Life and times

The travel writer on re­viv­ing Sartre, em­brac­ing hear­ing aids and puz­zlingly sim­i­lar bath mats

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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

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