Alpha tale: Pete Paphides, ‘Broken Greek’

I am extremely late to this party, as ‘Broken Greek’ has now been in paperback for a couple of months. Back in 2020, its initial appearance was greeted by a chorus of rave reviews and widespread, well-deserved appreciation. It not only won the Royal Society of Literature’s 2021 Christopher Bland Prize, it was also my chosen holiday read over the last week.

Spoiler alert: I loved it, too. But while the book has no need of my endorsement, I still want to offer it – to recommend it. Maybe this is because it’s the kind of beautifully-written, empathetic memoir that has a genuine, profound effect on its readers – you want to give something back.

Equally, I’m vying for the attention of any ArtMuseLondon regulars with a main focus on classical music, who may swerve a book from a writer like Paphides, rightly renowned for pop/rock journalism. I urge you – cast such reservations aside. Almost in passing – since I think Paphides would modestly demur at any grand claims for the book – ‘Broken Greek’ makes the clearest case I’ve read not only for the importance of pop music (especially in young lives) but its depths, layers and resonances. The detail with which Paphides can recall the soundtrack to his childhood, how music helped shape him – how ‘your’ music finds you, rather than the other way round: it’s as if his ears are still only about ten years old, even as his brain steers him towards middle age.

I’ll try not to repeat too much of what you may have read about the book already. In brief, Paphides recounts his coming of age, more or less. His parents emigrated from Cyprus, thinking their stay in the UK would probably be temporary. However, whether it’s conflict with Turkey back home, or the dawning, shared realisation that the boys are far more ‘British’ than anything else, circumstances ensure that the permanent return trip never materialises. Accordingly, Pete and his older brother Aki grow up in the flat above the family’s chip shop in Birmingham and the family unit jostles into a kind of suspension between stability and volatility: the balance between his dad’s short fuse and his mum’s (almost) limitless patience.

I wonder if Paphides is a writer of such great nuance because he refuses to take the easy route: he is not the ‘hero’ of this book, and he is as unsparing of his own childhood mis-steps and failures, as he is understanding of even the most unsympathetic types who cross his path. He could easily demonise his father and idealise his mother but he stops short of both, preserving instead their flawed humanity, and with it, their struggles and compromises.

His recall and descriptive skill are such that the reader benefits from the insights of the kind and wise writer he is now… but dovetailed with precise recollections of the slightly less kind (or more often, gauche, one might say), and certainly less wise kid he was, back in the day. Life can turn on a hair when you’re a child, and Paphides captures this wittily, and poignantly. The absolute car-crash of buying your mum a diet book as a gift – since it was the bestseller of the day – is fleetingly hilarious; it’s the hug Mrs Paphides still gives her son on receiving it that will shatter you. The memoir becomes genuinely haunting as Pete falls in with a ‘bad crowd’ that leads inevitably to near-disaster – then ultimately the epiphany of self-realisation that closes the narrative.

Insecurity almost overwhelms his early years – as the memoir begins, he refuses to speak to anyone outside the family, safer in his own shell until brother Aki finds a way to break the deadlock. A running theme has the pre-adolescent Pete’s musical proto-crushes driven by whether the woman in question would make a good substitute mum should his actual folks decide to abandon him.

The vividness of the young Pete’s musical journey is one of the book’s key features, from the evocations of the records themselves to the unpredictable way one latches onto certain songs or artists over others. (The disarming longevity of his allegiance to glam popsters Racey is one such source of amusement.)

However, I was also taken aback by the sheer musicality of the writing itself. It’s no wonder that Paphides – for whom the term ‘active listener’ could have been invented – is so alive to rhythm and verbal melody in this way, but it infuses ‘Broken Greek’ with moments of real power, passages that sound brilliant when you read them aloud to unsuspecting spouses nearby (I know this from experience). The choppy, short sentences of the silent non-interaction between the boy and the child psychologist. The lyrical introduction of friends Irene and Jack, from Irene’s smile to the snowballing exhibits demonstrating their relative poshness. The cyclical repetition of the name when he decides to call himself ‘Peter’.

In particular, the repetition of another kind of name has a different, heartbreaking effect as Paphides reflects on one particular time he jumped the wrong way, losing a friend by joining in with the in-crowd.

More positively thrilling is how he captures cadences of speech – possibly my favourite person in the whole book is the neighbours’ teenage daughter, Ged. Through maturity, sympathy, a sunny disposition – or possibly a mix of all three – she consistently makes time for Pete and breathlessly passes on her various enthusiasms (‘Have you never heard Paul Simon, Takis? … He lists all the ways you can leave your lover!’) Ged’s constant use of Pete’s original diminutive name and almost-audible exclamation marks lodge her personality unforgettably in your head.

The book is lengthy (a Greek epic in miniature, if you will), in the best possible way. Packed with incident, but unafraid of digression; full of surprise and substance. Warm, unhurried, it’s a summer-holiday-afternoon of a read – if only it could last indefinitely. I hope Paphides decides to either continue his story or find others to tell: we can never have enough of writing as incisive and engaging as this.

AA

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