A hotel that hosts the ghost of Graham Greene

FREETOWN DAYS

It has been more than two years since a drink was served in the bar of the City Hotel. The cash register, like everything else, is covered with dust. A single stool stands at the counter. The shelves are empty of bottles. The fans which cooled customers as they sipped their sundowners no longer turn and paint is peeling from the walls.

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 Orr

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
filmPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
News
General Election
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Administrator is requ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - Commercial Vehicles - OTE £40,000

£12000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion and growth of ...

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - Sheffield - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer position with a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Leader - Plasma Processing

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Operations Leader is required to join a lea...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders