Do it.’ So I thought, ‘All right. Well, I’ll do that.’ That was a hurdle to get over. And then once I did, I thought they’re very personal because I’m saying what I feel about being in a certain place, what certain people made me feel.
The story about my family, that came about because I suddenly discovered my family home had been knocked down. And you’ve already heard how I’m just awed by anything that’s about buildings and old bits of buildings and buildings disappearing, but then suddenly, my family home has disappeared. And it was actually quite an unusual and beautiful house.
To hear that, I thought, ‘I’ve simply got to write the obituary for the house.’ And out of that, I realized I had to be quite personal about my feelings of why it mattered so much to me and what it was like growing up there. By then, I was in honest writing mode because there’s something that happens when writers hit the blank page. Everything else disappears, and it’s like a confessional. I didn’t have any difficulty really writing the very personal stuff that’s in there. I’m surprised.
Jo: You definitely encouraged me because I also like the sort of vignette approach. As you said, it’s not an, ‘I started here, and then I climbed Everest’ like one journey. It’s lots of little journeys. I like that approach. I think it’s a fantastic book.
Can you recommend a few books about travel that you particularly love?
Roz: You set me a limit of five, and I’m going to try and squeeze more in. So I’ll talk fast. First of all, Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island. That was something that possibly made me see how to do Not Quite Lost. And people have actually said to me afterwards, ‘Yeah, it’s quite Bill Bryson-ish.’ So his sense of playfulness and fun. He is such fun to be with. So that’s the first one.
Robert Macfarlane’s Underland is my second…
Jo: That was my book of last year. I bought that for so many people. I love it.
Roz: Yes. I simply love it. If anybody doesn’t know what it’s about, he has been a caver and potholer for decades, and here he talks about all the strange places he’s gone to. It is so haunting, and also he’s so brave. There’s no way I would go to any of those places.
Jo: That is a beautiful book. I like it. It’s one of those books you read a book, and you go, ‘Oh, I wish I had written that. That is a masterpiece.’
Roz: It is. It is absolutely beautiful.
The third one, this is more about travel and meeting people. Jon Ronson, I love all his books, but I’m singling out Them: Adventures with Extremists because he meets a lot of strange people who have one thing in common. They’re conspiracy theorists.
So he’s trying to get to the source of that. What they believe all seems to conglomerate around one big thing that there are some secret people pulling levers in our world. We don’t know who they are. Anyway, it’s great fun, and it’s also quite scary, too. That’s a really good read. I’m going to talk next about some books about roads.
Roz: The A303, you’ll be familiar with this where you live because it’s the main route out to the West Country from sort of the London-ish area. The A303, and this book is The A303: Highway to the Sun by Tom Fort. The A303 notably goes past Stonehenge. It’s just a wonderful old road and full of strange things, signs that point off to places like Woodhenge and villages called Camel. It’s wonderful.
So, you can sit in your armchair and read that instead of having to drive it at the moment. There’s another one if you like that called the A272, which goes to Sussex.
Jo: The whole genre of books I didn’t know about it.
Roz: And this one is A272: An Ode to a Road by a Dutch guy called Pieter Boogaart who’s a bit like Humphrey Bogart and Dirk Bogarde. But anyway, Pieter Boogaart. He’s an absolute obsessive about this road. He’s even taken pictures of road works there.
But anyway, there are some great quirky things along the way like little town jails in the middle of nice villages.
And there’s another road book I must mention, Iain Sinclair’s Orbital, which is about walking the M25, that’s great fun.
And if I may have just one more. The next one I’m going to read is Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Wildest Horse Race by Lara Prior-Palmer. It’s the account of when she did the Mongol Derby, which is a horse race across the entire Mongolian plane a thousand kilometers, and, I think, that sounds great.
Jo: Wow. Okay. There are some really varied books. I can’t believe those road books. If people were listening, if you’re from another country, our A-roads are basically the major road that’s not a motorway. I guess that would be how you say it.
The ones about the A-roads, they’re not actually about the road itself, right? It’s about the places you can visit along the road.
Roz: Yes. The charm of these roads, you wouldn’t think that roads would have charm, but the charm of them is you go through a bit and you think, ‘This feels really old and then this feels really new. Oh, there’s some ugly stuff here, but we can see that there was a beautiful landscape as well.’
And somehow they have charm in themselves. And the A272, for instance, it goes through strange wooded bits, and the A303 has these very ancient parts, Stonehenge for one thing. And, unfortunately, they’re now going to try and divert that through tunnels. You won’t be able to see Stonehenge anymore from the A303 after a while. They seem to be that you have this feeling of being very, very old.
Jo: I like that. And, I think, it kind of comes back to your book in that…the book about horse riding across Mongolia is a journey, and it’s very exciting, and it sounds amazing. But most of us actually do more of our exploring on a road, and if we notice more around us, then we might find more travel adventure closer to home I guess.
Roz: Yes. And you wouldn’t think that getting somewhere is going to be part of the adventure, but it can be.
Jo: That’s brilliant, Roz. You’ve given us a new perspective.
Where can people find you and your books online?
Roz: You can find my website which is rozmorris.org or find me on Twitter. And I’m Roz_Morris.
Jo: Fantastic. Well, thanks again for your time, Roz.
Roz: Thank you. It was really great.