I’m delighted today to welcome back Roz Morris, novelist, ghost writer, long-time friend of this blog and now travel writer. Her new book Not Quite Lost is about her journeys around the UK and it’s currently picking up lots of nice publicity and rave reviews!
I’m an over-expressive person trapped inside a shy one. An inquisitive person who is more entertained by questions than answers, and ‘why’ rather than ‘what’. I love stories, especially stories that flirt with the edges of science fiction or fable and seem to suggest new metaphors for life. I guess all of this makes me the ideal temperament for an author.
I’ve kicked around the world of words and publishing for all my professional life. I’ve run the editorial department of a small publishing imprint. I’ve ghostwritten bestselling novels that famous writers put their names on. I’ve been a writing coach for one of the literary consultancies and I’ve mentored prizewinning authors. I’ve taught masterclasses for The Guardian and written a series of books for writers.
I love being involved in the many processes of making books, but my dream was always to write and make my own mark. I’ve completed two novels – one about going to a future life by hypnosis (My Memories of a Future Life) and the other about a theme park set in the last surviving piece of countryside (Lifeform Three). I’m working on a third – which I can’t talk about – and I’ve just made a diversion into travel diaries.
It happened by accident. It began as a leather-bound notebook I kept in my suitcase and would write in whenever I was away from home. It has ‘visitors’ stamped on the cover in gold foil. This pleased me with Alice in Wonderland logic because it was the book I’d write in whenever I was a visitor.
Last November, I was with my husband (Dave, also a writer) on a short break in Lincolnshire. On the first night I pulled out the visitor’s book and we read some of the entries. The time the car window got stuck on the coldest day of the year and we had 20 miles to drive to get it fixed. A tour guide we met in Glastonbury who was in love with a real-life reincarnation of a character from Arthurian legend. The weird kinds of episodes that turn into adventures when you’re on holiday.
‘You should put those in a book,’ said Dave.
‘Yeah, they’ll go in a novel sometime,’ I said, and poured more wine.
‘No,’ he said, ‘write them up as a book of travel essays. People like that kind of thing. Think of Bill Bryson.’
‘Ha ha,’ I said, not taking him seriously at all.
As the week went on, I came to like the idea. It might be like a musician doing an informal unplugged album before they get back to studio work. But I was worried it could be horribly self-indulgent, so when we returned I asked my bluntest author friends to talk me out of it. Instead, they all said ‘do it’. So I did.
After a good bit of editorial massaging it’s now ready. It’s called Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction.
What’s the loveliest place in the UK you have visited and why would you advise people to go?
I love ruins. But not conventional ruins like castles: I love buildings that have mostly fallen down, where grass grows over tiled floors and ivy creeps up inside the windows so that they’re simultaneously indoors and outdoors at once.
It doesn’t matter if the ruin is big or small, but my example is a big one because you can visit it – Nymans in Sussex, a pseudo-medieval mansion built in the 19th century, which was partly destroyed by fire. The walls still stand and some of the roofs are open to the sky. The owners continued to live in one wing, and were puzzled to notice that the plants were growing lavishly in the ruined side. Eventually they discovered the heating pipes were still connected to the ruin and warming it up like a tropical greenhouse.
It’s an enchanting place, romantically balanced between untamed and tamed, shimmering between two states, inviting your mind to fill in what was there.
My brother, an engineering contractor, has worked in many of the world’s trouble spots, such as Algeria, Nigeria and Libya, when I asked him the worst place he’d ever been he said definitely Rotherham. Where’s the crappiest place in the UK you have visited?
Travellers like your brother put me somewhat to shame. I haven’t lived a life of high adventure. My chosen career – very quiet and bookish – has kept me securely on these shores. Off duty, I have no foreign language skills so I have to stay in places where I can get by in English. Your intrepid brother has my respect.
The crappiest place I’ve visited in the UK? I wouldn’t call it crappy, but I stayed there much longer than I wanted to because it was maddeningly difficult to leave. It’s Craven Arms, a sleepy town in Shropshire. We hiked there through ankle-deep fields of mud, intending to get a bus back to our lodgings as darkness fell. But there were no buses. We found the railway station, but it had closed years before and the platforms were overrun with brambles. We found the local taxi company, after some difficulty – you had to knock on the door of a private house and ask if they would take you somewhere. But it was the middle of winter and the taxi was occupied taking all the local kids home from school. They promised to pick us up when they’d finished, so we waited for two and a half hours in the lounge of a hotel with a nice view of a roundabout, while the staff made us cups of tea. It was like The Prisoner.
As a northerner I have the usual chip on my shoulder that many people in my adopted home in the south of England have never been ‘oop north’ have you travelled widely in the ‘there be dragons’ part of England north of The Wash?
I admit that most of the travels in my book are in regions further down. Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, Lincolnshire, Shropshire.
But I grew up in Cheshire, so perhaps you’ll regard me as fully rounded? My house was in Alderley Edge where Alan Garner set his novel The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. There were local legends of wizards and sleeping knights, and Alan Garner added some dwarfish creatures from myth. But I don’t recall any dragons.
I have a soft spot for Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson, what’s your favourite UK travel book?
Oh I also love Notes from a Small Island. Bryson is such genial company. My favourite UK travel book? I’m hopeless at nominating absolute favourites so I’m going to cheat and have two.
Eric Newby’s A Traveller’s Life – a standout story is the time he spent the night in a caravan on a beach, next to a lighthouse with a foghorn.
Also Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. It begins in the UK as he walks away from Gloucestershire, where he grew up. His language is exquisite. He describes approaching London ‘a long smoky skyline hazed by the morning sun …. simmering gently in the summer morning and emitting a faint, metallic roar’. He ends up in Spain, but before then he helps to build a complex of flats in Putney, London, which is near where I live. I realised as I read that I’d passed those flats countless times, just going about my business. There they were, quietly standing all that time. Flats built by Laurie Lee, who I knew only as one of my favourite writers. I had rather a moment.
Recently when I visited Chesterfield I saw a statue of a frog creature attacking a naked baby, what’s the weirdest piece of architecture or street art you found on your travels?
This wasn’t ostensibly weird, but it was weird for us. The statue of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner in Watchet, Somerset. We’d been staying in a holiday let with friends who then went back to the US as we continued our travels. We stopped in Watchet and saw this statue and its face was exactly like our friend’s who we’d just dropped at the station. Perhaps he never left after all.
These days chain shops and restaurants plus standardised architecture mean all British town centres look the same, to the extent that you feel you have been there before even if you haven’t – discuss?
They often do, and it is a shame that the chain stores have trampled out the individual stores, but you can’t get too sniffy about it. The residents need places to buy everyday stuff. But you can often find a quarter where the more individual places flourish, and I have to admit that’s where I head for.
Having travelled around the UK, and written about your experiences, what are your abiding thoughts about the nation and its people?
Often suspicious of tourists out of season. We usually travel in November and December, because it’s cheap and because we’re disorganised. The locals in the towns are often surprised to see us and even a bit put out, as though they thought we should have come when everyone else did and now we were interrupting their peace and quiet. Perhaps they are all expressive people trapped inside shy ones, and therefore this indicates that I am typically English.
Find out more about Roz
Roz Morris is an award-nominated novelist (My Memories of a Future Life; Lifeform Three), book doctor to award-winning writers (Roald Dahl Funny Prize 2012), has sold 4 million books as a ghostwriter and teaches writing masterclasses for The Guardian. Not Quite Lost is her first collection of essays.
Find her at her website click here
and on her blog click here
Contact her on Facebook click here
and tweet her as @Roz_Morris click here
Where can we buy your books?