'He's like a cuddly teddy bear" was the unlikely perception of Sir Robert Foster by an ample Fijian chiefly lady, recognising some physical affinity. "I always want to hug him, but I can't get my arms round far enough."
Foster was the last governor of the colony of Fiji and, when the day of independence dawned, on 10 October 1970, he found himself its first governor-general. That the last formal manifestation of colonialism was not set aside - and Foster with it - was evidence, it was widely assumed, of the esteem in which he was held by the temperamental incoming first prime minister, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Perhaps it was also that Foster had learned and practised the singular skills of self-effacement and disengagement that had come, increasingly, to be needed. Asked about his responsibilities and what he did as Governor over the months preceding independence, he replied with candour, "Not very much. I just got rid of all those files in my safe about you know who and all the others; and tried to keep the ship on a steady course, I suppose."
As temperatures rose among protesting European settlers who sought his assistance in redressing real or imaginary new grievances, he would mischievously reply in those last colonial months: "You've come to the wrong chap. That's the fellow you should go to now." And Foster would point them down the hill to the office of the incoming prime minister and Suva's government buildings.
"Robin" Foster came to the South Pacific late in his Colonial Service career. Having studied Mechanical Sciences at Peterhouse, Cambridge, he joined the service in 1936 and, for 28 years, he gradually moved up the promotion tree in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Then, perhaps to his own surprise, but not to some others', he was offered and accepted the job of High Commissioner for the Western Pacific in 1964. This gave him oversight responsibility for the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, the Gilbert & Ellice Islands Colony and British participation in the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides. He did not care for it all that much. The isolation, backwardness and financially deprived nature of his oceanically dispersed and disparate parish, plus his distaste for small boats in unpacific seas, left him with no regrets when the relative splendours of a colonnaded Government House in Suva called him from Honiara in 1968.
It was an imaginative appointment that he should succeed the dynamic and charismatic Derek Jakeway. Foster was just the man to watch the colonial clock tick itself into oblivion in Fiji. By then, the script was largely written and the stage was set for independence. What Foster had to do was persuade the principal actors to learn their lines and then to encourage them to produce and perform the play.
His sense of irony, his debunking of the pompous and the faintly ridiculous, his genial but often disconcerting modesty, and his pragmatic lack of interest in innovation, all found him with few enemies in these years. He attracted confidences, but rarely offered them. Addicted to shrewd aphorisms and ribald, if apolaustic, dismissals of his London masters, he viewed politicians of all Westminster persuasions with disdain. Faced with three pressing ministerial despatches from London on one occasion, he declined my draft replies and said,
No, I am inclined to send nothing back and see what happens. If I respond, they'll only ask more silly questions; and the correspondence will go on and on. So let's lose the file for a bit. One of the problems of our official world is that we over-communicate with one another . . .
And that was in 1969, before the days of e-mail and direct-dial telephoning. Perhaps it accounted for the fact that he was an unexpectedly cursory draftsman of official correspondence.
Foster's unstuffiness emerged at times in unexpected ways. Asked, portentously, by a New Zealand radio interviewer just before the independence of Fiji what he thought it would be like going from being Governor of a British colony to Governor-General and Queen's Representative of an independent Commonwealth state, he replied: "I don't know yet. I've not been a Governor-General before."
In 1987, he was among the audience in London at a Royal Commonwealth Society-sponsored lecture about Fiji, following the military coup in May that year. After it had finished, speakers from the floor were requested to say who they were before they spoke. Foster asked one question, announcing himself simply as "Robin Foster: student of Fiji". Few there knew who he was or what high offices he had held in their country.
Neither Foster, nor his South African-born wife Madge, could face the retirement prospect of an English winter. They opted for the salubrious insobriety of the Algarve. It was not a success. After some years of language frustrations, ill-health and boredom, they left and settled in Southampton.
Madge predeceased her husband in 1991, whereafter he moved to a flat in Cambridge where Peterhouse college lunches helped to sustain him and to relieve his solitude. But he could never be persuaded into latter-day activity. Seeking to enrol him in good works, one persistent petitioner asked, "Well, if you are so busy, what exactly did you do yesterday?"
"I don't remember," Foster replied, "but I know that it took all day."
Kenneth BainReuse content