My father, Alan Smyth, was a viola player. When I was young, in the 1980s, he mentioned a couple of times that he’d played with the Beatles. He wasn’t very interested in them; growing up, I wasn’t either. Years later, now that I’ve become very interested in them, I think often about his casual aside. My dad died in 2002. In early 2020 I made contact with his musician friends to ask if they had any memories of his playing with the Beatles. John Underwood, the viola player in the Delmé String Quartet, played on ‘Eleanor Rigby’ in April 1966, on ‘A Day in the Life’ in February 1967, and on ‘She’s Leaving Home’ in March 1967. John said my father didn’t play on these songs, and he couldn’t remember if he played on others.
We gathered last Thursday at 23-25 Brook Street – where Handel lived from 1723 to 1759, and composed the Messiah, and where Hendrix lived in 1968-69, when Electric Ladyland came out – for funeral biscuits with caraway seeds, and schooners of sherry, before the four-minute walk through a cold Mayfair evening to St George’s Church, Hanover Square.
‘I hate books. Can't read them. They send me to sleep,' says the man responsible for annihilating tens of thousands of books a year. Let’s call him B. Secrecy is at a premium in his trade and we are granted an interview only after protracted negotiation, a series of deferrals and cancellations, and lots of provisos. Sat in a bare, bleak office somewhere in the Midlands, with the constant background din of next door's shredding machines, he lets us know we're fortunate to get a glimpse of the world of 'destruction work'.
Browsing in a second-hand bookshop on Charing Cross Road in the spring of 2004, I came across a copy of History and the Early English Novel by Robert Mayer. I opened it up and loose papers tumbled out. Turning the book’s pages, I saw hundreds of annotations pencilled in the margins: shaky lines and ringed numbers and then, across the endleaves and inside back cover, a thick scrawl of largely illegible notes: page numbers, cross-references, summaries, words circled furiously or underlined – ‘21. Facts’; ‘135. Origins of novel’; ‘143-4. Cromwell, Defoe’. What looks like ‘48-9. Milton’s lust’ is probably ‘Milton’s hist[ory]’. The inside cover has an elegantly looping signature: ‘Christopher Hill/1997/7’. I put the loose papers back and handed over £15. Then I put the book on my bookshelf and forgot about it for nine years.