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Clément Olympe Lavanne, digitally enhanced photograph

Without a doubt, I feel immensely privileged to have had the opportunity to read Modern Languages (French and Italian) at Lincoln College in the mid-late 1990s. The intoxicating intellectual journey I embarked upon at Oxford really did set me up for life, immeasurably enriching my ways of thinking and expanding my literary and cultural horizons in myriad ways.

Having studied Latin at A-Level, I have always had a layman’s love of Classics and the literature of the ancient world, so naturally chose medieval and Renaissance options in both Romance languages, given how thoroughly imbued with classical influences they are.

To this day, the authors I studied in-depth at Oxford – proto-Renaissance poet and humanist Petrarch (with his lyrical sonnets on love, the ephemerality of life and the transience of beauty), Boccaccio’s Decameron (a “human comedy” extolling the virtues of intelligence, love and quick-wittedness), and of course Dante’s magisterial Commedia – are still well-thumbed on my bookshelf and have given me many hours of “instruction and delight.” In fact, I enjoyed learning about the famous Florentine exile’s quintessentially medieval mindset so much that I even went on to begin a PhD in Boethius and Dante at UCL.

In Italian, the Renaissance period paper (with authors like Poliziano, Machiavelli, Castiglione, Ariosto and Michelangelo) was for me a sine qua non, given that the Quattrocento witnessed one of mankind’s greatest literary and artistic flourishings and was arguably the apogee of European civilisation.

Likewise, I remain a huge devotee of the 19th-century French poetic colossus Baudelaire (and, thanks to his influence, consider myself both a flâneur and an aesthete) and the novelist Stendhal (with his philosophy of la chasse au bonheur). I also enjoyed the French Renaissance poet Ronsard’s amorous exhortations, the profound humanism of Montaigne’s Essais and the coruscating bon mots and sagacious aphorisms of the 17th-century French classical dramatists and moralists.

I cherish fond memories of studying in the Lincoln library, the Taylorian, the Bodleian, the Radcliffe Camera and even the All Souls Library (which I had asked my tutor at the time to write a letter for me to access, since I was a mere undergraduate) – all opulent, august repositories of knowledge and learning which I felt very lucky to spend great swathes of time happily reading in.

At Oxford I was exceedingly fortunate to be taught by bona fide world experts in their chosen fields, and by some hugely erudite, affable and approachable dons whose tutorials I remember vividly and with great affection. Lincoln French fellows Donald Whitton, Paul Dray and Ted Nye were all outstanding, as were the ebullient Christopher Robinson at Christ Church (for Baudelaire and Stendhal), Toby Garfitt at Magdalen (for my final year dissertation on Martinican poet Aimé Césaire and philosopher Frantz Fanon) and of course, the unforgettable Marco Dorigatti at Corpus, for all my Italian literature. Tutorials with them were a heady mixture of cerebral jousting, didactic enlightenment, jocular badinage and, I am ashamed to admit, some braggadocious bluffing on my part, but when in my second and fourth years I knuckled down and actually did the requisite reading, immensely enjoyable, instructive and formative intellectual experiences.

I spent my year abroad in the Caribbean island of Martinique (a French département d’Outre-Mer), where I was an English assistant at the Lycée Frantz Fanon in Trinité. I had been to Martinique before, so chose to live with Clément and Paulette, the ageing parents of a close Martinican friend, in their house by the sea, outside the capital Fort-de-France. Living with locals enabled me not only to wholly immerse myself in Martinican culture, but also facilitated my learning Creole, the lingua franca of the people. Moreover, the gargantuan love, friendship and inestimable kindness which Clément and his wife Paulette showed me that year, and in the remaining years of their lives – akin to that of a parent’s love for their adopted son – will remain with me forever.

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Clément and Lindsay in Saint Joseph, Martinique (summer 2001)

Studying Modern Languages at Oxford was for me effectively a license to read great literature – i.e. arguably the best thoughts which have been written about the human condition in two noble European literary traditions – for four years in aesthetically stunning surroundings – and it thus gave me a priceless, “Rolls Royce” humanities education, something which to this day I am supremely grateful for.

In my subsequent career as a writer and broadcaster, currently making and presenting “erudite but accessible” radio and TV documentaries on subjects often (but not exclusively) at the intersection of art and race (e.g. on Capetonian anti-apartheid novelist and freedom fighter Alex La Guma, Chicagoan Jazz Age painter Archibald Motley, Jr, the Canon Wars of the 1990s, Harlem Renaissance novelist Rudolph Fisher, and Caribbean revolutionaries, including Toussaint Louverture and Frantz Fanon), I am still using as inspiration ideas, books and authors which I first encountered 30 years ago at Oxford. Moreover, the tutorial system gave me the confidence to express my nascent opinions, taught me how to cogently articulate arguments and helped me realise that it’s OK to diverge from the herd, follow my own path and be a recalcitrant freethinker.

Although I never officially studied him at Oxford, Camus – and in particular his bravura, 1947 allegorical novel La Peste (set in Oran, Algeria) – have gone on to become touchstones of my humanistic world view and philosophical outlook on life, as well as underpinning much of what I do in terms of grass roots philanthropy, be it mentoring young people in my spare time, being a regular platelet donor, sponsoring the education of  township students in Cape Town, South Africa or volunteering at homeless shelters and soup kitchens.

On a linguistic level, speaking French has enabled me to return to Martinique several times, and successfully navigate Paris, Marseille and parts of North Africa (due to its French colonial history), as well as being able to enjoy such TV series as Le Bureau, Call My Agent and Lupin in their original language.

Learning French Creole in Martinique has also stood me in remarkably good stead, since whenever I am lost in Brooklyn, Boston or Miami, I just ask a Haitian (as their Creole is similar to the Martinican variety). Equally, I have enjoyed many memorable conversations over the years in Paris or America with Haitian taxi drivers and hotel chamber maids.

Studying Italian was the linguistic passport to spending much of my twenties travelling throughout Italy. Having devoured much of its literature at Oxford, but for my sins, having only visited Italy on two brief occasions during my degree, I was keen to discover the actual country from whence these great writers and their magnum opuses had sprung.

Sadly we live in a society which still often judges on outward appearances. Studying Modern Languages at Oxford was ironically one of the few times in my adult life when I did not feel judged by race and class, but solely on the calibre of my mind (although there, I hasten to admit, I was probably found lacking). Still, I felt intellectually liberated, transcending the dictates of skin colour and background whilst immersed in a world of sublime ideas couched in majestic poetry and prose.

On reflection, studying Modern Languages at Oxford was a tremendously empowering educational experience – a potent mixture of classical, canonical and Caribbean, and to this day informs my own ability to oscillate between the classical canon and the contemporary black cutting edge – and why I have now endowed a prize to honour the life of my Martinican “second dad”, Clément Olympe Lavanne.

Beyond the fact that this former soldier and polymath showed me unconditional love, I would like undergraduates of today (and of the future) to be inspired by the extraordinary achievements of this indomitable autodidact who was born in 1920s rural Martinican poverty, left school at 14 and joined the French army as a means of escaping the penury of the cane fields, and thus, by dint of Homeric peregrinations in far off lands, fighting overseas for “la patrie” in Indochina, became a Black French Achilles.

Not only do I hope that students of colour will “see themselves represented” (to employ the parlance de nos jours), but that every Modern Languages undergraduate at Oxford, regardless of race, background or class, can be inspired by the illustrious life and glorious example of Clément Olympe Lavanne, and thus be encouraged to see that it is fully possible to transcend one’s circumstances, not letting the cards one is dealt at birth stymie one’s chance at human flourishing and fulfilment.

The Clément Olympe Lavanne prize will be awarded for the first time in July 2023.