Book review / Stinks, squalor and splendour

Restoration London by Liza Picard, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 20

Imagine Samuel Pepys re-incarnated as a 20th-century woman lawyer, and looking back at 17th-century London not as a diarist but as a social analyst. Imagine P D James deciding to set a thriller in the time of Charles II and assembling her background materials. Imagine a civil servant, Grade 5, mugging up on the period after the Great Fire for Mastermind. Put the three together, and you may have some idea of Liza Picard's Restoration London.

Ms Picard is a 69-year-old barrister who worked for years in the office of the Solicitor of the Inland Revenue. She has never written a book before, but what she lacks in experience she certainly makes up for in enthusiasm and virtuoso knowledge. There is almost no aspect of life in Restoration London that is not meticulously described in these 300-odd pages. You want laundry methods? You want hospital waiting lists? Mirror glass? Planning regulations? Juries? Public transport? Lavatory systems? Parks? Pornography? Making a will? Cooking a pike? Ms Picard passes on none. I would not like to have crossed accounts with her when she was with the Inland Revenue.

"I hope", she tells the reader in her forward, "that you will at least find the book entertaining, if taken in small doses". She might have been writing her own review. Restoration London is highly entertaining, but hardly to be read at one go. It is a challenging sort of bedside book. Although I did read it all the way through, my responses were inconsistent. Sometimes it kept me happily awake, eager for yet more curious nuggets of instruction. Sometimes it sent me off to sleep. Since it is nearer an anthology than a work of literature, I was reduced to jotting down a few varied revelations from its cornucopia of surprises. For example:

l James I thought the site of St James's Park a good place for keeping crocodiles.

l "Daughter" was pronounced "dafter" in 17th-century London, and when they wanted to say "come off it" they said "go shoe the goose!"

l In 1656, 100 different varieties of daffodil were listed, and 50 kinds of hyacinth.

l Urine was a marketable commodity, used in the tanning of hides and making soap.

l Human teeth were sometimes implanted in toothless people's jaws; there was a glut of them after the Great Fire.

l Hatters really were liable to madness, because of the mercury used in beaver felt hats.

l When there was a national church collection to help relieve the hardships of the Fire, the parishioners of Devon contributed pounds 1,480 6s, of Meirionydd, pounds 1 16s.

l The second most common cause of death for women, after childbirth, was cooking at open fires in long skirts.

Women appear prominently in this register, from duchesses to whores (whose bawdy-houses were traditionally demolished by violent apprentices on Shrove Tuesday). Picard is not one of your he-or-she grammarians, thank God, but she is evidently a strong and sensible feminist, and surveys the Restoration scene frankly from a woman's viewpoint. We learn about the horrible midwives of the time, who killed many of their patients, pushed awful things up mothers' vaginas and were always in a hurry to get on to the next confinement. We hear about prices, fashionable underwear and anti-perspirants. We imagine how difficult it was getting into a Thames skiff in a full skirt with stays.At the end, we muse on the unlikelihood of much change in our lives "while men control them".

All this gives the book a contemporary freshness. Liza Picard is looking at her period from a clear 20th-century perspective. The effect is strange. Sometimes everything sounded so different that Restoration England might have been on a different planet. At other moments, it seemed remarkably like the modern world.

The rebuilding of London after the Great Fire, for example, seems to have been achieved with an almost transatlantic efficiency. The interfering bossiness of those midwives reminds me very much of modern NHS obstetrics. The 58 different drugs they gave Charles II in the last week of his life, together with bleedings, enemas and red-hot irons on his feet, were disturbingly akin to the technological wizardries that kept Franco breathing long after his time. The 17th-century traffic jams sound depressingly familiar; so do the muggers who haunted the ruins of the Fire. The street cries of the day were probably not much unlike the mysterious chant of the newspaper- seller which sounded outside Kensington High Street tube station when I was last in London.

London itself dominates the book - snobbery, stinks, squalor, splendour and all. More than most capitals, London remains more or less the same. You will no longer find the truncated heads of wrongdoers ornamenting the capital, but in essence ours is the same city that Liza Picard records. Foreigners throng its streets still, sometimes admiring, sometimes contemptuous; swells drive around in ostentatious equipages; Samuel Pepyses proposition their secretaries and birds of high plumage still strut and squawk around St James's Park.

History seldom falters here, and London's continuity is unique among the nations - if one generation tires, the next soon resumes the rhythm. After reading Liza Picard's book I find it quite possible to imagine, say, Tony Blair rigged out in the petticoat breeches of his Parliamentary predecessors 300 years ago - trousers which were trimmed with yards and yards of ribbon, and fashionably worn at half-mast, hanging from the wearer's hips. Mr Major, no. Mr Blair, perhaps.

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