Philosopher, corporate lawyer and author known as ‘London’s leading hypochondriac’, who hosted lively salons at his Georgian home
For the past 13 years an eclectic group of writers, academics, philosophers, diplomats, lawyers and others have gathered on a Sunday afternoon every other month at a gorgeous Georgian house in Spitalfields, east London, the home of Oliver Black and his wife, Jenny. After tea and cake there is a 20-minute talk followed by a discussion. Such is the popularity of this salon, with guests sitting on chairs, window ledges, floors and stairs, that on one recent occasion the drawing-room floor began to sag and numbers have had to be limited.
Black was a paradoxical man: serious yet humorous, misanthropic yet sociable. He collected friends with the same enthusiasm a young boy might collect stamps. He loved conversation and dinner parties. Acquaintances would be gathered to read through a play or to listen to a recording of an opera, with Black providing copies of the score.
Despite effortlessly blending his academic studies in philosophy with his “day job” as a lawyer, Black was sometimes introduced to people as “London’s leading hypochondriac”, although he insisted that “valetudinar–ian” was more accurate. “A valetudinarian can always find something on which to hook his anxiety: a tender gland in the neck (sign of mumps), a mild rash (shingles), a dry throat (Ebola), a lack of energy (almost anything),” observed the man who was on first-name terms with his GP, Vera.
This and other subjects were discussed with dry, deadpan humour in his book Shrunk and Other Stories (2016), its title coming from the way in which his bank account was diminished by visits to shrinks. In these autobiographical meanderings, with chapter headings such as DIE-DIY, Road Hogs of the World, and Spotty and Horny, Black describes the pitfalls of arranging DIY funerals for relatives, the delights of driving a black cab as a private car, and how he refused to live in East Anglia for fear that the fallout from a dirty bomb in London would be carried on the prevailing wind.