Galley Slaves

I like to keep busy. It makes the day go faster.

I like to keep busy. It makes the day go faster.

Whatever one thinks of Iran’s draconian interpretation of Shari’a, hangings, stonings and what not, they’d have to go some way to beat the activities of the SAVAK, which was the secret police, domestic security and intelligence service established by the old Shah with the help of the CIA. Their brutality was legendary. The Savaki Meat Hook was a little trick once used in Evin Prison in Tehran, or so I was once advised by an ex-member of the Special Forces. It was an ingenious way to persuade people to talk. The torture involved stretching the victim’s arms straight behind his back, knotted at the wrists, then using a hook and pulley to pull them vertically upwards by a meat hook attached to the knot until the recipient was virtually standing on tiptoe in, let’s say, some considerable discomfort. Needless to say, tongues loosened very, very fast.

Why am I discussing torture?

I am in the process of marking external exam scripts. It’s a pastime for masochists, and melancholic ones at that. Think Eeyore on speed. I’d always felt I was a bit like a galley slave, but on previous voyages the whips were infrequently used and most of the time, one felt oneself to be a reasonably valued member of the ship’s crew.

This has changed in recent times. Tolerances have been ratcheted tighter and tighter, until one is standing on one’s intellectual tip toes with very little room to move, at the whim of a Chief who guides us all in the paths of numerical righteousness and who might or might not have been having a great day when he put the test material together. Additionally, the taskmasters punish infraction with metaphorical whip-cracking with a good deal more frequency than formerly, only slightly ameliorated by the frisson of schadenfreude when one catches one of the nobs at the top making a wee blunder themselves. As surely they must.

The Czechs have a delightful word: litost. “Litost is a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery,” writes Milan Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Each time the ‘out of tolerance’ tab explodes on to the screen like a land mine, I understand what it means. Every year, I remind myself that the arms and shoulders don’t bend with as much suppleness as formerly and I’m a mug to sign up.

Next year, maybe, I’ll make a dash for the lifeboats….



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