Perhaps it’s my rabid Anglophilia, but one of my favorite books is Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, in which the American ex-pat travels the length of Britain with equal doses of sarcasm and affection.
Good timing played a role. That book was released in 1996. I finally made it to England for the first time the next year. Bryson was a former copy editor, like me. I still aspired — still do, really — to be a “noted humorist,” so I could go speak at a university and have their calendars say “Noted humorist Beau Dure will be speaking at Page Auditorium ….”
To me, that book is still Bryson’s masterpiece. He marvels at the history of everything he sees, like so: “When the Duke [W.J.C. Scott-Bentinck] died, his heirs found all of the aboveground rooms devoid of furnishings except for one chamber in the middle of which sat the Duke’s commode. The main hall was mysteriously floor less. Most of the rooms were painted pink. The one upstairs room in which the Duke had resided was packed to the ceiling with hundreds of green boxes, each of which contained a single dark brown wig. This was, in short, a man worth getting to know.”
Others are good: His European travelogue, Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, is much in the same vein, if a little less affectionate. He returned to the USA for a few years and wrote I’m A Stranger Here Myself (I actually have the British version, Notes from a Big Country). He branched into science with the interesting but slightly dry A Short History of Nearly Everything and a terrific practical history called At Home: A Short History of Private Life.
But it’s been nearly 20 years since Notes from a Small Island, and he is officially a full-time British guy now, so it was only sensible that he repeat the feat. He didn’t literally retrace his steps, making an effort to go to a few new places, but he was marking time as well as space.
The result: The Road to Little Dribbling.
As far as sequels, it’s not bad. If you loved Notes from a Small Island, you’ll like The Road to Little Dribbling.
What makes this one an A-minus to Island’s A-plus: Bryson is a little grumpier and preachier than he used to be. Nothing wrong with calling out litterbugs, but he belabors the point, nearly cataloging every piece of rubbish he finds. He has little patience for most new construction, taking a well-intended love of historic structures and open space to an extreme. He may not have realized that he has become an eccentric Englishman himself, preferring antiquities and long, long walks to more modern fare. One Goodreads reviewer pulls out the classic “OLD MAN YELLS AT CLOUD” Abe Simpson meme.
But his passion for Britain’s rich history and quirkiness brings about more good than bad. He has a knack for finding marvelous museums off the beaten path, and he still finds colorful folklore wherever he goes: “I was particularly taken with an article about a pub called the White Post on Rimpton Hill on the Dorset–Somerset border. The county boundary runs right through the middle of the bar. In former times when Dorset and Somerset had different licensing laws, people had to move from one side of the room to the other at 10 pm in order to continue drinking legally until 10.30. I don’t know why but this made me feel a pang of nostalgia for the way things used to be.”
And his writing style sticks in my head, which brings us to the second part of this post: What Would Bryson Think?
I’ve thought of two areas I love, and I think Bryson would agree with me on one and shake his fists in horror at the second.
We’ll start in Stone Harbor, N.J. In Dribbling, Bryson reiterates that he’s not a “beach” person per se, but he appreciates small, tidy places. He’s also no fan of big chains, so he would be delighted to see that Springer’s Ice Cream — the best I’ve ever had — has seen off the challenge of Coldstone Creamery and continues to have lines that stretch down the block on a typical summer night.
Stone Harbor has a couple of charming coffee shops, a couple of cheesesteak places, a couple of seafood takeout options, and the wonderful Fred’s Tavern. I could easily see Bryson, walking down the main shopping district of 96th Street, poking gentle fun at the excesses of the pet store and beachwear places, reveling in the mix of tourist apparel and beach-week time-killers at Hoy’s 5 and 10, then retiring to a nice pint at Fred’s. He’s not a big shopper, but I think he’d love the art on display at the two Christmas ornament shops and several other stores on the strip.
Now I’ll move closer to home and farther from Bryson’s aesthetics. Meet the Mosaic District in Merrifield, a mixed-use district that has sprung up in the past 10 years.
It’s modern. Very modern. The central square has a large screen full of ads — for shops and movies — that can easily be seen by anyone taking the escalator up to the anchor store, Target. It has a couple of chain restaurants and some horribly overpriced eateries, unless you’re a fan of paying $10 for a bad hot dog on a stale bun to go along with your beer.
And still, I love it.
One reason I love it is Bryson-esque: Residents have little need for cars. They can walk or take a shuttle to the Metro. Within Mosaic itself, in addition to the Target store that has nearly everything, there’s an organic grocery, a big movie theatre, and a couple of watering holes that aren’t awful. The district has a couple of exercise places (“Solidcore” looks grueling, but there’s also yoga), and some of the apartment buildings have nice-looking gyms.
On Sundays, for much of the year, there’s a charming farmer’s market along the side street by the theatre. Just in case the organic grocery wasn’t enough for you.
And dogs. Plenty of dogs out for walks.
I’ve never been in the apartment buildings, but they look so inviting. They have courtyard terraces with lanterns. The exteriors are modern but not garish.
When I walk through it, I feel like I’m on a college campus for grown-ups. Like college, it’s not cheap — a 500-square-foot studio apartment will run you $1,669 a month. Or you can get a luxury townhome for $750,000 or so — unless they’re sold out. They have some office space for T-shirt company CustomInk, which might not pay you enough to live there. (Though you’d save money on commuting!)
Northern Virginia has a few places like this. Another is just up the road, even closer to the Metro. Reston has a beautiful town center. Tysons Corner is trying to create a couple of places like this, marketing one of them with bikini-clad women by the pool and a dude in an apartment with a woman running her hand up his thigh. I’m guessing that place is now about 80% single guys?
People like Bryson might find this a bit artificial. But I think it’s a refreshing antidote to walling yourself off in a giant house. Some of the developments in Loudoun County are smart; others are sprawling townhouse complexes that require everyone to get in a car to drive one direction to get groceries, then another direction to go to work, etc.
And honestly, the area that is now Mosaic was a dump before they did all this. It had an old, charming movie theater, but you couldn’t walk to it or do much of anything else constructive.
Mosaic has another saving grace. It’s not too tall. The apartments go five stories above the shops. (A couple of buildings out by Gallows Road are the exceptions.) So you feel like you’re in a community, not Wall Street.
Whether Bryson likes it or not, I think his work has had a subtle influence on these communities. They’re built for walkers. They’re not as drab as 20th-century apartment complexes or office parks.
So thank you, Mr. Bryson, for the constructive criticism. And for continuing to make us laugh.