last updated: 9 May 2017 (approximate reading time: 6 minutes; 1257 words)
I set my first series—the Boniface series—in London. To certain extent, that was a simple decision: I live in London and so I understood the location without needing to do huge amounts of research (although I did find I needed to undertake more research than I thought I would, if for no other reason than to get some of the details correct).
When it came to my second series—the Leathan Wilkey series—I knew I wanted to set the books in a different city, I just wasn’t sure which city. All I really knew was that Leathan wasn’t going to be in London. I considered several locations, for instance I pondered setting the series in Sarajevo—there’s an interesting connection with the start of the First World War—but in the end I settled on Paris.
And much of the reason for this choice is that, despite the many similarities, Paris is very different to London.
London had many opportunities to impose central planning upon the city, both in terms of the street layout and the style of the architecture. Perhaps the most obvious opportunity to impose a singular vision came with the Great Fire of London in 1666. And indeed, there were plans to rebuild the city with a new layout, including plans by Sir Christopher Wren (who rebuilt St Paul’s Cathedral), but none of those plans ever came to fruition.
And so London has largely retained its streets and a street layout. There are still roads which date their history to the time when London was a small agricultural settlement on the banks of the river Thames, and the capital city of England was Winchester.
If you look at Paris, you’ll see the broad sweeping Haussmannian boulevards imposed across the city from the 1850s. While Haussmann was remodelling Paris, in 19th century London only a few major roads were built which required the removal of existing properties (much of which was done in the name of slum clearance). From this time there are four main new wide roads that cut through London: Regents Street, Shaftesbury Avenue, Charing Cross Road, and New Oxford Street. And to be frank, those road aren’t that wide.
For the pedants, I’m ignoring Northumberland Avenue (which was largely built on land previously owned by the Duke of Northumberland) and Embankment (which was constructed on reclaimed land).
And while there have been some subsequent changes in London (for instance, with the addition of Kingsway and Aldwych, and let us not forget the work of the Luftwaffe), the street layout of medieval London still remains imprinted on the city to this day.
When you demolish your medieval buildings and replace them with broad boulevards, you have an opportunity to redesign your city from first principles.
And when Paris was redesigned, Baron Haussmann laid down architectural standards, imposing a consistent appearance on the new buildings. With these new standards entire streets obtained a coherent look from one end to the other. The same materials were used and every building lined up with the next (so for instance, each window was at the same level, and they were built to the same height).
By contrast, in London each separate building was separately designed to the owner’s specific requirements. Two buildings next to each other which may share a common wall could still be designed to adopt entirely different looks. So for instance, the buildings may use different bricks, the doors may be placed on different levels, the roofs may be at different heights, and so on. Even where a terrace was designed to have a consistent look, the construction may have been carried out by a number of different firms leading to minor differences.
But there is more than simply the outward appearance.
In London, much of the new development in the 18th and 19th centuries was driven by the need for residential housing as the metropolis expanded. This new development was frequently built on what was previously green fields. This often gave a separation between residential and retail. In addition, it gave a noticeable difference between social classes. Typically, one street or square would be built with a certain social class in mind. The less wealthy classes would then have properties built at the back of these large houses or in separate streets some distance away.
Paris adopted a different approach. The new buildings typically had retail space at street level with residential accommodation above. And within that residential accommodation, there would be many social classes. Typically, the moneyed classes would take the second floor and then as you moved higher up in the building the properties would become cheaper with the attics being home to the poorer classes, so address was not such a strong indicator of social status.
Cafés Not Pubs
In very crude terms, London has pubs where Paris has cafés.
Now sure, London has cafés, but these are frequently what we would class as greasy spoons—we might call them cafés, but they’re very different to their French namesakes. In addition, there are a wide range of coffee shops and other eateries in London. But this comparison misses the bigger issue.
In London, the places where people gather—irrespective of whether they be pubs, cafés, or coffee shops—are typically inside. You go in and the outside world is cut off.
In Paris, the cafés are designed to look outward. There is outside seating where the chairs are often arranged with their backs to the café, looking out onto the street. Cafés are built with large awnings and powerful heaters to protect the customers as they sit outside, so even in winter you will see people outside watching the world. For Parisians, people watching is a constant activity.
The ownership of cafés in Paris is also quite different to the London. Typically if you go to a coffee shop in London you will be served by a low salary employee. However, in Paris the norm is that cafés are operated by their owner which often results in a far different experience for the customer.
Differences… But So What?
Painting a red door blue doesn’t make any real change; a door is still a door. Changing from a pub to a café is equally insignificant.
But taking the accumulation of many varied changes—and the consequences of those changes in terms of the effect how people act and react—will lead to significant differences. So for instance, when Boniface meets someone he will usually find himself enclosed—and that enclosure both protects him and prevents him from seeing out. Whereas Leathan will find himself far more exposed, and that exposure allows him to see more, but it also means that it is much easier for other people to watch him, and for him not to realize that he is being watched.
Leathan can meet somebody in a café and while he’s chatting he can watch other activity. However, if Boniface is sitting in a car watching somebody then that somebody is likely to wonder why there’s an out of place car. In both instances, the characters need to act in different ways in order to remain hidden.
While it might seem like just minor changes, the accumulation of the changes mean that for any given situation Boniface and Leathan will act differently. And when they act differently that means the people around them act differently, and when everyone is acting differently there are different outcomes.
In other words the stories that are told in London and the stories that are told in Paris will always—by necessity—be different.