I came to the City Hotel to look for a ghost. For the last three years of the Second World War, Graham Greene, with a vague attachment to the police force, served as a secret agent in Sierra Leone in West Africa.
Occasionally, he used to come here for a drink in the first-floor bar. It's on the upstairs balcony that The Heart of the Matter begins with Wilson ordering a gin and looking down at Scobie, who is returning to the police station.
Though not large or architecturally extravagant, the hotel must once have possessed a certain colonial elegance. Set back from the street in a small courtyard, it is entered by a double-sided staircase which leads into a dark, wood-panelled hall. Fifty years ago, it would not have been overshadowed by concrete office buildings and from the balcony you would have had an unimpeded view, over the tin roofs and rickety wood-frame houses, of Freetown Bay.
Some august personages graced the City Hotel in its heyday. General de Gaulle is said to have stayed there during the Second World War and, it is claimed, Queen Elizabeth had the best room when she visited in 1961, the year Sierra Leone gained its independence. Like Scobie, they could have strolled up Bond Street and into Oxford Street. The streets are still there, of course, but the names and the vistas have changed.
Greene's time in Freetown was lonely, frustrating and, by his own account, absurd. In a house on whose corrugated iron roof vultures clattered and from whose curtains rats used to swing, the yet-to-be-famous author would write coded messages to MI6. In the evenings he would take a walk along the abandoned railway track, returning at sunset for a bath before the rats came in. Then, free from telegrams, he would sit down to work on The Ministry of Fear.
The City Hotel provided some escape from the drudgery. It was, he wrote after a return visit in 1968, "a home from home for men who had not encountered success at any turn of the long road and who no longer expected it ... I suppose I felt at home at the City because, after six months or more, I was beginning to feel a failure too".
The hotel's fortunes have not been improved by the four-year old civil war. The military government, known as the National Provisional Ruling Council, has just reissued its invitation to the Revolutionary United Front rebels to take part in peace talks. But the insurgents, who in recent weeks have started attacking villages only 25 miles from the capital, seem unimpressed.
The "kindly sad Swiss landlord" whom Greene knew died a few years back and in his place is his grandson, Victor Ferrari, a young man with a vision of how the hotel could be, but no money. There's a car wreck in the courtyard and on the front wall a hand-scrawled notice in creole: "Nor piss yah." The windows are broken, grime-encrusted and in places vegetation sprouts from cracks in the once-white facade.
But, even though drinks and meals are no longer served, the City Hotel still functions as a lodging house of sorts. And it contains as louche and deracinated a group of people as ever the master assembled in his novels. The current batch of 15 guests includes four Nigerians, four Sierra Leoneans from the provinces and a pale Lebanese man who spends his time lounging on the balcony in a string vest. The turbaned Sikh who used to tell guests' fortunes in the bathroom in The Heart of the Matter would not be out of place should he drop by.
The other day Victor introduced me to one Enrico Kargbo, who, like nearly everyone else here, has fond memories of his time in England. A born-again Christian, Mr Kargbo claims he well remembers "that Mr Greene, a nice, educated man who used to speak to everyone at the bar". He also says that the writer at some point switched from Heineken to the local Star beer. If true, I don't know what textual insights this revelation might afford.
As Victor Ferrari showed me fading photographs of the hotel in the old days, he asked if I thought anyone in Britain would like to invest in his establishment. I promised I would bring his offer to the attention of Independent readers.
David OrrReuse content