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February 11, 2013updated 09 May 2016 11:05am

Review: Diamond Street: The Hidden World of Hatton Garden

By Spear's

Diamond street: The Hidden World of Hatton Garden
Rachel Lichtenstein
Hamish Hamilton, 368pp

Review by Peter York

I’m quite used to being the only goy in the village. I’ve lived in areas that people see as being particularly Jewish, worked in and with sectors — media and entertainment — where Jews brilliantly out-perform. And when I read that there are only around 300,000 Jews in the UK I said proudly: ‘I know them all.’

But I don’t really know Diamond Street — Hatton Garden, the subject of Rachel Lichtenstein’s fascinating, frustrating collage of a book about the diamond trade area in London EC1.

I used to work a few streets away, in the growing late-Eighties/Nineties gentrified Clerkenwell arts, comms and consultancy area. I knew Hatton Garden was nearby, but I barely went there and never, shamingly, read up on the history or thought that much about the old world of EC1, the City fringes, because I was obsessed with its bright future.

My Jewish friends are overwhelmingly middle-class, secular, knowledge economy, artsy types. And Diamond Street’s story, until very recently, is overwhelmingly Orthodox Hassidic Old World, about extreme craftwork, East Enders, a kind of Our Crowd insularity and the recent diaspora mindset.

Lichtenstein’s father visited Hatton Garden, with her in tow as a child, when he was a Portobello Road antique jewellery dealer. She remembers the triple-door security, the close examination of small pieces under bright lights with a loupe wedged in her father’s eye, and the ‘word is my bond’ deals struck with salutations in Yiddish, the language of the Old World.

But her father was a secular, liberal insider/outsider, the son of refugees. And she is an artist/writer/historian with a sense of place, whom I see living in NW3 rather than Stamford Hill. Lichtenstein ranges far wider around EC1 than just Diamond Street. She goes to the one historic site I did know a bit because I worked practically on top of it for years: the Smithfield meat market.

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It’s another long-standing Old London story — South and East London working-class family and kinship. Extraordinary early hours. Lots of breakfasts, lots of blood and entrails.

Lichtenstein’s onto the meat story as well as the metals. And on to the neighbouring Barts Hospital, St Bartholomew the Great Church (claimed as the oldest working church in London and the setting for the final match in Four Weddings and a Funeral).

She ranges up the medieval street Cloth Fair, where John Betjeman lived in the Sixties, and way, way back before the real Edwardian consolidation of the Jewish jewellery trade after the pogroms and the expansion of Johnson Matthey, the great gold bullion business, and the arrival of De Beers, the world’s dominant diamond business, in the area.

There is hard history — the story of Ely Place and St Etheldreda — and soft history, myth and legend: the idea of the area as a vanished aristocratic estate, the home of Sir Christopher Hatton, lover of Elizabeth I, who gave him Ely House in 1576. The only rent he had to pay was one red rose at midsummer, ten loads of hay and ten pounds a year.

There’s the story of Lady Elizabeth Hatton, who was found murdered in Bleeding Heart Yard, or the pigs that vanished down the sewer to breed. From the early 17th century on it gets distinctly rougher. There’s more meat and metal; it’s more polluted and bawdy.

There’s a whole ancient subterranean life beneath Hatton Garden and its surrounding streets: the underground river, disused train lines and deep basements and sub-basements full of gold and jewels. The whole lot is so honey-combed that one of Lichtenstein’s interviewees, a 90-year-old who’d worked in Hatton Garden, imagines it all falling through.

There is a raft of these interviewees, old people who’d worked with yet older people — born, in one case, in 1860. It’s oral history, the long testimony of ordinary people played back in great wodges of text so long that you have to work out whose voice you’re hearing at any moment.

It’s a fascinating business history and a wealth-creation one — but it absolutely isn’t a business book. It’s the cultural model she’s interested in, and the history. The whole thing feels like a total immersion installation where you get the lot coming at you — the sights, the voices and the smells. There’s too much at first; too wide-ranging with too little signposting and sequencing. You need to find your way around. This is the second part of Lichtenstein’s three-book project about Old London, with its extraordinary, messy combination of energy, beauty and brutality. I want them all now.

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