Letters From Ethiopia and a Window to the Past

How a businessman reaches back to retrieve memories of a childhood abroad


In Alistair Hughes’s attic in London sits a little window into history. It’s a stash of 100 or so letters airmailed by his father to his grandparents and siblings while he lived in Ethiopia.

“My dad died quite young, when he was 40,” says Mr. Hughes, owner of Savoir Beds, the mattresses that have been handcrafted for London’s high-end Savoy Hotel for more than 100 years. “They give me a peek into my dad’s life when the world was very different.”

Back then, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Emperor Haile Selassie was still in power. The eastern town of Harar, where Mr. Hughes, his teacher father and his midwife mother lived for five years, “was so rural, they employed a watchman at night to feed the hyenas so they’d stay outside the city walls,” Mr. Hughes says he was told. There were no televisions to get news from abroad and telephones were unreliable. The only way to communicate across the ocean was for the elder Mr. Hughes to write letters.

Airmail letters from Ethiopia where Alistair Hughes lived as a child.ENLARGE
Airmail letters from Ethiopia where Alistair Hughes lived as a child. PHOTO: FRANTZESCO KANGARIS FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Mr. Hughes, now 49, stumbled upon the stash of blue envelopes decorated in vibrant stamps two decades ago, while clearing out his deceased grandparents’ home in the north of England. He carried them back to his home in London and put them in his attic. Because Mr. Hughes doesn’t have strong memories of those five early years spent in Harar, reading the tattered letters has become an immersive and surreal experience.

“It’s odd when you’re reading about yourself as a very young kid,” he says. “The letters might say, ‘Alistair is doing very well … He’s supposed to be sleeping, but he’s sitting on his bed pretending to be a bus driver.’ Some of it is minutiae, but it’s all somehow fascinating to me.”

Equally as intriguing are the characters who make their way into these time-capsule letters. They talk of public encounters with Emperor Selassie and his Chihuahua, “which he never went without,” according to accounts from Mr. Hughes’s dad. Another letter, from 1970, includes a hand-drawn map of East Africa depicting gunrunning operations to the Eritrean Liberation Front and the Somali opposition.

Another favorite letter from 1968 tells the story of Mr. Hughes’s father going to the Governor-General’s residence and meeting the Olympic gold medalist Abebe Bikila. “He was the last Olympic marathon runner to run in bare feet and win,” Mr. Hughes says.

Mr. Hughes thinks that reading of his parents’ adventures in Africa with him may have given him the sense of freedom required to take risks, like purchasing a tiny, old-fashioned company that handmade mattresses out of horsetail, and reinventing it for the modern buyer.

After college, he went on a traditional route of becoming a management consultant, “and I quickly became restless,” he says. He moved to Australia and the Philippines, but wound up back in London when he heard that the Savoy Hotel was looking to unload the arm of its business that made the hotel’s coveted beds.

“I never dreamed even the day before that I would be ‘bed mogul,’ ” Mr. Hughes says. His company sells about 1,000 a year, with a starting price of $8,000.

Mr. Hughes can’t help but be nostalgic for an earlier era of which his memory is hazy. Which is why he is always pleasantly surprised when he heads up to his attic to look for camping gear for his daughter or some other set-aside equipment and rediscovers the pile of blue letters. He savors each one, and still has nearly half left to read for the first time.

“Sometimes I end up sitting in the attic reading these things for two or three hours,” he says.

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