Obituary: Oliver Black

Intellectual with a feel for the life of the literary salon


He has been described, perhaps tongue in cheek, as London’s leading hypochondriac, but the philosopher, lawyer and writer Oliver Black, who has died aged 62, played a uniquely positive role in society. He had the knack of combining his twin interests, philosophy and law, in both his professional and autobiographical writing.

In his 2016 book Shrunk and Other Stories he described, with a blend of humour and self mockery, how his finances were literally “shrunk” by therapy appointments.Two years earlier he published a comic novel, The Commune, which describes the communal life of a group of elderly people, and proved so popular that work is expected to begin on a film adaptation later this year.

On a more pragmatic note Black was keenly involved in two academic subjects: philosophy – which permeated his creative writing – and antitrust law. Perhaps more than a hypochondriac, he was a bon-viveur who loved entertaining, often using music and drama to delight his guests.

For the past 13 years friends and admirers met regularly for soirées on Sunday afternoons in his elegant Georgian home in Spitalfields, which he hosted with his wife, the interior designer Jenny Geddes, a Cambridge friend Edmund Fawcett, and Anthony Gottleib, Jenny’s former boss at The Economist where she had worked as editorial manager on the paper’s website, and through whom she and Oliver had met and married in 2004. These salons could have been inspired by the 19th century literary world, and visitors came from every faculty of his life.

“I would put together a list of speakers, and we often had 75 guests, but finally had to restrict the numbers from 80 to 45, when the floor sagged,” said Jenny.

After tea and cakes and a speaker, the event would be opened to the floor with a Q and A. It was imbued with a sense of playfulness, a feel for the absurd, and guests noted the couple took a “grinning delight in each other”. Oliver called her ‘Fluffy,’ and to her he was ‘baby Jesus.’

Born in 1957, the son of Misha Black, an Azerbaijani-Jewish designer and former WREN, Joan Fairbrother who worked for UNESCO, he had a half brother Jake, an anthropologst who died in a skiing accident, and a half sister Julia, a textile designer. The philosophical bent may have derived from his uncle Max Black a noted analytic philosopher. Oliver studied at Bryanston School in Dorset. A trombonist at school, he had a life-long love of classical music, and a definite ear.

“If you played a few bars of music he could quickly guess what piece it was and who composed it,”Jenny recalled. “He loved the Bach cantatas, the Haydn symphonies and Schumann.”

Oliver read philosophy at Queens’ College, Cambridge, where he discovered a latent thespian urge. He took both parts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a university production of Hamlet because – he claimed – the actor playing Guildenstern was “useless.” He then worked at a Mayfair antiquarian bookstore and created a new department specialising in philosophy and the human mind.

He spent 1981 as a fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, later teaching philosophy at Cambridge, and gaining a doctorate in philosophy from University College, London in 1987. However, finding work in this specialised field proved difficult. His Diary of a Misplaced Philosopher (1989,) was a humorous account of these problems, published under the pen-name Joseph North. He opted to study law, joining Linklater, the multinational law firm, in 1989 and eventually became head of the UK procurement law practice, and counsel in the competition and regulation group. He advised Network Rail on their acquisition of Railtrail and the restructuring of Anglian Water, and NatWest’s defence against takeover bids.

He continued his involvement in scholarly life by writing papers on academic law, and in 2000 was appointed visiting research fellow in philosophy and law at King’s College, London. He combined home study in philosophy with the day job at Linklaters.

Oliver wrote two weighty academic books for Cambridge University, Conceptual Foundation of Anti-Trusts (2005) and Agreements (2012) “which combined rigorous philosophical analysis with deep kindness,” according to Jenny, who describes it as “an illuminated legal doctrine combined with philosophical theory, and vice versa.”

There were many conflicting aspects to Oliver’s character. The Times describes him as “paradoxical, serious, yet humorous, misanthropic yet sociable.” During the couples’ popular dinner parties, as well as their salons, his love of opera and literature was evident. A play might be read, or a recording played, with the score handed around to the guests.

Despite his legal role as a specialist in competition regulation law, he maintained a very serious commitment to philosophy. He would get up at 7 a.m. and begin philosophising, reading and studying, and published many papers in his field. He read history, and fiction in English, French, German and Old German and every night in bed he would read poetry, or listen to music.

Jenny defines him as “a perfect intellectual – he was also kind and generous He was a seeker after truth. I just received an email from a friend in Cambridge now living in New Zealand, describing him as thoughtful and intensely kind and hilarious and considerate and bloody clever!”

In September, 2018 he had open heart surgery from which he made a good recovery. His final book An Open Heart and Other Revelations, sequal to Shrunk, will be published next year. Oliver Black is survived by Jenny and his half-sister Julia Black.



Oliver Black: born January 8, 1957. 
Died March 27, 2019


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