My sense is that people either love maps or hate them. They are something people are rarely neutral about. For the map-haters they can be a source for confusion and the cause of many an argument. For map-lovers, they bring the area covered by the cartography to life and can be the source of endless fascination.
I am one of that second group. I can spend hours studying a map, getting a real feel for a place. I find street maps to be particularly fascinating. I was a late and reluctant convert to satnavs and even now using one somehow feels a bit like cheating. I still enjoy perusing a map before a journey, trying to visualise the route and the places along the way.
Maps have played a big part in my first two novels and continue to do so as I write my third. I have a real desire for historical accuracy and the need to create an authentic atmosphere around the novels. It goes without saying that knowledge of a city now is close to irrelevant when writing about it during the Second World War. Street names are different, stations that were there then now longer exist, and even the layout and shape of a city will inevitably have changed.
This is especially true of Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe, where the Germans had a habit of changing street names. For instance, most towns and cities in Germany found their main squares being renamed Adolf Hitler Platz. Other street names changed, both to airbrush out people the Nazis disapproved of and replace them with names from their approved list. There are some strange anomalies: very few street names were changed in Vienna, which was a Nazi city from early 1938. Judenplatz in the heart of the Jewish district was allowed to keep its name, even as the inhabitants in that area were hunted down and taken away to be murdered.
A few years ago I managed to get hold of an old map of Berlin. I was researching The Best of Our Spies and realised that without a map from that period I was lost, so to speak. My brother was visiting Berlin and I asked him to see if he could get hold of a 1940s map. He managed to track one down and rang me from the shop to ask if he should get it. The problem, he felt, was the price and it was only after I said ‘yes’ that I could see his point: I could have had a nice city break in Berlin for the price of an old map of it. But I’ve never regretted it: the map is now well-thumbed; some of its creases have become tears and I guess constant usage has diminished any monetary value it may have had. But it has been and continues to be an invaluable resource, and I try and use the information in it in my novels.
For example, if you look at a map of Berlin today you’ll see there’s a road called Ebertstrasse that runs along the south east end of the Tiergarten, with Potsdammer Platz to its south and the Brandenburg Gates to the north. However, in 1935 Ebertstrasse was renamed Hermann Goring Strasse (see below).
One of my favourite shops in London is Stanfords map shop in Covent Garden. A few years ago I discovered it was selling a series of street maps of cities and towns in the Ruhr from around 1944. The maps are reproduced by a company in County Durham called Alan Godfrey Maps and are based on maps produced during the war by the RAF. The German street names are all there along with key buildings identified in English. These maps are such a good resource that I set some of my second novel, The Swiss Spy, in Essen. I chose the city both because it works in the plot and because I had the reliable map below (note Adolf Hitler Platz).
I am currently writing my third novel, which will be a sequel to The Swiss Spy. Early on in the book there will be a chapter in which Captain Edgar (the British spymaster who appears in both The Swiss Spy and The Best of Our Spies) goes to visit a retired British MI6 officer to ask him about someone he recruited to work for British intelligence a few years before. But where should this retired officer live? A couple of weeks ago I came across a 1938 road map with Maidenhead to its east, Oxford to the north, Wantage to the west and Reading to the south. It’s a detailed map, showing a road network that has inevitably changed in the ensuing 75 years, along with village stations that no doubt disappeared in the 1960s and churches that are probably now ruins.
This map has now worked its way into the plot. It will also provide the location for where an agent will be trained, perhaps in the less-populated Chilterns.
A map has its limitations. It cannot reveal the sound of concealed river, the smell of an ancient wood, the flocks of birds appearing over the brow of distant hill or hedgerow banked high over a narrow lane. They don’t show the cobblestones and the streetlamps and the other paraphernalia of a city. But they can be used to help construct an atmosphere and a sense of place. This may not be central to the plot, but is essential to the storytelling.
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