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There but for the grace of God
on 24 April 2012
One of many remarkable facets of these diaries is how like, and yet how unlike, the television sitcom was to reality. The diarist, a retired Indian army officer living in the heart of Hell Fire Corner throughout the second World War, was an early member of the Home Guard in Kent. He did not suffer fools and encountered a number. Eventually, exasperated, he resigned and became a driver in the Volunteer Car Pool.
Colonel Foster is an exemplary diarist. His entires are brief, lucid and to the point; they have room for the wider view of the war as it unfolded but also for the trivia of everyday life. A picture emerges of daily exposure to danger, the stress of regular air raid warnings, the bombs and explosions, the death of acquaintances; but also of domestic life when the housemaid is suspected of being a spy, when the writer stands next to a rear-admiral in a half-hour queue to buy fish, when a journey can only be completed by borrowing a gallon of petrol, while on another drive to an emergency hospital, "I did the 28 miles in 1¼ hours."
Unwittingly, perhaps, the Colonel provides a telling self-portrait. Clearly he was a man of principle, devoted to his wife and daughter, a willing helper of deserving causes, a prickly team member, and a prejudiced patriot - among those who come in for recurrent criticism are Winston Churchill and most of his cabinet, Field Marshall Montgomery, General Eisenhower and most Americans. British servicemen who consistently damage his fence are not excused.
We can only be grateful that these diaries, having disappeared after the author's death, resurfaced in a car boot sale. Anyone wishing to understand what life was like for civilians in the front line will find a clear and accurate account. I should add that much of it made difficult reading for one who was born in Folkestone, experienced some of the later months but mostly escaped as an evacuee in Wales. So I was not there when my school premises were damaged. Unfortunately, as a photograph of wrecked houses on page 113 shows, my parents stayed on and paid with their lives.