Thursday 25 August 2011

La Petite Ceinture: a Cultural History

On Friday, September 16th. 1870, Edmond de Goncourt recorded in his Journal:
Today, I amused myself by travelling right round Paris on the ring railway. It is an amusing sight, that vision, swift as speed, afforded as one emerges from the darkness of a tunnel, of rows of white tents, of guns rolling along country lanes, of river banks lined with little crenellated paprapets of olden times, of canteens with their tables and glasses set out in the sunshine and their waitresses with braid sewn along the hems of their jackets and skirts – a vision constantly interrupted and blocked by a high embankment, at the end of which there reappears the familiar horizon of the yellow ramparts dotted with the little silhouettes of National Guards.
It was a turbulent time for a pleasure trip. As de Goncourt encircled Paris, Prussian forces were doing the same thing, just a few miles further out. Paris was protected by a continuous line of fortification but by the following Monday (19th.) the city was completely cut off and a four month nightmare had commenced.

More than half a century passed before we hear from our next witness, Mr. J E N Heygate who writes with a brief account of a similar circular trip to the Railway Magazine who published it in the issue dated March 1925. Mr. Heygate’s observations suggest a service in sharp decline – passengers few and far between and an average speed of 15 miles per hour. It would be intriguing to confirm whether Mr. Heygate and Sir John Edward Nourse Heygate, 4th Baronet are one and the same person. The 4th Baronet had a colourful career, among other things, achieving some notoriety as the man who cuckolded Evelyn Waugh in his first marriage to Evelyn Gardner. Heygate (1903-1976) was educated at Balliol College – the combination of the initials and an Oxford address suggest a good match.

I was lead to the Goncourt quotation by Eric Hazan in his superb book, The Invention of Paris. Hazan (of whom more in a future posting) is fascinated by the Petite Ceinture (PC) and tracked down two more literary recollections of travel on the Ceinture from Paul Fargue and Eugène Dabit. The lingering presence of the Ceinture more than 70 years after its demise, particularly in north-east Paris is especially intriguing to Hazan as a chronicler of a version of Paris that is now lost. Today’s postcard shows a clockwise PC train racing through the cutting towards the tunnel on the east of the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont – the next stop will be Belleville – Villette. The spectators on the footbridge are a fraction of a second away from total immersion in a cloud of steam and smoke. Some previous posts on this subject can be reached from here and here.

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