Book Review: Diamond Street – The Hidden World of Hatton Garden by Rachel Lichtenstein

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(Hamish Hamilton) Hardback £20.00, Paperback £9.99, ebook £5.99
Diamond Street App free to download from iTunes or Google Play

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams

One does not need a jeweller’s loupe to appreciate the multi-faceted beauty of Rachel Lichtenstein’s Diamond Street: The Hidden World of Hatton Garden. That said, because it flows with the highly engaging pace of a novel, and often the excitement of a thriller, despite being non-fiction, and one becomes so gripped by Lichtenstein’s journey that one starts to read and reaches the end before one wishes, it is a book that one immediately wants to go back through, to hold up to the light to examine in close detail the interplay of a wonderful spectrum of people and places and the stories they convey.

The book was more than five years in the making, in terms of both Lichtenstein’s research and writing, but in familial terms it has been three generations in the making because as a student she worked in her parent’s jewellery shop in Hatton Garden, which her husband now runs, and her uncles and aunts, and her grandfather all worked in the London street that is internationally renowned as the capital’s jewellery and diamond quarter and for many years was the centre of the world’s jewellery market.

Equally the stories and histories that Lichtenstein relays and uncovers have been many centuries in the making, for Diamond Street is not only a rare view through the closed doors of the inherently secretive and mysterious world of the diamond dealers, goldsmiths and jewellers on the street, but also a fascinating exploration through multiple layers of London history both in the street and its surrounding area from the life-size solid-gold sculpture of Kate Moss, to the lawlessness and the squalor of the alleyways and rookeries that inspired Dickens’ Oliver Twist, to the upmarket and highly desirable Georgian housing estate, from the mansion of Elizabeth I’s favourite, Sir Christopher Hatton, the palace of the Bishops of Ely, and further back to the days when the nearby River Fleet, which is now contained within Bazalgette’s Victorian sewer, was a mighty London waterway, second only to the Thames.

Diamond Street begins with a quote from Virginia Woof’s essay, A Room of One’s Own. The essay has long been a favourite of mine, and I have always liked the passage within it in which Woolf leans against the walls of Newnham College, Cambridge, and the physical connection triggers a journey back through centuries of the town’s history in her imagination. The passage and the essay as a whole are vividly and accessibly told – as a reader one very much travels with her.

Likewise and more so in Diamond Street; Lichtenstein makes time travel easy and delightful, which is far from easy to do. She trained originally as a sculptor and through the course of Diamond Street she very cleverly gradually builds up the layers of history so that as one reads on the text, the history, and the people become a wonderfully tactile sculptural object in one’s imagination. Often, and highly successfully, this is achieved through her accounts of the separate walks she took around the area, along similar routes but each time with experts in different fields, from historians, to geologists, to visionaries, and ultimately with sewer flushers… as the book concludes with Lichtenstein underground, thigh deep in the sewage of the River Fleet.

Rachel Lichtenstein photographed by James Price

Rachel Lichtenstein photographed by James Price

The accessibility, readability, and enjoyableness of Diamond Street also stems from Lichtenstein weaving the story of her research methodology into the text. This brings the history alive, and also makes the reader feel a far greater connection to the people she meets and interviews, as though one is meeting them oneself.

So much so that one gets very caught up in her search for Isadore Mitziman (‘Mitzy’) an infamous Hatton Garden character, who Lichtenstein had bumped into by chance in 2004 whilst she was working on her last book, On Brick Lane, the first of her trilogy of London street books of which Diamond Street is the second. That day he told her many stories about Hatton Garden, and when she began working on Diamond Street she was desperate to track him down. As reader one becomes hooked on her search for him, almost thinking that one can see him at the end of the street, just out of Lichtenstein’s view, and one wants to enter the text and tell her!

Diamond Street in its printed form affords, as I say, the most wonderful mind’s eye travelling both in the present day and through time. But now, Lichtenstein has brought a whole new wonderful level to her Diamond Street project with the creation of the Diamond Street App, which is the first of its kind and uses content from the book in addition to specially developed rich media, soundscapes and interactive features. The App adds two new additions to journey one can take with Lichtenstein to Diamond Street, from the mind’s eye of the book, to either the visual, aural, and virtual, armchair travelling of the App, or if one is in Hatton Garden in actuality, a real guided tour via the App and its GPS system.

Whichever form you choose, and I would strongly recommend all three, Lichtenstein and Diamond Street are the perfect travelling companions.

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RACHEL LICHTENSTEIN will be celebrating the launch of The Diamond Street App and the publication of the paperback edition of Diamond Street: The Hidden World of Hatton Garden (Hamish Hamilton, 2013) at the P-TCP Live Edition Mustered No.7: ‘Hubcap Diamond Star Halo’ on Thursday 27th June 2013 at The Betsey Trotwood, London EC1.
For more details please click here: http://www.theculturalpick.com/category/events/

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Links
Rachel Lichtenstein: http://www.rachellichtenstein.com/
Diamond Street App: http://www.diamondstreetapp.com
Hamish Hamilton: http://fivedials.com/

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