Bookshops, unlike buying books off the internet, are all about serendipity. And that is how this summer I chanced upon a very slim, fiction title called Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau.

The book has been in print for the past 70 years and it is not, as you would think, about how to exercise while wearing fashionable outfits; neither is it about how to exercise without sweating and without your hair gradually rising up to lions’ mane elevations.

It is, in essence, a very humdrum story: the narrator gets on a bus and witnesses an argument between a man wearing a funny hat and another passenger. Then, a couple of hours later, the narrator sees the same funny-hat person at a train station, chatting to a friend about sewing a button onto his overcoat.

Eh? I thought, as I read the blurb. What’s the deal? “That is verrie gooud,” the bookseller said in a very heavy French accent, as he stacked books a couple of shelves down, “verrie orriginale and oui-oui, verrie, fonnie.”

The unremarkable story is, in fact, retold 99 times, each time in a totally different style: as an official letter, as a comedy, as a sonnet, in slang, from a medical point of view, then from a gastronomical angle, and even from a mathematical angle.

I read it in a sitting, and I thought it was ingenious: hilarious, witty, and so, so clever. It describes one of those ordinary observations that our subconscious registers as we go about our day but then don’t think about again. And that’s the thing: Queneau challenges the reader to think about it, and to consider other ways other people might live an experience. I cannot re­commend it enough: it is nothing but an exercise in putting yourself in other people’s shoes.

Putting himself in other people’s shoes is alien to the vandal who smashed the memorial bench in the Mellieħa Red Tower area. The marble bench was erected last year, in me­mory of Anita Gray, by her wi­dower and her daughter.

I had come across this bench – discreetly facing one of the best views of the island – during one of my family’s lockdown walks back in April. Its inscription was simple but truly moving: “Please enjoy the view, peace and tranquillity. Cherish your loved ones and those closest to you. Enjoy life.”

The vandal clearly exercised his style in sheer ignorance. Fortunately, and thanks to crowdfunding by people who live their life story in a noble manner, the bench will soon be replaced, and Mr Gray, the love of Anita’s life, as well as all of us, can once again sit there and enjoy the view.

Prime Minister Robert Abela is viewing the nation through dollar-sign glasses- Kristina Chetcuti

I find memorial benches – a very British thing – so profoundly touching. There are a few at San Anton Gardens and at Hastings Gardens as well, and somehow, they always make me stop and reflect. They are such a powerful mark of love and posterity, but above all, they are an open invitation to passers-by to appreciate life.

Putting himself in other people’s shoes seems to be alien to Prime Minister Robert Abela. He is viewing the nation through dollar-sign glasses.

The snippy, snarky, snidey remarks, trademark of his disgraced predecessor, makes Abela look like he’s getting advice from the Office of Joseph. The style is passé and simply won’t work anymore in these COVID times: for the country’s sake it’s time to change the tone.

“Being consensual doesn’t mean you are weak. Looking around the world it is extraordinary how the women like Jacinda Ardern and Angela Merkel have handled COVID better – it’s about temperament, leadership and bringing people with you,” a British Tory MP said last week. Hear, hear.

Prime Minister Abela has to realise one thing: by now we all have an acquaintance or a relative who has died of COVID or who’s in hospital battling for life; and we all have vulnerable people in our families, so there are quite a few of us who are grieving and many of us who are duly worried. But then there are some who don’t give a toss – and for some odd reason, he’s pandering to them.

Surely a show of empathy would not go amiss? We will only spend money and boost the economy when we feel it is safe to do so. And one way of doing it – rather than make us all flock to Valletta to buy pre­sents and hug under Jason Micallef’s fake tree – would be perhaps to carry out mass nationwide testing, like they just did in Slovakia. The results were out in minutes; those who tested positive were immediate­ly quarantined and the rest went about their lives.

If Slovakia can do it over a weekend with a population of five million, surely, we can test our half-a-million in half a day. Blanket testing would curb the spread, ease the pressure on medics struggling in ITU wards and allow the rest of the NHS to function normally. If this is followed up by constant testing of incoming travellers, then the prime minister can look us all in the eye and truly say that he’s got it under control.

Is it too much to ask Abela to show some kindness? Perhaps that’s all the boost our econo­my needs this Christmas – an exercise in style.
Twitter: @krischetcuti

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