When the Ethiopian Itegue Taitu Hotel burnt down last Monday most news headlines highlighted the fact that it was the place where Evelyn Waugh set his satirical novel Scoop (1938), one of the most brilliant and hilarious portraits of journalism ever written.
The Taitu holds a special place in the heart of The Daily Beast. This website is itself named after the infamous tabloid that sent the hapless writer William Boot to cover “a very promising little war” in the fictional country of Ishmaelia in Waugh’s novel. Hijnks ensue, manners are parodied, practices satirized.
Although the Taitu is the first hotel built in Addis Ababa, its construction dates back to the early 1900s, and it’s one of the oldest buildings in the city, if it weren’t for Waugh’s novel the fire probably would have gone unnoticed to most people living outside Ethiopia.
Empress Taitu, the wife of Emperor Menelik II and one of the most venerated women in Ethiopia’s history, founded the hotel in a hilly and quiet area in the Piazza (Addis’ city center). It served as a gathering place and watering hole for the growing number of international diplomats and travelers visiting the country after the defeat of Italy at Adwa in 1896.
There, while covering the second Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 for the Daily Mail, Waugh found among his fellow war correspondents the inspiration to write a comical and cynical account of a profession he was disenchanted with because he considered it to be “slipshod and pretentious,” as wrote the late W.F. Deedes, former editor of the Daily Telegraph and also a reporter during the war.
In the original review of “Scoop” appeared in the New York Times Book Review in 1938, and Robert Van Gelder was fascinated by Waugh’s delightful style and his “new standard for comic extravaganza,” even though he thought it was a waste of Waugh’s talent to “bring off too obvious a farce.”
Van Gelder quickly exposed the irony of dozens of journalists battling for a scoop, which turned out to be an oil concession. The story leaked to two of them by F. W. Rickett, who had stayed in the same pension as Waugh and who the writer had dismissed as your average arms salesmen hustling in Abyssinia (as Ethiopia was called at the time.) He actually worked for the African Exploitation and Development Corporation, a subsidiary of Standard Oil.
The Daily Telegraph was one of the papers that got the scoop, which shocked the world. But “Nowhere did it cause a bigger stir than in the offices of those newspapers that had expensively sent correspondents to Abyssinia but had failed to land the story,” Deedes writes in his memoirs as a young reporter covering the war.
“Rickett appears to have decided that his clients’ interests would be best served if he revealed its contents exclusively to two major correspondents close at hand,” Deedes writes. “This meant that every other news agency and newspaper in the world was scuppered.”
Waugh himself was on a trip when the story broke, and missed the story of the crisis.
Van Gelder in his review wrote: “Amused by this situation—a half-hundred of the best known and most thoroughly experienced of the world’s newspaper reporters cooped up in the primitive capital, interviewing waiters, cab drivers, any one and every one for news, color, and then, when a great story breaks, being scooped on it—Mr Waugh planned his book.”
And that’s exactly what Scoop is about. Waugh thought it would be funny to send an inexperienced reporter, William Boot—a contributor of nature notes to Waugh’s Daily Beast best known for sentences like “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole”—to report the impending war in Ishmaelia and have him scoop the veterans.
William, who is mistaken for his much-renowned novelist cousin, John Courtney Boot, spends his days in Abyssinia lodged in the Hotel Liberty, which was inspired by the Taitu Hotel where Waugh and the other correspondents were accommodated in real life, waiting for something to happen.
The Taitu Hotel also hosted Deedes, then the correspondent for the Morning Post, and who is believed to be the source of inspiration for the depiction of William, something that he has usually, but not always, denied.
“I have sometimes added diffidently to interrogators that my inexperience and naivety as a reporter in Africa might have contributed a few bricks to the building of Boot,” conceded Deedes.
Four months after that article was published, he went back to Ethiopia. “To our delight we found the hotel unchanged from 1935, or indeed from 1898,” he said. “Talks on its conversion apparently broke down, as talks so often do in Addis Ababa.”
Deedes also recalls how “the dozen or so bedrooms behind double doors where reporters and photographers slept three or four to a room are exactly as they were and approached by a wide, dark staircase.”
The Steinway piano that used to be an occasional distraction when they were out of duty was also there. “It is out of tune and ivory is slipping off the notes, but it’s good to know it has stood there for at least 68 years,” he wrote with a mix of joy and nostalgia.
Over the last few years, the Taitu had become far more famous for its JazzAmba Lounge, an admirable effort made by a group of enthusiasts who wanted to bring back the golden times of Ethiopia’s music scene of the 1970s. And they had succeeded according to the people who used to spend their nights there.
Unfortunately, what time had preserved and which jazz had revitalized was destroyed when the fire broke out. Within minutes large parts of the hotel were badly burnt, even tough the management announced that the hotel “is partially operational” and in due time they will “restore it to its former glory.”