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Dr. Johnson's London: Coffee-Houses and Climbing Boys, Medicine, Toothpaste and Gin, Poverty and Press-Gangs, Freakshows

Liza Picard certainly isn't tired of London. The lives that once thronged its streets are the stuff of her books, and Dr Johnson's London updates her 1997 volume, Restoration London, by one hundred years or so. Samuel Pepys gives way to Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, though, entertainingly, she shows no affection for the pair. She pursues them solely for their era, stretching 30 years from 1740 to 1770, pivoted on the publication of Johnson's Dictionary in 1755. Starting with a "virtual" sedan-chair tour of the city, she proceeds to elucidate every aspect of urban life, with particular attention paid to the poor, and the "middling sort", a fledgling middle class. This goes some way to redressing a balance which historically has tended to favour the rich and famous, who left behind the majority of buildings and ephemera.

Picard's conversational style, as bursting with rhetorical questions as a primary teacher, belies the breadth of her reading and research. Her informality breathes life into dry descriptions, and her sharp eye lends itself to shrewd selection from source passages. The familiarity of this Blackadder-esque London is borne out by its physical dimensions, with parks, hospitals and even bridges already starting to become recognisable to a contemporary eye, as well as its phenomena, such as lottery tickets and road rage. Although Picard sways between tenses with a giddy ease, adding a sprinkling of her own curious observations, her assimilation of information renders her prose sprightly, whether she be observing a meal in "real time", or delighting in the medical remedies, often involving quite the worst ingredients (though it's useful to know that powdered roast mouse is a reliable cure for incontinence). Saving the best to last, the concluding pages offer a cost of living index, which, as Picard admits, almost renders the book redundant. From a 1/2d half-loaf of bread to a £64,000 reward, it evocatively summarises the victuals and commodities of the time, and closes a bustling, collective portrait of the city not just of Johnson, but also of Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett and William Hogarth.--David Vincent

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