Broken Greek by Pete Paphides review – a smash hit

A witty and joyful tale of self-discovery and brilliant music titbits make for an evocative memoir by the rock critic

If you’re going to give your memoir the sublime subtitle “A story of chip shops and pop songs”, you had better serve up a tasty hit. Gloriously, the music journalist Pete Paphides’s tale of his formative tussle between his Greek and Brummie identities, shot through with his life-determining discovery of music – his “third parent” – is lip-lickingly, dance-around-the-living-room good.

Ostensibly, Broken Greek begins with the young, timorous Takis (our protagonist, who only later will decide to become Pete) going through a prolonged mute phase. But this story is as much about the experiences of Paphides’s immigrant parents, his Greek mother, Victoria, and Cypriot father, Chris, who move to England as a young couple. It is meant to be temporary but the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus puts paid to that. The family visits often, and in various lineups, but the failure to return to their homeland once and for all is something neither parent ever really comes to terms with, for differing reasons.

And so the young Takis/Pete and his protective, characterful and influential older brother, Aki, grow up in a succession of fish and chip shops their parents run and work in around the clock. Paphides’s surrounding sensations are the sound of sizzling chips and the sharp olfactory tang of vinegar. Oh, and the distraction of the pinball and arcade machines at the back of the shop. But, given that many of us will be familiar with Paphides as a rock critic, we might guess that his greatest escape will consist of middle eights, bridges and sing-along choruses.

The book offers plenty of side dishes and B-sides: British class and racial history; the popularity of Blue Riband biscuits, a Proustian madeleine for anyone who grew up in the 70s and 80s; the arrival of Pot Noodles, Channel 4 and VHS. (I am of a different generation, but can relate to taping songs off the radio and using gates as football goals.)

Yet if writing about music is meant to be as difficult as dancing about architecture, nobody told Paphides. His first listen of Abba’s Waterloo is like “hearing a recording of fireworks or war”. David Bowie’s music “seemed to come from the edge of life itself”. Jimmy Osmond is “the tiny twinkle-eyed satan of kid pop”. As you might expect from a childhood memoir of a music obsessive, there is much excited saving up of pocket money for new releases and stealing into Aki’s room to nick his records.

There are brilliant music titbits. Cher, during a trip to the UK, asking a member of her team to bring her a McDonald’s meal and bursting into tears when they return with Wimpy’s finest. (Those golden arches had not yet arrived on these shores, though Paphides details the queue around the block – and his first bite of a Big Mac – when they inevitably do.) The man singing Nina Simone’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black on a covers compilation album is in fact a pre-fame, very much not black Elton John.

The grown-up Paphides’s career is also invaluable when it comes to the inside track: as a youngster, he is convinced that the soul-baring The Winner Takes It All must have been written while Björn Ulvæus was drunk, because, as Paphides wonderfully puts it, “spillage on this scale almost never happens without the aid of a corkscrew”. Decades later, while interviewing Ulvæus, his hunch is confirmed.

If there’s a weak area of the book, it is in the rare moments when Paphides introduces non-music asides that involve a leap forward in time. There’s mention of Brexit and Boris Johnson, tangents that jar. But – to repurpose a joke from Paphides – it’s small fry. Because, as well as producing writing that conjures some visually stunning images (a mass of school pupils is a “murmuration of green blazers”), Paphides is funny: “I didn’t know who Lulu was, but I knew she was important, because like Sting, Odysseus and Kojak, she only had one name.”

Broken Greek isn’t all about the transcendent joy of discovering new bands. There are flashes of racism; and Paphides’s parents spend much of the time miserable, largely from working themselves too hard – in the case of Victoria, to the point of a hospital stay. But they clearly love their children (even if Dad isn’t always good at showing it) and incidents of kindness and friendship abound, despite economic and marital struggles.

Paphides points out, rightly, that great pop should require no effort from the listener. I don’t believe this is entirely true of literature, but this is a memoir that carries you along with all the breeziness and addictive properties of, appropriately, a Dexys Midnight Runners track. A smash hit.

Broken Greek: A Story of Chip Shops and Pop Songs by Pete Paphides is published by Quercus (£20). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p over £15


Hannah Jane Parkinson

The GuardianTramp

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