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Fate of Freetown hotel tells story of Sierra Leone

Fate of Freetown hotel tells story of Sierra Leone

In Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, a hotel made famous by author Graham Greene has come to symbolise a country caught in a cycle of conflict and decay.  (Photo:  Reduced to rubble, The City Hotel had a prestigious history)

It was only a pile of rubble but it had a powerful effect on me.

I was standing on the crummy corner where Gloucester and Lightfoot Boston streets meet, hoping not to be run down by swarming Okada motorbike taxis or pick-pocketed by street kids.

The dry season heat of West Africa was at its most ferocious but the demolition site in front of me raised goosebumps on my arms.

This was where a famous hotel once stood.

‘Home from home’

Just as Singapore had Raffles and Paris had the George V – hotels that, for an era at least, define a place – so Freetown had The City.

It was one of the oldest in the former British colony and, thanks to Graham Greene, by far the best known. 

City Hotel in the 1960s

City Hotel in the 1960s

“Through Greene, the hotel became a literary leitmotif for the late colonial age, not just in Sierra Leone but across Britain’s declining empire.”

His City Hotel was a forlorn place of ambitions run to waste.

As he put it: “A home from home for men who had not encountered success at any turn of the long road and who no longer expected it.”

Through Greene, the hotel became a literary leitmotif for the late colonial age, not just in Sierra Leone but across Britain’s declining empire.

Hotel to brothel

I knew the establishment had fallen into disrepair.

The Italian-Swiss manager, Freddie Ferrari, had died back in 1993, aged 78 – Greene had known him when he was deployed to Freetown as a spy for MI6 (the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service) in World War II.

The place had gone downhill badly by the time I started going to Freetown as a journalist during Sierra Leone’s civil war.

Freddie Ferrari
Freddie Ferrari

Owner Freddie Ferrari died before the hotel went into decline.

“It used to be one of the smartest hotels in the city,” Freddie’s grandson, Victor, told me on my last visit, rolling his “rs” with the gentlest of Krio lilts.

He was born in 1978 and remembers the first-floor bar, where Freddie held court and which acted as his nursery.

At home he still has a box of timeworn photographs showing various generations of drinkers at the bar.

The fashions changed – collars and ties in the early pictures, T-shirts and sunglasses in the later ones – but the drinkers looked as if they belonged in Grahame Greene-land.

“The sad truth is,” he said, “when my granddaddy died it stopped functioning as a real hotel.”

This was a euphemism. The rooms began to be rented out not for the night, but for the hour. It became a brothel.

“So, when fire struck in 2000 we did not really know how many people were in the place,” Victor continued.

“They say four people died but we could never be sure of the exact number.”  

City Hotel bar

City Hotel bar

The City Hotel bar enjoyed decades of popularity

I had gone to Freetown with a photograph of Greene leaning on a stone balustrade at the bottom of the steps leading up to the bar.

Even after the fire, the facade was still intact and I hoped to get a souvenir snap of me in the same place.

I was four days too late. The City hotel had been demolished.

This being post-war Sierra Leone, where heavy equipment is scarce and expensive, a team of labourers wielding pickaxes and sledgehammers had knocked it down, stone by stone, beam by beam, brick by brick.

The walls, where Greene’s fictional character Harris chalked up victims in a cockroach-killing competition, lay in a heap.

Among the masonry, I recognised the shaped top of one of the columns behind Greene in the photograph.

“It was the only thing we could do,” Victor said. “The government said that all the plots in the city centre now have to be used by their owners or taken over by the council.”

‘Post-colonial decay’

Greene saw The City as a symbol of colonial failure.

For me, the story of the hotel and its once wealthy hotelier family owners, the Ferraris, has also become a symbol, but this time of post-colonial decay.

Old Freddie had married a Sierra Leonean and his position at the hotel was meant to have set up his family comfortably.

But in the cycle of coup and counter-coup, corruption and conflict that has bedevilled Sierra Leone since independence in 1961, the Ferraris have suffered along with the rest of the country’s five million or so inhabitants.

A nation set up as a sanctuary for former slaves from Britain has now become a net exporter of people back to Britain – people desperate to flee poverty and despair.

Victor himself claimed asylum in London where he now works nights as a security guard.

I called him the other day and the first thing he asked me was: “Do you know anyone who could give me a good price for the site where The City Hotel once stood?”

By Tim Butcher, Sierra Leone

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 He wrote about it in his 1936 travel book Journey Without Maps, used it in 1948 – thinly disguised as the Bedford – to open one of his great novels (The Heart of the Matter) and then famously revisited it for a 1968 essay where he dubbed Sierra Leone “the Soupsweet Land”.

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