Broken Greek by Pete Paphides

Reviewed by Liz Dexter

Stuck with a bunch of friends who seemed to think I was something other than what I was; guilty about growing up British in a Greek family; terrified of change, terrified of its opposite; terrified of scrutiny; bewildered by my own body; avoiding the cracks in the pavement because that was the only thing left to control. I was also a rocket ship on my way to Mars on a collision course. And it frightened me.

Nearly six hundred pages covering approximately ten years of a young boy’s life? I hear you ask. Sounds like one of those Nordic everything-in-minute-detail novels or memoirs, right? Well, this autobiographical work is made special by the fact that the author is now an acclaimed music writer and, while music is threaded in huge detail through the book, he’s able miraculously to remember the effect of hearing something, usually out of context, for the very first time, while being able to contextualise and bring his later knowledge to bear, both strands existing together and running parallel, making it more than the sum of its parts. 

Paphides’ parents came from Greece and Cyprus to the UK, young and in love, not yet married, and made a life in the Midlands, almost by accident; that was probably not what either of them imagined. Both disappointed, their marriage souring, they count on their sons to carry on their culture and business, but while they work hard in the various chip shops they own and run, Pete and his brother Aki start looking to specifically music as a conduit to move away from those expectations. His dad listens to emotional Greek music on the record player on a Sunday and loves watching “Mind Your Language” because there’s a Greek person on it. But Pete and Aki lean towards their English surroundings rather than their Greek forebears. As Pete then sees his parents argue and push each other’s buttons, his mother toil away, with a very difficult scene in hospital at one point, he now has the emotional maturity to really see – and forgive – his dad. 

It’s more than just music and cultural struggles. We open with Paphides’ couple of years of elective muteness (resolved very movingly) and his struggles with anxiety – and more and more things to be anxious about are added as we move through the years. He seeks refuge in music, very sweetly auditioning members of bands to be his replacement parents if, as he expects, his tire of him. His friends are important to him, and the friendships detailed beautifully, and, while he gets unwillingly sucked into an almost-gang and a few exploits he’s embarrassed about, the ending, with an epic journey and an inevitable, inescapable event is a tribute to friendship and the love of your found family as well as your birth family. 

The book is beautifully rooted around Acocks Green and Yardley in Birmingham, with excursions into the city centre to the department store, where fabulously glam women spray you with perfume – “When Lynsey de Paul appeared on Top of the Pops, I convinced myself that she was one of the women in Rackhams. Or maybe all of them”. There’s the tip at Tyseley, the big office block at Swan Island, the fibreglass gorilla in town, going all the way round on the number 11 bus – all lovely to see mentioned in a book if you’re a local (or an adopted local). 

A fabulous coming-of-age memoir which, especially if you’re of the author’s vintage, as I am, will set your memory working over songs, performers and tiny details of everyday life, but has a wider importance as a chronicle of second-generation immigrant life and the special expectations that can entail. 

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Liz lives near to where this book is set and was excited to see all the local places mentioned. She blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Pete Paphides, Broken Greek: A Story of Chip Shops and Pop Songs (Quercus, 2021). 978-1529404449, 592 pp., paperback original.

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