diamond geezer

 Sunday, August 25, 2013

I'm reading a good book at the moment. It's a good book for three reasons. Firstly, it's an in-depth look at the history of an overlooked part of central London. Secondly, it's all about diamonds, and this blog approves of books with the word Diamond in the title. And thirdly, blimey, I get a mention.

The book is Diamond Street by Rachel Lichtenstein. She's written two fine books before, the first being Rodinsky's Room and the second On Brick Lane, both about the Spitalfields/Whitechapel end of London. This time she moves west, to the street of Hatton Garden on the fringes of the City. This is the heart of London's diamond industry, the place to come for a hand-crafted engagement ring or sparkly jewel. But it wasn't so, and Rachel's book mixes the backstory of the location with tales from the street's more recent past.

What Rachel's done is pinpoint a sliver of the capital, roughly from Leather Lane to Farringdon Road, and dig down into as much of the history as she can find. That's from fields outside the Roman city walls to the splendours of Ely Palace, and from the emergence of a well-to-do estate to the growth of metallurgical workshops. It's an area rich in interest, including streets once under the control of the Cambridgeshire police, and the slums where Fagin plied his trade in Oliver Twist. And then there's the River Fleet, London's greatest lost waterway, which once flowed down the edge of the site.

The Fleet is where I come in, I think. I wrote a heck of a lot about the Fleet in 2005, and that particular archive page gets a namecheck in the acknowledgements. My main blog gets a listing too, on page 343, sandwiched between www.debeers.com and www.dickensmuseum.com. There's nothing specific in the main body of text, but it's sort of exciting to think that Rachel stopped by here when doing her research. And she did several years of research, which you can tell by the dense (but very readable) sequence of historical references throughout.

A lot of the chapters are about the characters of Hatton Garden, the craftsmen and merchants who made diamond dealing possible. A strong Italian community grew up here, but it's Jews escaping from occupied Europe who really helped the diamond trade to thrive. Rachel paints a picture of honest men in attic workshops working extended hours to craft stones and jewellery of great beauty. The trade once ran on trust, with diamonds swapped at Mrs Cohen's Kosher Cafe, but has since developed to become a multi-billion pound industry.

Interviews are a staple part of Rachel's reportage, where possible with those around long enough to remember. Even much of the history in the book is told by the experts she meets - a tour guide here, an archaeologist there, even a day out with Iain Sinclair. I'd say Rachel's often prone to adding unnecessary adjectives to describe a place or setting, but then so am I, so I can't complain. It all makes for a very readable volume, nicely segmented, and peaks with a crowd-pleasing (official) trip down the Fleet sewer.

As a bonus, or more accurately as publicity, Rachel's publishers have put together an app to help you explore Hatton Garden more deeply. It's free to download, and features extra text, images and sound to accompany a walking tour of the area. You wander the streets, and at the appropriate points a commentary plays or a video pops up. At this point I should tell you how well it works, but I'm in Norfolk at the moments and the GPS only works if you're in EC1. I can only flick through the app's timeline, being 100 miles from the intended location, so I have no idea precisely what happens if you stand on Saffron Hill and listen.

Other than my Fleet posts I've never really blogged about Hatton Garden, which is ridiculous on a blog entitled Diamond Geezer. Rachel's psychogeographic tome has persuaded me I really should get down there soon, and write about it one day. But Diamond Street would be a hard act to follow.


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