One of the most extraordinary people I have met in my life is the African man who went to Greenland - Tete Michel Kpomassie.
I was a Secker & Warburg author at that time and often spoke with Barley Alison, who ran a subsidiary firm within the company. She picked up the book, supervised its translation by poet James Kirkup and published it in 1983.
I believe she showed me the manuscript and I then pitched the story to Andrew Stephen, then Senior Editor at the Sunday Times magazine, received a commission and first wrote to Michel on 4th January 1983. I travelled to Paris on April 22nd and spent three days with Michel and his family and every night we sat and talked into the small hours whilst sipping whisky. Much of those conversations exists on tape.
JM with Tete Michel Kpomassie, his wife Annick and baby son in their flat in Trappes. 24th April 1983.
At the time of my visit, Michel was working shifts as a telex operator for Mitsubishi. This picture of him at work is by English photographer Bob Norris
I delivered this piece, which was not to the magazine's liking. In a letter dated 7th July 1983, Andrew Stephen wrote: ' I'm afraid I don't think the piece works: it comes over as long and complicated and too mystical...I cannot see any way of salvaging for our purposes, either, so I fear that we should probably put this down as one of those projects which simply hadn't worked out.'
I called the piece 'Searching for Clean Contact' and when I sent it to Michel this was his reaction.
'I appreciate and at the same time congratulate you for the title...a whole message of course. I could have never found this title myself though it lies, as you put it, at the root of my journey, but can also be applied to all my contacts today because I always feel that human relationships are not yet as they should be. Some old and out-of-date ideas and values still prevail but I feel that a better step is being made by the present generation, especially on the side of the European youth towards that clean contact. It is true that only very few people are concerned and it is important they work hand in hand with people of other origins having the same will.'
Barley Alison read it and wrote to me: 'I loved your piece on Kpomassie and completely saw the point of both it and your defence of it in your letter to the Sunday Times. The trouble about us, I suspect, is that we have read the book and Andrew Stephens has not.'
This was praise indeed from a remarkable and formidable woman, who was involved in intelligence work during the war and had a life of great diversity and adventure. She published a distinguished list which included works by Saul Bellow. Barley Alison died in 1989. This is her obituary from The Bookseller. A much more detailed piece was published in The Independent on 1 June 1989. (Not available on-line. There is no Wikipedia entry either)
I was back in Paris to visit the French Greenpeace office in October that year and met again with Michel. The following month his book was short-listed for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. Michel came to London for the award ceremony on December 1st but his book did not win the prize, which went to Vikram Seth's 'From Heaven Lake.'
I tried many other outlets for the piece but with no success. In the end, I managed to get it into print as a kind of epilogue to my book Curious Facts 2 (1984), its inclusion based on the fact that it was one of the strangest stories I had ever heard. The full text of the piece (with hypertext links) is reproduced below.
Our correspondence continued sporadically. Michel's letters were lengthy, written carefully in pen and encompassed a wide range of ideas and subjects. His book was published in Holland and, in March 1988, I had a postcard from Greenland in which told me he was back in the Arctic making a BBC documentary, with filming to follow in Togo and Paris. The resultant film 'An African Eskimo', produced and narrated by Richard Vaughan, was premiered on 4th October at BAFTA in London, where I met up with Michel again. I wrote several times in the following six months and finally received a postcard from Togo (dated 1st August 1989), where Michel was holidaying with his family. It was the last word I heard from him. Monsieur Kpomassie touched me deeply. I hope you enjoy this story.
The hardcover edition of the book is still available on Amazon in two editions (Secker & Warburg/Norton) and as a paperback published by The New York Review of Books .
A. Alvarez’s introduction to the NYRB edition is available here (pdf). Listen to Kpomassie’s appearance on The Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC in 2003. John Derbyshire writes about the book in The New Criterion. Matt Steinglass recommends it in his piece on Togo for Salon’s Literary Guide to the World.