Broken Greek

Peter Paphides

Quercus, £20

On page 182 of Peter Paphides’ sweet, gawky memoir of an anxious childhood in the 1970s and early 1980s, the broadcaster and music journalist reprints the list of singles that made up the top 30 in the Daily Mirror one day in 1979. “As far as I was concerned,” he writes, “there was more news squeezed into this corner of a single page of the Daily Mirror than there was in the rest of the paper.”

What was news then has since been transformed into memory. And not just for Paphides. Casting my eye down the songs that made up that chart was to be reminded of how often they soundtracked moments of my own life.

The Boomtown Rats were number one with I Don’t Like Mondays that week. I remember hearing it for the first time in the car park of the Bannockburn heritage centre while the rest of the family were off learning about Robert the Bruce (Radio 1 was more important to me back then).

Cliff Richard was at number two with We Don’t Talk Anymore, which I loved despite it being Cliff singing. In fact, maybe because it was Cliff singing. He’d been my Uncle Tommy’s favourite pop star and Tommy, before he drowned in the River Bann, had bequeathed me his football team (Tottenham Hotspur) and a sneaky liking for Britain’s Elvis that survived up until Mistletoe and Wine at least.

At number three was Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3, which Mike Read used to play every morning with its refrain “Why don’t you get back into bed,” mocking me as I got ready to go to school. Down at 16 was Stay with Me till Dawn, by one-hit wonder Judy Tzuke. That winter I remember helping my dad to paper the hall while her LP played on repeat.

I could probably go through the list and tell you something about every single on that list. My Sharona by The Knack was at 25, a single my late wife hated with such vehemence that I absorbed that enmity and even now I shiver with repulsion every time I hear it (and let’s face it, that lyric is pretty bloody creepy these days).

All these emotional depth charges, big and small. In a way that’s the point of Paphides’ memoir, acknowledged in the book’s subtitle, “A story of chip shops and pop songs”. For baby boomers, Gen Xers and more, pop music was both a soundtrack and a frame of reference. It helped us understand the world around us.

That was certainly the case for Paphides. He grew up in Birmingham, the second son of a Greek mum and a Greek Cypriot father who ran a chip shop. Several chip shops over the years, in fact. Mum was one for spoiling her younger son. Dad wasn’t quite as capable of showing love, to either his sons or his wife. He was also increasingly aware his desire to return home to Cyprus was nothing more than a dream.

Broken Greek is an account of the strains of a marriage that feels more habit than love (“I’d never seen my parents kiss each other or engage in any sort of tender exchange,” he writes at one point), and a second-generation immigrant child who feels anxious about, well, everything: “Insects. Worms. Standing next to tall buildings. Biting into mushrooms. Getting my hair cut. The woman two doors away with a skin-coloured plastic mask obscuring the bit of her face that was missing after her car caught fire. People with other bits of their bodies missing.”

It was an ever-growing list. The list would later swell to include Jimmy Osmond, Rod Hull’s Emu, tall buildings and Dave Greenfield from The Stranglers.

Paphides’ anxieties are so overwhelming at times that the book begins with him as a boy descending into elective muteness, speaking only to his parents and brother Aki.

Looking for something to give him solace, to provide some stability, Paphides latches onto pop music. He avidly watches Top of the Pops, then starts spending his pocket money on seven-inch singles. Pop is an escape and a way of understanding the world, sometimes imperfectly.

In pop music Paphides looks first for alternative parents who might swoop in and save him if things go wrong at home or school. Sting, say, or Sally Oldfield or Olivia Newton John, though not the Olivia Newton John who wears leather trousers and smokes a cigarette in the video for You’re the One That I Want; that was definitely taking things too far for Paphides’ buttoned-up notions of propriety.

As the years pass, music becomes a way for him to think about growing up, about girls, and about sex, though in the latter he’s something of a late developer. He watches American Werewolf in London and is less interested in Jenny Agutter in the film than her sash windows. (I am a few years older than Paphides and was clearly at a more, umm, suggestible age than Paphides when I watched John Landis’s film. I still have a thing for Jenny.)

Music also provided a vehicle for him to imagine how to be himself in the world. A world of school bullies and understanding older girls, a world swimming in chip fat. It’s the one thing he can rely on when his parents don’t understand him (and he, them), when school is unbearable, when as a teen he finds himself, almost inexplicably, becoming a troublemaker.

In passing, Broken Greek is a portrait of a Britain now gone, a Britain of Dial-A-Disc and Woolworths and Wimpy and Grange Hill and Kelly Monteith and Brotherhood of Man. But it never settles for easy nostalgia. At heart it’s a coming-of-age story that takes in the misery pop of Abba to Brummie soul brother number one Kevin Rowland to explain a family life that is both loving and dysfunctional.

Can this all sustain the best part of 600 pages? Actually, it can, and with some ease. Paphides is an acute, insightful and funny writer who is not interested in looking cool or showing off his musical tastes (perhaps only to be expected when his younger self, he admits, was a big fan of the Baron Knights).

As narrator, Paphides is effectively doubled here. He is both the child and the man; the child who understood nothing and the man who finds himself trying to understand his father and mother’s situation. It’s a sly juggling act that allows him to both embrace and poke fun at his childhood idiosyncrasies. This is a loving, affectionate account of an everyday life that never shies away from the emotional and material difficulties that such a life might entail.

Best of all, Paphides writes about music with huge enthusiasm. “No one in Smash Hits,” he writes at one point, “sounded like they were having as much fun being in a band as Orange Juice…it seemed implausible that you could reach your teens and still sound so amused by your own ineptitude.”

His description of an appearance by Dexys Midnight Runners on The Tube in the early 1980s is exhilarating (better, I would contend than the performance itself. And I say that as a Dexys fan).

As he approached his teens Paphides was more and more drawn to those pop stars – Rowland, Edwyn Collins, Paul Weller – who seem at ease with their place in the world. At the same time, he doesn’t think for one second he can be like them. If he was in The Jam, he says, he’d have been bassist Bruce Foxton.

That understanding is why Broken Greek works so well. It is a hymn to deeply flawed beta maleness, to love with all its complications and to the joy of pop. Even at nearly 600 pages it has all the energy, thrill and immediacy of your favourite single. I can think of no higher praise than that.