ROBERT BLAKE’S LETTERS HOME: PART TWO 26/2/43 – 4/5/43

If the main theme of my father’s letters during the first six months of his captivity was his request for food, clothes and books, the picture that emerges over the next three months of his correspondence is of a more structured existence, as camp PG21 in Chieti becomes more organised and better supplied. In a letter to his father on 2/3/43 he describes his average day:

The day begins with Roll Call at 9 o’clock followed by a scratch breakfast of Red X food (we get a parcel each per fortnight). I spend the morning reading. Lunch (soup) at 12.30. I usually spend the afternoon reading as there are now quite a lot of books in the camp. Roll Call again at 6 o’clock, followed by supper. I usually play bridge or poker after that or else go to the weekly show – which is often quite good. The weather is marvellous. I usually take my exercise walking up and down the path in the middle of the camp for about one and a half hours in the evening. Lights go out at 10.30. It is as you see a simple life & so dull.’

Robert Blake in Oxford

Robert Blake in Oxford

To his mother on 9/3/43 he writes: ‘Life in some ways is not as bad as it was. There are a large number of books in the camp. The clothing situation since I got your parcel on Dec 29 and we got issued with battle dress has improved enormously. Unfortunately our supply of Red X parcels is nearly finished. We never get more than one a fortnight at any time. The theatre here flourishes. Last week they did Ten Minute Alibi and did it very well. Next week they are doing the Merchant of Venice. Do you remember me as Antonio in it at school – not one of my most successful efforts!’

In a letter to his father on 30/3/43 he celebrates, ‘the first big consignment of books from you all – eight excellent law books & 2 parcels from the Elm Hill Bookshop – one with The Count of Monte Cristo. I must say the account of the hero’s imprisonment makes this place seem like a rest camp!’ In other letters he continues to comment on the books he’s reading. On 13/4/43 he writes: ‘I read the other day for the first time Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son and thoroughly enjoyed it, but felt sorry for the son!’

Perhaps my father  was referring to this piece of advice from the insufferably pompous Lord:

I would heartily wish that you may often be seen to smile but never heard to laugh while you live. Frequent and loud laughter is the characteristic of folly and ill-manners; it is the manner in which the mob express their silly joys at silly things; and they call it being merry. In my mind there is nothing so illiberal and ill-bred as audible laughter… I am sure that since I have had the full use of my reason, no one has ever heard me laugh.’

Fortunately, not advice that my father, who had a very good sense of humour, would ever have dreamed of giving to me and my sisters!

The prisoners are now (13/4/43) being allowed out of the camp. ‘We are allowed out for walks once a week and I take full advantage of it, for I am sure it is good for one’s mind if nothing else to see something other than these four walls. The news is very cheerful these days and so one lives in hope always. It will be wonderful to see you all again after such a long time.’

As the Italian summer sets in he comments in a letter dated 4/5/43: ‘The weather is beginning to get extremely hot. You would hardly recognize me so brown have I become! Also my hair has got very bleached by sitting in the sun! However I expect it is very good for me.’ The theatre in PG21 is putting on such up to date plays that he even ends up recommending a play he has seen to his mother. ‘Last week the theatre performed The Man Who Came to Dinner, an extremely funny American play and film now running in London. If it comes to Norwich don’t miss it. ‘Even Daddy’ (as Jill would say) will enjoy it.’

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