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4.5 out of 5 stars31
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on 25 June 2012
After reading such glowing reviews of Rachel Lichtenstein's latest book Diamond Street in the Guardian, Sunday Times and The Telegraph I bought the book with great anticipation and can happily say I have not been disappointed. I really can't think of another book quite like it. The author cleverly manages to interweave oral history interviews with fascinating characters who have worked in London's best known jewellery quarter with a series of walks, conversations and deep archival research journeys to construct a really unique study of a little known quarter of the city. As a recent reviewer in The Independent pointed out, 'among her [Lichtenstein's] many talents is her ability to make us look with a fresh eye at familiar urban spaces.' This book is a must read for anyone interested in the story of London.
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on 26 June 2012
Diamond Street is deservedly climbing the best seller charts and equally deservedly attracting glowing column inches in all of the major broadsheets: this book sparkles with fascinating history, facts - but most of all humanity - bringing a street that we all think we know into very contemporary life.

Rachel Lichtenstein is a unique and unrelenting researcher but she is above all a listener - and it is the human stories, including her own family's history with Hatton Garden, that make this book so much more than a study of the development of a street or a trade.

She pores over maps, tramps down sewers to discover forbidden rivers, respectfully depicts the closed world of the diamond exchange, talks to the traders from the small to de Beers and - probably because of her own apparent artistic interests - shows the reader the skill and beauty of those who still craft jewels in the traditional way. It is the people of Hatton Garden that tell the story and Rachel Lichtenstein's empathy that allows them to tell it.

It will make you think again the next time you saunter down this street. It might make you look at that ring you bought there in a different way.

This is the second in a series of books on London streets - the first was On Brick Lane - and I can't wait for the next one.

Also recommend her remarkable first book - Rodinsky's Room.
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Rachel Lichtenstein's 'Diamond Street' is a heady cocktail of memoir, oral history, urban archaeology and psychogeography, much along the lines of her earlier book On Brick Lane. It takes the story of Hatton Garden as its point of departure to slice through space and time into the heart of one of London's most secretive and fascinating areas.

'The Garden' has been a marginal zone since Roman times, when it was an area of Celtic settlement and mercantile activity outside the city walls. The hub of the city moved to the west after the Romans left, then back to the east at the time of the Viking raids, with Holborn and Hatton Garden forever in-between. Even now, ambitious estate agents are trying to rebrand the area as 'Midtown' - an acknowledgement that it's not quite the City nor quite the West End. But beneath the modern street facades there are memories of strawberry fields, watermills, secret medieval monastic orders, prisons, Italian telescope makers, bear baiting, Elizabethan intrigues, Dickensian street gangs and of course the closely-cloistered diamond business.

Lichtenstein argues that the area's soul lies underground, not only in the ghosts of its past and the secrets of its present, but also in the maze of vaults beneath street level and in the underground presence of the Fleet River, which still flows furtively beneath the area from Hampstead Heath down to the Thames, unknown to most locals. Her project is to bring some of these secrets to the surface.

The oral history sections are brilliant. Family connections with the Garden, and Lichtenstein's own research, unearth a rich cast of characters whose anecdotes give us a genuine flavour of the area's vibrant mid-century life. Jewish and Italian voices figure strongly (this was, after all, also once London's Little Italy), and their stories build up into a picture of a time when Hatton Garden was not unlike an Anglicised version of New York's Lower East Side.

Other components of the book are less successful. Lichtenstein's ruminations on the area's history and psychogeography come across as tentative and pretentious, and carry none of the manic, mystical conviction that buoys Peter Ackroyd along when he gets his teeth into one of London's forgotten offcuts.

Worse are some silly factual errors that Lichtenstein carelessly allows to seep into her text. Thus we learn, with some surprise, about Jurassic deer, the inquisition's torture sessions in the Fleet Prison, and Prince Albert's influential role in the abolition of slavery. These are incidental lapses, and are forgivable as such, but what's more worrying are factual blunders that pertain to the heart of the story, the jewellery business. Annoyingly, Lichtenstein fails to distinguish between carats (which measure diamond weight) and karats (which measure gold purity). Her information about diamond grading is also off-kilter. K colour diamonds are not `very brown or yellow' - they're clear with a pale yellow tint. Likewise VVS2 is a specific (and very high) grade of diamond clarity, whereas Lichtenstein seems to dismiss this grading description as a catch-all for all imperfect diamonds; it is not. Lichtenstein also repeats as facts some hoary old myths and legends about the De Beers business model which bear no relation at all to the way in which De Beers does business with its customers nowadays.

I'm all for unreliable narrators in fiction. In a non-fiction book, however, factual errors such as these are unsettling, and start to put the reader on guard against the text as a whole. I finished the book not sure how much of it I could take at face value. This is shame, as I would love to believe more wholeheartedly in the entertaining yarns Rachel Lichtenstein spins through this curate's egg of a book.
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on 20 October 2013
I was expecting a book about Hatton Garden and the diamond business there - instead I have learnt more about the wide area surrounding The Garden - Little Italy, Smithfield Market etc all a bit off the grid - for which I am not sorry, but it was not my expectation and I could have been upset if my sole desire had been a more concentrated history/biography of just Hatton Garden. Maybe the author ran out of material and had to fill in with this extraneous material. I think the book should be retitled to reflect its more diverse subject matter. The main reason I am giving 3 stars is because this is a book about a wide area that I am not totally familiar with - particularly the back streets and no-one has thought to give me a map to orient myself. Then there are the untitled illustrations throughout the book - they are all listed at the beginning - which means I am always having to go back to find out what some of the manholes and dark windows are all about! I hope this is just the publisher's way of controlling costs and has nothing to do with the egocentricity of the author not giving twopence for her readers - but I somehow have my doubts....
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on 25 November 2013
Rachel Lichtenstein's oral history of Hatton Garden "Diamond Street" is quite a gem of a find. I am familiar with many of the textual and archival sources she cites and found the layer of experience and anecdote that her interlocutors bring added a new dimension to my understanding of the locality. Some of the stories repeat others but the difference in detail and cadence is just what gives oral history its flavour. There's no index and poor referencing but the keen reader will be able to follow up most of Ms Lichtenstein's sources and she would certainly enthuse a new local history reader to start exploring archiving and museums for themselves. She's a little free with promoting her own other works but her knowledge and experience of what she writes about make this a rewarding read. The quality of the pictures is truly terrible anbd loses the book a star.
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on 26 April 2014
A really interesting book which gives a very different perspective on an area of London which we have all become familiar with in our own way. Sometimes a little dull, with somewhat protracted detail of less interesting aspects. However, generally, informative and accurate.
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on 17 June 2012
Having just read this book, i found it very interesting for anyone who has any connection with the jewellery trade. A clear insight to the trade from a perspective of years ago, to the present day. I would like to have seen more picture details perhaps of jewellery, but would reccomend this book.
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on 5 November 2012
I bought this book for my husband as he asked for it as a gift on our ruby wedding anniversary. He had started reading it while waiting for me at a local bookshop and wanted to continue. He said he felt he was walking the streets and exploring the buildings with the narrator. It gives a historical and current comparison of the area and its inhabitants. The books portrays the growth of the diamond exchange market in the Holborn and old River Fleet area where Hatton Garden now flourishes with tales of the diamond merchants and their lives. He has really enjoyed it - very different from the old fishing books he usually collects!!
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on 5 February 2013
I loved this book because I am familiar with this area of London. The steps Lichtenstein took can be retraced by the reader, but do it quickly before they is lost to time. For hundreds of years this area has been home to the Jewish community or people trying to make their way up in the world. Their stories have been gathered and recorded here before they are lost forever. Inspiring tales of ordinary people who have survived against the odds.
Lichtenstein gives the reader the tools to look for clues to interpret those stories.
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on 3 July 2012
I loved this book - it really brought this part of London to life for me. I really liked the way that the chapters flipped from the current stories of those who worked in Hatton Garden within living memory and the deep excavation of the layers of time and history that only ancient cities like London have. The book peeled these layers open in a fascinating and revealing manner that kept me gripped. Not many non-fiction books do that for me.
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