Rana Dasgupta in Granta:
Until the 1960s – when the new world turned resentfully on the old – the river-wrinkled region to the south of Paris was dotted with handsome country towns made modern by the railways.
Many of the brave stations and postal depots from that era have since fallen into decrepitude, but they still hold the memory of the erstwhile alchemy. Twin rails conducted industrial vigour into the most rustic of locales: the espresso (for it was the Italians who expressed it, collapsing caffeine and locomotives into one steam-powered word) of economic expansion and minute-precision time. Suddenly, provincial farmers could send perishable produce to Paris, where, a mere two hours out of the ground, it would sell for metropolitan prices in the crammed stalls of Les Halles. But they were simultaneously engulfed by the greater force of the city moving out to them: for industrialists, too, could propel products far afield on the railways, so why not manufacture them outside the capital, where land and labour were cheap?
There was the town of Arpajon, for instance, whose fruit and vegetables were so urgently needed in Les Halles that a thirty-seven-kilometre railway was built to link them door-to-door. But the town’s population was also swelling with the influx of new enterprises: breweries and tanneries, and especially the shoe factory, set up in 1859. All this created a new bourgeoisie who built large homes in a self-sufficiently regional style: coated with rough-hewn stone, colourfully painted on the lintels, stretching unnaturally thin and tall. There were parks laid out, and pretty streets of shops, and a grandiose city hall. The railway station – source of everything – was appropriately imposing.
The same rule is shown by its exceptions: take the nearby village of Grigny, which the railway lines did not touch, and which maintained, therefore, an older sense of time. It became bucolic: horse-drawn
carts took Parisian day trippers from the nearest station to sit in Grigny’s tourist pavilions, where they could breathe invigorating country air and draw nourishment from the prospect of gently rolling hills. The pastoral eternity of this view was made poignant, all the same, by a modern frisson: sweeping past the distant peasants labouring in the grain fields was the stern line of the Vanne aqueduct – erected as part of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s re-engineering of the capital in the 1860s – which filled greedy Parisian reservoirs with pure water captured 200 kilometres away.
Today, Grigny is a grimy assemblage of 1970s housing blocks. New facades on the schools fly the flags of France and the European Union, and are painted with edifying quotations from great white men, but they are masks for falling-down classrooms.