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The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes
by Richard Davenport-Hinesr
WHAT do the Stable Boy of Park Lane, the Soldier of the Baths, the Bootmaker of Bordeaux and the Lift Boy of Vauxhall have in common? They were all men seduced by the economist John Maynard Keynes, whose reputation as one of the most assiduous pick-up artists of his generation has, perhaps unfairly, been eclipsed by his standing as one of the greatest public intellectuals of the 20th century. At least that is the impression given by Richard Davenport-Hines's new biography. Who needs Fifty Shades of Grey when you have the life of Keynes?
Today Keynes is best known as the man whose General Theory revolutionised economics in the 1930s, torpedoing the old reliance on laissez-faire and teaching a generation that governments ought to fight high unemployment by digging out their chequebooks. Keynes the lover is less well known, yet for somebody born into the prim respectability of Victorian Britain in 1883, his sex life is exceptionally thoroughly documented. As a little boy growing up in Cambridge, he loved poring over stamp albums with his father, picking up a taste for collecting and classifying that never deserted him. And as a young man who had developed a taste for homosexuality at Eton and Cambridge, where at one stage he was sleeping simultaneously with two brothers, he filled long lists with details of his conquests.
One of the brothers was the Victorian-smearing writer Lytton Strachey; the other was the Freudian psychoanalyst James Strachey, who admiringly described him as 'Maynard, the iron copulating machine'. But Keynes's performance was not always reliably ferrous. In one of several extraordinary anecdotes, Davenport-Hines reports that Keynes, then a Treasury official, once arranged an orgy with two younger men and one Mrs Anderson, a Brighton doctor's wife. Alas, Anderson was not really the economist's cup of tea. As she kissed and licked him, he lay miserable and unaroused. Only after the two young men joined in, wrote James, did Keynes grow 'warmer, and stirred his legs, and panted a little, and was passionate at last'.
Is there anything more to this than salacious gossip? Yes, according to Davenport-Hines, an amusing, elegant and provocative writer whose works have included books on the Titanic and the Profumo scandal. As he sees it, Keynes's sex life was not a mere adjunct to the rest of his life, it was his life, a central element of his progressive Liberalism, rooted in a rationalistic, tolerant and optimistic view of the world. Flirtatious and unconventional in the bedroom, Keynes was equally daring and open-minded in the committee room. 'I believe,' he had declared as a student, 'in Woman's Suffrage and the New Mathematical Tripos, in the abolition of the House of Lords and the Sodomy Acts, in cheap weekend tickets, in Heaven and Hell and The Times Book Club.' And it was from this world-view, Davenport-Hines argues, that his economic ideas flowed. In an age when many people still believed in the sanctity of the Sabbath, Keynes even suggested running lotteries in the Sunday papers. In an ideal world, everyone in the country would wake up 'stretching out for the Sunday paper with just a possibility that they had won a small fortune'.
Many economists would probably be shocked at the idea that Keynes's ideas can be traced back to the animal spirits of his Cambridge bedroom, and I don't recall his sex life playing quite such a central role in Robert Skidelsky's magisterial three-volume biography. But Davenport-Hines's book is, at the very least, great fun. By focusing on Keynes as a private man and public figure rather than an academic economist, it is possible to see him as the last and greatest flowering of Edwardian Liberalism, a self-consciously civilised, elevated, progressive creed now largely extinct. Although Keynes was taken up after his death as a kind of prophet of the left, the irony, as Davenport-Hines shows, is that he was not left-wing at all. He believed in capitalism, he hated socialism and his ideal Britain was a romanticised, nostalgic image of the world before 1914.
Some readers may object that the author says too little about economics. The deeper problem is that he frankly worships his subject. Keynes emerges here not just as clever and engaging, but as positively heroic, an intellectual Hercules with scarcely a flaw. By contrast, Keynes's critics, who variously regarded him as bumptious, attention-seeking, heretical and plain wrong, are dismissed out of hand. On top of that, Davenport-Hines's position towards the Bloomsbury Group, the precious little Cambridge coterie in which Keynes played a leading role, is one of supine admiration. In one unfortunate passage, he sneers at DH Lawrence, who recoiled from the group's narcissistic prattling, as 'socially insecure and cankered by class resentment'. Davenport-Hines is, or ought to be, better than that.
Yet although Keynes himself was not completely innocent of the condescending elitism of his fellow Bloomsbury intellectuals, he was indisputably a great man. Nobody worked harder during the Second World War to keep Britain financially afloat, and in the months afterwards an exhausted Keynes effectively sacrificed himself to win a life-or-death loan from the Americans, without which Britain would have plunged into economic disaster. In March 1946 he collapsed on a train to Washington DC, and on Easter Sunday he died, having suffered a heart attack while his wife, the ballerina Lydia Lopokova, was bringing him tea in bed.
Theirs had been an eccentric, unexpected but genuine love affair, with an extremely healthy physical dimension. 'I want to be foxed and gobbled abundantly,' Keynes wrote to her while away in Italy, and she was particularly enthusiastic about his 'subtle fingers'. Interestingly, Davenport-Hines thinks that Keynes became less tolerant of others after his marriage, perhaps because his days of 'carefree interludes' with uneducated youths were over. So in this respect, at least, his hero was not entirely perfect.
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