Robert Johnson, London 2017/2018


What are all these books about; and, for that matter, the title of this website?  Time travel is impossible!

Or is it?  Is it not true that the world moves on so quickly that, as each decade slips into the past, it becomes a different place? Or as Leslie Poles Hartley wrote in ‘The Go Between’; ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’.

How differently?  These books try to travel in time and remember the landscape of worlds so recently past.  Take the 1980’s, for instance. In August 1989, no-one in Europe had the slightest idea that the fortified wall dividing its West from its East was about to be swept away.  Or if they did, the assumption was that the experience would end in tears. But it was cheers and not tears that came soon after. In August 1989, I set off on a journey through southern and eastern Europe little suspecting such a momentous event was about to occur.  In fact, my travels ended at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin with the Cold War still very much in evidence. It was September 1989. A month or two later, all the watchtowers, guns, minefields and angst had become part of history. Suddenly, my journey could never be repeated.  I had chanced on the (dubious) good fortune of taking a last glimpse behind the Iron Curtain. The Edge of Europe is the book of that journey.   

Take the early 1990’s, too. As a consultant to a Venezuelan state oil company I spent two years in Caracas. It was a joyous and adventurous interlude in a country and a continent on the cusp of change. Two books capture that unique period: Fifty Days on the Spanish Main and – on a broader canvas – Latin American Weekends: Short Journey’s to South and Central America. Venezuela is no longer joyous.   

Then the thought came – if the world can alter so fast in two decades, what about re-tracing a century-old journey?  In the summer of 2008, I set off in the 1901 footsteps of the author Hilaire Belloc to experience his epic journey up the Moselle Valley, across the Alps, through the Apennines and down to Rome – his ‘Path to Rome’. Did this 800 mile walk reveal a different Europe or did it not? The answer is in Walking with Mr Belloc – the Path to Rome.

And then – happening  to have developed some sailing skills and a thirty-eight foot cruising yacht – Elaine and I decided to capture the world of the Mediterranean in the first decade of the twenty-first century.  We soon found our sailing experiences illuminated more than a century. And – just after they came to a close in 2009 – the ‘Arab Spring’ began. The times they were once more ‘a-changing’ and the Eastern Mediterranean became a different place to that in our co-authored Nine Summers to the Nile.  

Other worlds beckoned. The 2010 journey in Alpine Diary is as much a 650 mile traverse of the eastern Alps as a story of the boundary between south and north: Latin and Teutonic; wars and wisdom; mountains and mud.  And the 2011 Spanish Road – a journey from Genoa to Ghent.is less a lone 1,000 mile journey through eastern France as a revealing encounter with the trials and tribulations of the armies of Philip II when – four centuries previously - they marched in the rain to pursue Spain’s eighty year struggle in Flanders. It was a conflict that laid the foundations of republicanism in Europe and created Belgium but – between then and now – I was travelling in time and meeting Edward Whymper, Gertrude Stein, the gastronome Brillat-Savarin, Gustav Courbet and Guido Fawkes.

Time travelling again by yacht is described in the 2013 What’s a Greek Urn – catching wind in the Aegean? where the fates of the Syria, Greece and Turkey illuminated in the book have still to be determined.  In 2015 and looking back in the autobiography: Oil! An Explorer’s Tale  focus is on happier times for the international oil industry – the times of the ‘low hanging fruit’ of the 1970’s, of the most exciting days of North Sea exploration, of Britain’s forgotten National Oil Company and the story of family life set against the political and cultural turmoil of  the 1980’s.  In 2017, comes Two Italian Islands - Part One being the narrative an offshore/onshore journey around Sicily in October 2015 and Part Two being a circumnavigation and travels around Sardinia in September 2016.  In 2017, too, is All at Sea – Mostly! a collection of twelve short pieces that focus on the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea – the ‘Gents’ End’ as Elaine describes it.

To complete the dozen e-books, the 2018 The Spice Man is a fictional recreation of the life of the real Francisco Serrão – a Portuguese navigator who died in mysterious circumstances in the Spice Islands as his cousin Ferdinand Magellan was circumnavigating the world of the early sixteenth century.