Pete Paphides’s Broken Greek: a striking memoir of immigration and music

Music journalist Paphides tells the immigrant’s story with clarity and tenderness.

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Which two things connect Greek Cypriot immigrants Stavros Georgiou, Kyriacos Panayiotou and Christakis Paphides?

The first is the more prosaic. They all ran catering establishments. The second is their place in rock ’n’ roll history. All three fathered sons who have made an enormous contribution to pop music – Cat Stevens (now known as Yusuf Islam), George  Michael and Pete Paphides.

Paphides’s contribution is through music journalism. He’s never been a songwriter so far as I know, and so has never written anything as beautiful as “The First Cut is the Deepest” or “Jesus to a Child” – until now.

The beauty of this book, like a good moussaka, is layered. At its base is the childhood memoir of a sensitive, savvy English kid whose first language is Greek. His parents, Chris and Victoria, speak it all the time at home and when Pete is four he’s taken on a two-month holiday to Greece and Cyprus. When he returns to start school he refuses to speak to anyone at all in any language, outside his immediate family.

His silence is finally broken in 1977 thanks to a clever ruse by his brother. By then young Pete is so in love with pop music that he’d lift his parents’ telephone receiver most days and add 2p to the bill by listening to British Telecom’s “Dial-a-Disc” service.

Pop music for him, is “a place where the big issues were addressed”. “Waterloo” by Abba was a history lesson; “Roxanne” by the Police taught him about prostitution and “House of Fun” by Madness mirrored what he and his friends were going through when puberty erupted.

This coming-of-age story set in the Great Western Fish Bar in a Birmingham suburb is wonderfully told, but the meat in this dish is his parents’ tale. I’ve never read anything that tells the immigrant’s story with such clarity and tenderness.

Chris(takis) and Victoria (from Athens) Paphides married young and wanted more than his small village in Cyprus could offer. They came to England and, like many Greek Cypriots, borrowed the money to buy a fish and chip business. From the very beginning, Chris strove for excellence. Whereas other owners had their fish delivered every other day, he got up at 5am daily to buy his fresh from the market. He used Maris Piper potatoes. But fish and chips was never served to their kids. Victoria made dolmades and keftedes. If she couldn’t go back to Athens “at least she could try and serve it up on a plate”.

The parents miss their homeland terribly. That two-month holiday makes them work even harder so that one day they will be prosperous enough to return for good.

I admit to falling a little bit in love with Victoria reading this book. Her childhood ambition to be an architect would never be realised and, following the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus, she knew they would never return to her husband’s birthplace. Still, she hopes that their sons will marry nice girls from the Greek Cypriot diaspora and eventually take over the business. But the sons have no intention of complying. At primary school Pete unilaterally changes his name from Takis. Both sons prefer listening to Billy Joel than Mikis Theodorakis. They have no ambition to work in the chip shop.

Pete’s sensitivity certainly wasn’t inherited from his father. When Victoria has to go into hospital her husband, a typically macho Mediterranean, can’t even manage to hoover the carpet. Expecting him to do even the simplest household chores is like “expecting a guide dog to round up sheep”. As Paphides deftly records, the closest Chris can get to telling his wife he loves her is to admit that he needs her. 

Victoria works in the shop alone to give her increasingly tetchy husband Thursdays off. When pensioners, unable to afford a full portion, ask for a few chips she shovels some extra in for free. When word gets around it leads to many more pensioners coming to the shop on Thursdays, “slowly advancing” towards it “like turtles on a moonlit beach”.

Paphides carelessly scatters such brilliant metaphors; Mick Ronson on that famous Top of the Pops appearance singing “Starman” with Bowie looks like “a hod carrier in drag”. Cliff Richard’s strange late 1970s/early 1980s “dance” was “that of a man carefully emerging through a foggy clearing at night in a glade where a puma has been reportedly sighted.”

I can’t tell you how good this book is.  Incredibly, it’s Paphides’s first – I’d be amazed (and disappointed) if it’s his last. 

Broken Greek 
Pete Paphides
Quercus, 592pp, £20

Alan Johnson is a former home secretary and MP for Hull West and Hessle. His books include In My Life: A Music Memoir (Bantam Press)

This article appears in the 06 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Inside No 10

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