Life and times
The travel writer on reviving Sartre, embracing hearing aids and puzzlingly similar bath mats
Travel writer Sara Wheeler
ONCE YOU LURCH towards 60, the past looms larger. As a writer I find myself increasingly preoccupied with it – after all, the present isn’t around for long enough. And so it is that this month I am putting on a play that I first translated and directed in 1981, with largely the same cast. It’s Jean-paul Sartre’s Les Mains Sales, a political thriller with existential angst and sexual tension lobbed in (so different from today’s scene…). Sartre is pretty much deadwood these days, and literature students are no longer in thrall to him as they were in the late ’70s. But it’s a strong play, and the way my lovely cast deal with issues of pragmatism versus idealism, and the baleful need for compromise (or not) has ripened over time in a way that amuses me. How my antediluvian actors are going to remember their lines, I have no idea. My role on the night is solely that of prompt.
THIS YEAR I GOT hearing aids. There is nothing wrong with my ears: it’s just age-related deterioration a bit early. My sons and mother got fed up with my constant squawks of, ‘What?’ First I went to Specsavers (yes, they have an audiology department) and a test confirmed that aids were required. But I’ve had such a terrible time with its service when buying glasses that I couldn’t face it, so I turned to the NHS. The audiology clinic at the Royal Free Hospital has been, and is, wonderful. Its tests, which set a higher bar, also determined that I needed aids, so we went ahead. The fitting and follow-up service could not have been better, and it’s the only branch of the NHS I’ve known where you can email and they reply within the day. You can pick up new batteries and tubes any time, and there is a drop-in clinic once a week. And it’s all free. I also love the fact that the audiologists shout the name of their next patient so loudly they can be heard two floors away.
Hear’s the thing (ha ha). When I tell people I have these little devices they immediately say, ‘Oh you can’t see them,’ indicating to me that there is a perceived stigma attached – folk leap to reassure. That’s a pity. I think of my hearing aids as a kind of triumph; over age, over adversity, over a lifetime of semi-abuse.
I write this because it might encourage people reluctant to take the plunge. Then again, when I showed my 16-yearold the picture I took of me wearing the aids to encourage a friend thinking of getting them, he said, ‘You look really decrepit from that angle.’
I HAVE A BOOK out this month – my 10th – and welcome the usual round of literary festivals. I love them – what’s not to like? You sit around moaning to fellow authors, then you listen to speakers you might not otherwise have heard. My book, Mud and Stars, tells of a journey around Russia with the authors of the Golden Age as my guides (roughly Pushkin to Tolstoy). I chose mostly homestays on my travels – an easy thing to organise in Russia. The flats were always the same – fourth-floor 1950s places with small, internal, windowless bathrooms. My hosts spent their time hunched over devices complaining about Ukraine. But I was surprised that a veil of a centralised economy still hung over proceedings, a legacy of the collectivised communist era. Across eight time zones, from the Caucasus to the Far East, each flat had the same bathroom mat. There must be one factory that supplies the whole land.
Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age, by Sara Wheeler, is out now (Jonathan Cape, £20)
The audiologists shout the name of their next patient so loudly they can be heard two floors away