Ann Leslie "A Month in the Life of the Bahamas"
Queen, 25 Oct. 1967, pp. 62- 67
The King of Freeport is, of course, Wallace Groves
In the throes of a libel suit, he is quiet, cautious, perhaps understandably on the look-out for 'knockers' who bring up the subject of his two-year prison sentence some years ago in a fraud case in the States. 'Don't take a photograph of me like that!' he days, "You're trying to make me look sinister!"
He has succeeded where previous attempts to lure tourists to Grand Bahama have failed. 'Your Sir Billy Butlin tried to set up one of his holiday camps here some years ago, but it failed. He didn't fully appreciate, perhaps, that the American tourist does not like to be too organized, and what he does like is to play plenty of golf.'
He is liable to get it in Freeport: there are already three eighteen-hole golf courses here and another three are planned.
An estimated £140,000,000-plus has been invested in Freeport/Lucaya, and tourism has in a mere three years soared from 26,000 visitors to an estimated 300,000 visitors. But every statistic one produces in Freeport is liable to change and to escalate in size overnight. 'Every time you sneeze here, you find there's another hotel gone up.'
The hotels are bold, brassy, American in style and service. Operation Goodwill has been launched in order to get the fairly stolid Bahamians suddenly transformed from poor fishermen into over-tipped waiters, to improve what is rather inaccurately termed their 'traditional friendly hospitality'. It is badly needed in some quarters.
Boom days have indeed come to the islanders—men like taxi-driver Kenneth Dawkins, who reckons with hard work in a good week to be able to earn £140. But the cost of living has rocketed and most of the Negroes still live in shabby little Eight Mile Rock or the new housing development of Hawksbill. They are thus not always quite as grateful for the new prosperity as they are expected to be by the entrepreneurs.
Freeport's night-life is razzamatazz Las Vegas-style with top-line cabaret stars from the States. But, let no one doubt it, gambling has been the biggest reason for its success.
In a recent poll conducted by the Daily Tribune among visitors to Freeport, the chief conclusion was: 'Though sun and sea are an attraction, the general tourist reaction to Freeport was that of a frontier town lacking beauty, charm, good food, good service, good shopping or anything to do. The only redeeming factor was gambling'. The editorial reluctantly came to the conclusion that perhaps the Government should have some share in the profits of gambling, estimated at more than £7, 000,000, 'a move which should substantially strengthen the financial future even if it does not improve the moral climate'. And who in the Bahamas would seriously doubt where the priorities lie?
One of the many people who would lose his job if gambling were abolished is croupier Tom Gerrard ..
Gerrard, a stocky blond Englishman of thirty-six with a taste for tough-guy talk, is sun-bathing outside his house in Freeport with his wife Cornelia and his three children, Jane, Tracy and three-year-old Theseus Hereward: 'I called him that because I think Theseus and Hereward are the greatest heroes of our time'.
"I trained at Dino Cellini's croupiers' school in London and I came over here three years ago in a special plane-load of sixty nine croupiers when the first casino began operating. I like Uncle Dino. I'm sorry he got expelled.
'Is the game here straight? I can tell you that it is absolutely straight, nothing crooked about it at all. Yea, well, sure some of the Mafia boys are involved, though you won't / find their names on any of the books, you can bet your life the game itself is straight.'
Mind you, Gerrard is not a croupier by profession. Oh, no. He is an actor.
'Yea, but see, my face didn't fit the current fashion in the London theatre when I was trying to get jobs. I miss it though, all me old mates, Mike Caine, Alby Finney, Stanley Baker—hey, tell them to come over here some time, see old Tom, if you ever bump into them, will you? Me and Cornelia is still kooky like we always used to be, tell 'em.
'Done everything, I have. Was a clown for six-and-a-half years in a circus, then worked as a doorman at the Hilton, then in Smithfield as a porter. Another time, I was a bodyguard for Christine Keeler.'
Jack Hayward, who came here with the first bulldozer and who owns forty per cent of the Port Authority, is probably the most influential man on the island, apart from Groves himself
He is a also a committed acting ham. Extraordinarily enough, there is a flourishing amateur theatre group here, doggedly planting its little cultural daffodils in the form of Pinter and Albee plays on this island of limestone and cement mixers and ringing fruit machines.
Hayward is a professional Englishman, a public schoolboy, ex-RAF, with a taste for wearing chappish blazers and that casual amateurish English charm which should not, however, fool anyone into doubting his extraordinary flair and determination.
The son of Sir Charles Hayward, head of the huge Firth-Cleveland group, he has lived in the Bahamas for twenty years, but lost nothing of his Home-Counties-and-cricket-flannels accent. He sentimentally cherishes an old London taxi, which he imported to Freeport, and he lights his garden with old streetlamps from the Richmond gas works.
The house that he and his wife Jean own on the beach at Freeport is decorated like an old country house, with quiet chintzes and the right sort of Country Life dogs bounding in and out of it. Even the swimming pool, despite its size and magnificence, contrives to look rather tasteful European, like part of an Italian water garden.
It is Hayward who is responsible for The Pub In The Mall, the plethora of portraits of the Queen in offices and shops" 'I see no point in Americans coming here if we simply end up looking like Miami!'
I comment tentatively on the white plastic theatre-organ styles of some of the architecture.
'Well, yes, hideous, isn't it! But, you see, when we took on the idea of Freeport, we were running a really terrible risk, and we were begging people to come here. Everyone now talks as if it were a dead cert success from the beginning, but in fact it was a tremendous gamble which happens to have worked out well. Well, in those days we couldn't turn down people when they wanted to build here simply because we didn't wholly admire their taste in architecture.'
Control is not something that Bahamians have taken to. And in Freeport, Grand Bahama, the town they call Las Vegas East, the town of El Casino and The Kasbar, of merrie maidens and conch fritters, of rolling dice and Happy Hour, any attempt at aesthetic control is far too late.
There is nothing else like Freeport in the Bahamas. Just as there is nowhere else like the Bahamas
For the Bahamas is as individual and as eccentric, as poor and as wealthy, as ugly and as exquisite, as humble and as snobbish as the people who come to perch, however briefly, on these 700 pieces of rock.
It is these people, rather than the pieces of rock, who are the real Bahamas. This has been a month in the life of some of them.