My first memory of Raphael is at a history meeting in St Hilda’s, Oxford in the early 60s. I think it may have been the Stubbs Society, anyway it was august and formal and donnish and he was a dark, thin, extraordinary figure with a flop of hair which persistently fell over his eyes. His subject was the potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s—a topic about which I knew nothing at all, for it had been side-stepped by my school ‘A’ levels and the Oxford history curriculum. Both conspired to eschew subjects they deemed emotive.
Raphael’s account of the human suffering of the Irish and the dogma of laissez-faire in London was consequently revelatory. It was also quite overwhelming. Raphael was in what I would later come to recognize as overkill. I can still see the great piles of paper on the desk before him. We watched like the crowd at Wimbledon, as one side on our right went down and the other on our left went up. He was intensely concentrated, no doubt because he knew he was surrounded by dons with a sharp nose for sniffing out Marxism, which was far from fashionable in 1963. The evidence against the British ruling class might be piling up on the left, as they and their grotesque economic doctrines of the sanctity of the free market were being nailed, but he had some wily opponents there.
However, in 1963 no one was going to jump in and defend the iron laws of political economy. Laissez-faire was clearly a delusion. Or so it seemed. In retrospect, Raphael’s account has assumed a sombre contemporary meaning. But how could we have imagined that laissez-faire could make its come-back to claim more human sacrifices? Keynes seemed irrevocable then. Impossible to imagine Thatcherism in the early sixties. I thought I had left the assumptions and values of the Leeds small business world I had been brought up in where only money really counted behind me when I went to Oxford, with its learned people and Gothic grandeur. I assumed Capital Volume I was a historical document, for it seemed self-evident that twentieth-century welfare capitalism was a new phase entirely. Time has its way of twisting the obvious right round. But, at nineteen, your sense of lived time is too short for such ponderings.
Raphael spoke for a very long time indeed that night. He told a tragic story and made a devastating onslaught on ideology buttressing privilege. Yet he did it with considerable complexity and subtlety. Always quick on his feet intellectually, he did an intricate dance that night and
The papers were shifting faster and faster as the minutes ticked by. I suspect he had to scuttle over some damning evidence. Yet, of course, there was more than enough—a pattern I was to come to recognize. Publishers waited for his books to be done, journal editors found they had a series when they commissioned an article, and I don’t recall Raphael ever giving a short talk. Was it, I wonder, a dislike for the boundaries of time which had led him towards the past? This was not one of those occasions, however, when you watch the transfer of paper hopefully, craning to see how much writing is left on the untouched pages. It was an event, an occasion. It was riveting and memorable.