Broken Greek by Pete Paphides

As someone whose childhood in 1970s Britain was soundtracked by the likes of Bowie, ABBA and The Jam, I was always going to fall squarely within the target market for Broken Greek, the glorious coming-of-age memoir by the respected music journalist, Pete Paphides. However, when Gordon, my music-obsessed neighbour, mentioned to me back in May that it was shaping up to be his book of the year, I knew I had to read it pretty damn quick. And he was right to praise it. This is such an engaging book, full of warmth, honesty and humour; it just might turn out to be one of my books of the year, too.

Ostensibly a childhood memoir, Broken Greek offers a moving account of Paphides’s upbringing in the suburbs of Birmingham in the 1970s and early ‘80s – ‘a story of chip shops and pop songs,’ as the subtitle accurately declares.

Back in the early ‘60s, Paphides’s parents – Chris, a traditional Cypriot with socialist values, and Victoria, an emotionally intuitive woman from Athens – move to England with little in the way of money or secure job prospects. When a potential contact fails to materialise, the couple fall into the fish and chip business, ultimately scraping together enough money for an outlet in Acocks Green. The move to Britain was originally intended to be a temporary one, with Chris harbouring ambitions to return to Cyprus where he would open a garage using profits from the couple’s time in England. However, a combination of the realities of working life and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in the early 1970s ultimately puts the kibosh on any plans for that.  

With mum and dad working all hours at the chippy, young Pete and his older brother, Aki, have ample time on their hands to try and make sense of the world around them. As the book opens, Pete – or Takis as he is known at this point; the name-change to ‘Pete’ comes later – is in the midst of a long silent phase (a 3-year period that eventually ends through a well-judged intervention by Aki). It’s an astute opening, one that secures the reader’s emotional investment in the book’s protagonist right from the start. Pete – a quiet, emotionally sensitive boy at heart – finds something in music that speaks to him very clearly, a deep sense of connection/reassurance that touches a raw nerve. 

For a few years in the mid-late ‘70s, Pete becomes convinced that his parents are secretly planning to leave him, largely due to his inability to speak to anyone outside of his immediate family circle – a condition that causes his mother much embarrassment. As a consequence, Pete begins to line up a sequence of ‘fantasy childminders’ or ‘pop parents’ should the unthinkable happen with his real parents. ABBA, Kiki Dee and Brotherhood of Man are all high on the list of candidates, especially when BoM’s appearance on Top of the Pops (TOTP) results in a sort of epiphany for young Pete.

‘Save Your Kisses for Me’ was my prepubescent ‘Starman’ moment. But this was no alien gang leader exhorting me to help him overthrow the hidebound post-war torpor of my parents’ generation and invert this monochrome dystopia to reveal an iridescent post-apocalyptic ambisexual utopia. No, this was serious. I felt like Brotherhood of Man – the dark-haired bloke with the moustache; the sleepy-eyed, super-affable guy with brown shoulder-length hair, just the way I secretly wanted my hair to be; the kind-faced blonde woman; the only slightly less kind-faced looking dark-haired woman – understood me. 

As the years go by and the Paphides family move from one Birmingham-based fish and chip shop to another, Pete’s connection with music grows, deepening in intensity.

The memoir perfectly captures young Pete drawing on a litany of pop music, effectively using it as a means of creating a cultural identity for himself – one that is very much his own, independent of that of his parents. While Aki has a knack for discovering the coolest bands (The Clash, Echo & The Bunneymen, and The Teardrop Explodes, subsequently claiming them as his own), Pete puts more weight behind emotional connections, falling hard for the resonances stirred by ABBA, Olivia Newton-John and Janet Kay, whose hit single, Silly Games, is a song I adore. In short, pop music is akin to ‘a third parent’ for Pete; something that explains the world to him so that his real parents don’t have to.

In ‘Silly Games’, Kay’s vulnerability echoed the uncertainty of Olivia Newton-John’s ‘A Little More Love’. The other obvious point of comparison was ABBA’s ‘The Name of the Game’, whose love-struck narrator edges by tiny increments towards emotional disclosure, ever wary that her feelings might not be reciprocated: ‘if I trust in you, would you let me down? / Would you laugh at me, if I said I care for you? / Could you feel the same way too?’

Given that my parents had little that corresponded to my somewhat idealised definition of a relationship, it probably wasn’t surprising that I was searching ABBA records for clues. 

ABBA prove particularly useful in imparting the harsh realities of love, their music effecting mirroring the dissolution of first Bjorn and Agnetha’s marriage, and then Benny and Frida’s, as one emotionally-revealing album follows another. Bowie too is another touchstone, one that only becomes fully apparent following his death in 2016.

Bowie’s vocal seemed to come from a place near the edge of life itself. Either awakening from a period of unconsciousness or about to enter one. Over time, I would come to realise that his ability to refract unspeakable, unknowable peril through the prism of melody was unsurpassable. It was there in ‘Five Years’, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ and ‘Life on Mars?’. By the time he released Blackstar, knowing that he had weeks to live, it didn’t occur to anyone that Bowie might, this time, actually be writing about his own death. 

Cultural identity is a theme that permeates virtually every page of this book. From an early age, Pete is cognisant of the sense of tension between two very different cultures in his life: the traditional Greek-Cypriot heritage of his parents and the more exciting world enveloping him in Britain. Like many children of first-generation immigrants, Pete and his brother Aki soon begin to identify more strongly with the country of their childhood than their parents’ beloved homeland. In Message in a Bottle by The Police, Pete finds something that resonates with his own situation and the ‘looming identity crisis’ he is trying to ‘will out of existence’. More specifically, the fact that he doesn’t feel very Greek and cannot see himself fulfilling his parents’ expectations of a son – namely, someone who marries a nice Greek girl and settles down in the family business.

Even though I was no longer mute, an awareness was growing both in me and my brother that all the things that we found exciting were culturally alien to our parents. Rightly or wrongly, it increasingly felt as though it was our destiny to disappoint them. 

As the memoir unfolds, we learn more about the Paphides family back in Cyprus and Greece. The guilt Victoria experiences after leaving her mother and sister for a new life, one that turns out to be very different from the dreams she envisaged; the anguish of having to send baby Aki back to Greece for a couple of years, purely because childcare isn’t an affordable option when you’re trying to save for a business in the UK; and the grief Victoria ultimately has to deal with following the death of her mother, a woman whose life was defined by deference and hardship. It’s heartbreaking stuff.

On the music front, there is so much that resonates with me here, from the taping of pop songs on the Radio 1 chart rundowns, to the thrill of discovering a new band through a memorable appearance on TOTP, to the regular trips to Woolworths to buy the latest singles. As Pete looks to music to navigate the challenges of childhood, the musical references come thick and fast, covering a myriad of artists including ABBA, The Jam, Orange Juice, Duran Duran and Dexys Midnight Runners. While many of the issues touched upon here are relatively common childhood concerns – dealing with school, the fickle nature of friendships, irrational phobias, worries about not fitting in etc. – it is the wonderfully humane manner in which Paphides recounts his experiences that makes this book such an engaging read.

In Broken Greek, Paphides has given us a tender, affectionate, humorous memoir, one that brilliantly conveys the power of music – not only for the emotions it stirs within us but as a means of deepening our understanding of life and humanity, too.  

Broken Greek is published by Quercus; personal copy.

33 thoughts on “Broken Greek by Pete Paphides

  1. A Life in Books

    This sounds wonderful, Jacqui. No doubt a zillion earworms result from reading it for those of us who remember the tracks mentioned. Sadly, I always find it’s the ones I’d rather forget that stick!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha, that’s true! Well, if you fancy listening along to the music, Pete has put together a Spotify playlist featuring every song from the book. There’s a link to it here:

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I actually caught myself dancing to ABBA in the kitchen the other day when Mamma Mia popped up on the radio. Those early songs were pure joy!

      Reply
  2. Catherine Hodgson

    I really enjoyed your review of Broken Greek. I have just finished reading it & share your enthusiasm for such an excellent read. I even found myself trying to pace my reading so as not to finish it too quickly. The music & cultural references held so many echoes of my childhood, I loved it. x

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thank you, Catherine, that’s really lovely to hear. I know what you mean about the desire to spread it out about a bit. I think I read it over the course of a week, which was quite a long time for me given the lockdown; but there was a real sense of not wanting the joy to end. xx

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome! Dial-a-Disc stirred a few memories for me too, along with the weekly trips to Woolies to buy the latest singles. Oh, and the thrill of listening to the chart rundown each week. It was always the hot topic in the school playground during the years of my youth…

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    Your enthusiasm for this book has really sold me, particularly with the Birmingham connection. I actually live less than a mile from Acocks Green. I have just downloaded it to my kindle.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Marvellous! I think the Birmingham connection makes this a must for you. Plus, it really is a joy to read; perfect for the current times when many of us crave something comforting and nostalgic.

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    What a wonderful sounding book this is Jacqui – I can tell it really resonated with you. Although I’m a bit older, I rather loved the pop of the early 1970s before I splintered off into punk music – glam was a particular favourite. And pop music and chips – perfect combination. Now you’ve got me harking back to simpler times!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s such a enjoyable book, shot through with a generosity of spirit that reflects Paphides’s passion for the songs of his youth. I think that anyone who loves music would find something to identify with here, especially at a time when the arts and culture feel more important to us than ever.

      Reply
  5. Jane

    This sounds fantastic, were we all taping the charts on a Sunday evening? And it’s even more endearing that he’s referencing Brotherhood of Man and Abba rather than cooler bands at the time. I must read this, and how fantastic that he’s given a playlist, I love him already!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think we were! I remember it vividly. And the disappointment if the tape ran out or didn’t work properly – what a horror!

      I love the fact that Paphides is so honest about falling for the more mainstream artists, preferring ABBA and Olivia Newton-John to the punk bands of late ’70s. They spoke to him a way that forged a deep emotional connection, something that comes through very strongly from his reflections in the book.

      Reply
  6. 1streading

    This sounds like great fun. I’m not sure how much the music would resonate with me as I never seem to have fallen in love with a contemporary band or music type. But I do remember seeing Grease at the cinema and loving it!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s pure unalloyed pleasure, a big nostalgia-fest in the best possible sense! There’s quite a bit on Grease in the book, particularly on Sandy/Olivia Newton-John pre- and post-makeover. Needless to say, Paphides preferred the wide-eyed innocence of the early Sandy to the later incarnation!

      Reply
  7. Caroline

    It does sound lovely. Music was so important to me as a teenager. Different taste though, more edgy and independent than what he seems to have liked. But it’s still relatable. It gave us the same experiences, helped getting through life.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, precisely. Even if your tastes in music are somewhat different to Pete’s, you’ll still find something that resonates here. That sense of music being able to speak to us on a profoundly emotional level really comes through.

      Reply
  8. buriedinprint

    There should be a shelving category for “chip shops and pop songs”, I’d say. Even though the setting wouldn’t be familiar to me, I always enjoy the memoirs of children who grew up in family shops/restaurants. Although that’s probably a small part of this story overall?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I’d be rifling through it, for sure. Funnily enough, there’s actually quite a bit about the chip shops in the memoir. As a young child, Pete was mesmerised by the pinball machines in the family’s first shop, so there’s a section on how he befriended some of the regulars. It’s beautifully done.

      Reply
  9. kimbofo

    I admire Paphides work; I think he’s an excellent music journo, always balanced and respectful of the work he’s critiquing. I imagine his memoir is written just as eloquently. I was a music obsessive up until my mid-30s and spent most of my 20s amassing the world’s biggest CD collection 😱

    I’m intrigued as to whether Paphides gets so far as to mention his marriage to Caitlin Moran, or is this firmly a childhood memoir?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, you can tell how deeply he thinks about music from the way the memoir is written! It’s full of warmth and humanity – and, as you say, those values of respect, balance and thoughtfulness come through alongside Pete’s all-consuming passion for the music.

      As for the memoir itself, it’s very much focused on the childhood years. While there are a couple of very brief mentions of Pete’s children, they’re purely in the context of his approach to fatherhood (based on his experiences as a child). Caitlin Moran isn’t mentioned at all – well, not until we get to the acknowledgements at the end!

      Reply
  10. Liz Dexter

    I loved Pete’s journalism in Time Out in my London years and have been privileged to work with him on a few things (not this book). I feel kind of weird reading this because of that, which is silly really, esp as I live pretty near his erstwhile chippy too!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, wow – how cool is that! He comes across as a genuinely lovely person – both here and in his journalism – so I can imagine he would be a real pleasure to work with.

      Reply
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