The ghost of William Boot is back to haunt the resurrected Liberty Hotel.
Addis Ababa’s Itegue Taitu Hotel, made famous as the Liberty in Scoop, Evelyn Waugh’s acclaimed 1938 satire about sensation-seeking foreign correspondents, has been restored following severe fire damage in early 2015, more than a century after it was built.
“It is a heritage building and has been repaired close to its original form,” acting manager Woineshet “Winy” Teshome says, as I wallow in literary nostalgia over curried chicken in Ethiopia’s oldest hotel.
The venerable hostelry’s two-storey black-and-white facade, its wraparound exterior veranda and, within, its high ceilings, wooden floors and monumental staircase would be easily recognisable by Empress Taitu Betul, after whom it was named. The third wife of Emperor Menelik II conceived it as a place where guests “could dine in tranquillity while enjoying the cool breeze and views of the plains below,” according to the potted history written on the hotel menu.
In 1896, Menelik II had stunned the world by defeating a large and well-equipped Italian army at Adwa. It was a shocking reversal in the scramble by Western powers to colonise Africa.
In its aftermath, Menelik II sought to unite and modernise a nation fragmented by feudal fiefdoms scattered over a vast and often inhospitable terrain. This involved bringing in foreign advisers, diplomats and businessmen – all of whom had to be accommodated.
In 1905, the Taitu Hotel began to take shape. With its flat roof and rectangular shape, it reflected the mix of European, Indian and local features that characterised many of the young capital’s buildings in the early 20th century.
Located conveniently between the palace (which now houses the prime minister’s office) and the main market, the Taitu Hotel hosted, among many foreign dignitaries and businessmen, British, Italian and German envoys. In the early days, water for its bathtubs was carried on donkeys from the nearby hot springs, which have since been claimed by high-end hotels such as the Addisu Filwoha Hotel & Hot Springs resort.
Today, compared with its many-starred rivals, the Taitu is modest in facilities and price; Lonely Planet describes it as offering “a cash-strapped overlander a classy experience for very little coin”.
Outside, the bustling, noisy Addis Ababa develops at unceasing pace – largely financed by billions of dollars from China – but the Taitu remains an oasis of quietude and a unique window on more than 100 years of drama.
In 1935, Waugh was sent by the Daily Mail newspaper to cover Italy’s second invasion of Abyssinia, this time by Benito Mussolini against Emperor Haile Selassie. The Italians annexed parts of the country and requisitioned the Taitu, using it for administrative and housing purposes. It was renamed the Imperial Hotel and Ethiopians were barred.
In 1941, the Italians were ousted by British and South African forces, Haile Selassie returned to his throne and the Taitu was given the name Etege. In 1974, when Selassie was overthrown by the Marxist Derg, the hotel’s name changed again, to Awuraris. Since the takeover by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, in 1991, the hotel has been privatised and renamed Itegue Taitu.
I am intent on recapturing the flavour of 1935, when Waugh and the world’s media circus made their way to Addis Ababa, a city so remote that reaching it required a lengthy steamship voyage and a three-day jolting rail trip from the port of Djibouti.
Waugh, by his own admission, was not a great success as a hard news journalist. He was in Harar when the scoop of the war was broken in Addis Ababa, and was humiliated by acrimonious telegrams from his employer. But he got his own back, and more, for Scoop, with its perfect-pitch depiction of his conniving, bibulous, headline-hungry colleagues, helped consolidate his position in the front ranks of literature.
I read Scoop as a youth and it rendered me helpless with laughter. The book’s diverting characters were one reason I chose to become a journalist. The work, as Waugh says in its preface, was closely based on real characters and happenings.
Its protagonist, William Boot, is a shy British nature columnist more at ease writing about badgers and water voles. In a case of mistaken identity, he is sent out to cover what Lord Copper, proprietor of the Daily Beast, describes as a “promising little war” in Ishmaelia (Abyssinia).
In the capital of Jacksonburg (Addis Ababa), Boot, a naif among his seasoned rivals, keeps getting beaten to the news and berated by his bosses – until he inadvertently stumbles upon the great “scoop” that propels him to national acclaim.
The dining area, with ochre- and salmon-coloured walls adorned with portraits of historical figures and local art, is open to the central passage linking the hotel’s front and rear entrances, lending an ambience of accessibility and familiarity. Sitting here, as Boot (who was partly modelled on a young Morning Post reporter, Bill Deedes) did, I can overhear him being advised by the affable, cynical Corker, an agency reporter: “News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead.”
A few feet away, Teshome is talking to her staff outside her office and I can see, transposed, Waugh’s inimitably etched picture: “The Hotel Liberty was folded in the peace of Saturday afternoon, soon to be broken by the arrival of the weekly train from the coast but, at the moment, at four o’clock, was serene and all-embracing. The wireless station was shut and the fifteen journalists were at rest. Mrs. Earl Russell Jackson padded in stockinged feet across the bare boards of the lounge looking for a sizeable cigar-end, found one, screwed it into her pipe, and settled down in the office rocking-chair to read her Bible.”
It was only a brief respite, however, because the journalists “were a great deal of trouble; brought in a nasty kind of customer too – Hindus, Ishmaelites from up country, poor whites and near-whites from the town, police officers, the offscourings of the commercial cafes and domino saloons, interpreters and informers and guides, not the kind of person Mrs. Earl Russell Jackson liked to see about her hotel. What with washing and drinking and telephoning and driving about in the mud in taxicabs and developing films and cross-questioning her old and respectable patrons, there never seemed a moment’s peace.”
In the bar beside the hotel’s rear entrance, pianist Seble Worku is playing mellow melodies as patrons, local and foreign, chat over drinks. I climb the central staircase, with its balusters resembling thick branches, to a large hall, off which guests reside in simply furnished rooms, each leading to a shared balcony.
“This was where the reporters drank, plotted, quarrelled and borrowed each other’s toothbrushes,” recalled Deedes, in a 2003 Daily Telegraph article.
I envisage Waugh’s ace American correspondent Wenlock Jakes (drawn from John Gunther, of the Chicago Daily News), pounding on his typewriter. Jakes, wrote Waugh, was the “highest paid journalist of the United States (who) scooped the world with an eyewitness story of the sinking of the Lusitania four hours before she was hit.” Next door, I imagine Sir Jocelyn Hitchcock (recognisably Sir Percival Phillips, then of The Daily Telegraph), who, “straddling over his desk in London, had chronicled day by day the horrors of the Messina earthquake”.
Nearby are the “special writers”, Shumble, Whelper and Pigge, who played cards while keeping an eye on Hitchcock and Jakes. “Shumble began to deal. ‘Where’s Hitchcock today?’ he asked. ‘He’s onto something. I tried his door. It was locked. His shutters have been up all day. I looked through the keyhole. You bet he’s onto something. D’you think he’s found the fascist headquarters? Wouldn’t put it past him. Whenever that man disappears you can be sure that a big story is going to break.”
The Taitu’s small garden – a few tables between tall trees, including a swaying palm, and shrubs – evokes another Waugh tableau: “The men of the Excelsior Movie-Sound News, sporting the horsehair capes and silk skirts of native chieftains, made camp in the Liberty garden and photographed themselves at great length in attitudes of vigilance and repose.”
The Taitu Hotel, however, wears its past lightly. The portraits of Menelik II and Taitu Betul hanging from the walls add atmosphere, but are not accompanied by much explanatory text.
Missing is any memento of Waugh. His absence could perhaps be explained because Scoop was unflattering to Abyssinia and Waugh, going against the popular outcry against Mussolini’s attack, supported the colonialist adventure, believing it might bring order and civilisation to a barbarous land. Another factor might be that Ethiopia was long denied access to Western writers under a communist regime.
Since the author’s day, the hotel has instituted one important change. Witness this passage from Scoop: “Corker and William [Boot] sat down to luncheon. The menu did not vary at the Liberty; sardines, beef and chicken for luncheon; soup, beef and chicken for dinner; hard, homogeneous cubes of beef, sometimes with Worcester Sauce, sometimes with tomato ketchup; fibrous spindles of chicken with grey-green dented peas.”
Today, the menu offers a variety of Ethiopian and Western fare. William Boot would be pleased.
Getting there: several airlines fly from Hong Kong to Addis Ababa, including Ethiopian Airlines, Emirates, Air China and South African Airways.