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It's a London Bridge

Books: In her detailed account of the city in the 1660s, first-time historian Liza Picard transports readers back to a time of plagues and pleasures.

June 27, 1997|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OXFORD, England — Liza Picard takes the "boring!" out of history and puts the people in. She's a chronicler of oppressed spit dogs and primitive surgery, of plague and patents, of wallpaper, water pipes and 17th century poll taxes.

For 40 years, Picard was a lawyer for the steely-eyed British cousin of the IRS. Now, she's Britain's most improbable rookie historian, scrutinizing pins and needles of everyday life obscured by history's headlines.

Her journey celebrates the inquisitive human spirit as much as the wealth of a common yesterday. It is no small thing for an amateur at age 69 to write a first book that leaves some professional historians muttering, "Why didn't I write that?"

Picard's "Restoration London" (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is winning critical praise here for its detail, its scholarship, and for the light and warmth its author brings to London in the 1660s.

The book was not completed without trepidation or contretemps. Picard, who never had written a word for publication, had to learn to type and to use a word processor. She labored for a patient decade before approaching a publisher--and grew thick-skinned once she did.

"The two chapters I sent out to sell the book were the one on sex and the one on gardening. Often, I would get just the gardening one back along with the rejection slip," she recalls.

Here is the great metropolis of London, circa 1660, as Liza Picard sees it:

Traffic in chaos amid muddy workmen installing underground water pipes, parboiled heads of executed criminals rotting on poles atop city gates, takeout restaurants with home delivery. Dirty air, mad hatters poisoned by mercury used in beaver hats, muggers lurking, homemakers burned to death cooking at open fires in long skirts, noise pollution, garbage collection on Monday and Wednesday, dentists implanting false teeth from the jaws of battle fatalities, three pints of beer daily in a hospital diet.

"I have a curious and practical mind, and I have always been interested in how people lived," Picard, the youngest daughter of a country doctor, said from her retirement cottage here. "As I read social histories, I said to myself, 'This is so boring that life cannot have been like that.'

"I am interested in minutiae: people moving about, living and worrying about their day-to-day problems--how to pay the taxes, what to have for lunch, whether the laundry needs doing."

The decade that Picard examines from chamber pot to chimney is one of the most evocative in the history of a riverside metropolis founded by the Romans. In 1660, London, population 300,000, ranked with Paris and Constantinople as the world's largest city. Restored royalty under King Charles II ruled post-civil war England, while London enjoyed the first profits of trans-Atlantic trade. By 1670, bubonic plague had savaged the city; a great fire in 1666 had destroyed most of it.

To such familiar bricks of school-days history, Picard brings spicy mortar. She knows about 17th century horoscopes and underwear, building codes and makeup, deodorants, contraceptives, breeches, jewelry and the city's plethora of pubs.

"I tried to build a spy hole into the past--a chance to focus on a short period in a specific place to examine pieces of daily life," Picard said. "I am not a historian. I am a lawyer. I have a liking for primary evidence."

Her research took her through government records of everything from statues and decrees to wills and patents. She read diaries, letters, inventories, travelers' impressions and penny almanacs that sold at the rate of 400,000 a year.

As underpinning to them all, she dissected the 11-volume diary of Samuel Pepys, one of those people who appears never to have had an unpublished thought. "I really set out to write a book about Samuel's wife, Elizabeth [Pepys], and made a lot of footnotes," Picard said. "More and more, I became interested in the footnotes--and they became the book."

Picard learned how hard it must have been for women in stays and long skirts to balance themselves in rowboat taxis plying the polluted Thames and its daily harvest of dead bodies and drowned rats. And she learned how the roasted oxen in the fireplaces of inns managed not to be burned on one side and raw on the other: The spit was turned constantly by dogs locked inside treadmills.

*

For a decade, she persevered in the search for answers to everyday questions. What was it like to cook in a kitchen without running water? How did you make a will if you couldn't write? How did you send a letter, pay a bill, rent a house?

"You know how you've heard Beethoven's Ninth for the umpteenth time, and suddenly you feel what it must have been like to hear it played for the first time?" Or what life was like before Beethoven. "I feel I've entered a second childhood," said the widow and mother, describing her travels through a world where so much of what would become routine still was undiscovered.

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