Obituary: Professor Charles Kennedy
Thursday 27 November 1997
Charles Kennedy once remarked that the best way to deal with death was not to pay too much attention to it. Though this dictum may have been intended as a jeu d'esprit it nevertheless reminds one vividly of a cardinal feature of his character: his aversion to fuss in any form or situation.
Kennedy's career as an academic economist took off in 1948 when Queen's College, Oxford, elected him as its Fellow in Economics to succeed the American C.J. Hitch. Kennedy had graduated from Balliol with a first in PPE in 1942, and was the youngest candidate, but the Governing Body accepted the opinion of a number of distinguished Oxford economists that he was the one most likely to do important things in the world of economics; a judgement fully justified.
It was well known at this time that he had served in the Cabinet Office under Lord Cherwell during the first part of the Second World War but even his closest friends found him unwilling to say anything about his experiences there. It was not much easier, either, to elucidate the circumstances which, at the time of the D-Day landings in 1944, found him serving in the Merchant Navy as an Able Seaman. Throughout his life, Kennedy tended to want to close the door behind him when a new stage in his life began.
From the college's point of view, and his own, his election was a great success. On the research side, his early work was mainly in monetary theory and welfare economics to which he made fundamental contributions. Later he switched to the fields of growth economics, technical progress and capital theory which were to make him internationally famous after he left Oxford in 1961.
His originality of mind was especially appreciated by his Oxford contemporary Sir John Hicks, who in 1972 won the Nobel Prize for economics, and acknowledges a strong debt to Kennedy in his classic book Capital and Time (1973). As a teacher, Kennedy was effective and popular and secured the lasting affection of many of his pupils, but a certain innate shyness and a characteristic disdain for platform histrionics perhaps made his formal lectures hard work for the less dedicated students.
Senior Common Room life for a number of years satisfied his social needs and his continual search for intellectual stimulus. He was, however, no intellectual snob; those who only knew him in later years when he cultivated a somewhat staid, even patriarchal, demeanour will perhaps be somewhat surprised to learn that he was thought of in Queen's as something of a Young Turk who had made football pools or the latest episode of Mrs Dale's Diary into acceptable subjects for Common Room conversation.
Kennedy's father, George Kennedy, was a well-known London architect who had been at the Slade School and numbered Maynard Keynes and Henry Lamb among his friends and sponsors. It was therefore unsurprising that Kennedy's own talents as a painter received every encouragement at home. His mother, Mary, was a hugely energetic and liberal-minded matriarch who had made organising her husband, her five sons and countless relatives and friends into her life's work.
In addition to regular visits to family houses in Ireland and Cornwall, Kennedy travelled a good deal in Europe in the post-war years, usually in order to paint. A spur-of-the- moment decision in 1955 to go on a cruise to the West Indies was a turning- point in his life. His painter's vision was entranced by the light and colour of the tropical island landscapes and buildings and he found he had an unexpected empathy with the West Indians and their culture.
Though on his return he continued to make important contributions to economic theory, he became restless in Oxford. But then, by chance, his life was to change dramatically. In 1959, he accompanied an Oxford friend, who had been ill, on a Mediterranean cruise in the liner Iberia. Early in the voyage he met a Somerville chemistry graduate, Ann Cullis, who was working with Max Perutz's team in Cambridge on the structure of haemoglobin. A whirlwind romance followed, and a few months later the couple were married in Chelsea.
Two years later, in 1961, another stroke of good fortune came Kennedy's way when he was offered a Chair of Economics at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. He regarded the five years he spent there as the happiest of his life. He got on well with the then Vice-Chancellor, Sir Arthur Lewis, himself a distinguished economist; and living in a developing economy inspired new theoretical work in the field of open economy macroeconomics including the input-output formulation of the foreign trade multiplier. His wife, Ann, who had perforce to abandon her own career to bring up four children in the tropics, was a tireless and gifted homemaker. This good life, however, could not go on for ever. Political changes affecting the university were afoot, and there was the problem, too, of the children's education.
Providentially for him, Kennedy was offered the new Chair of Economic Theory at the University of Kent, and in 1966 moved from Jamaica to Canterbury, where he lived for the rest of his life.
For reasons that were never made clear to the outside world, Kennedy did not enjoy the duties of his new Chair as much as he had expected. There was always a streak of self-doubt in his make-up. This was exacerbated by the stringent rules for personal integrity which he had long since set for himself. He resigned the Chair in 1970 but continued to teach part-time for the Department of Economics until 1984, as well as giving financial advice to the university.
In his contented semi- retirement, he turned away from mainstream economics, pursuing instead an active theoretical and practical interest in the new financial instruments of options and warrants.
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