‘Broken Greek’ by Pete Paphides (Review)
In 2021, I was having a bit of a reading slump. I was also having, what I would call, a ‘music slump’. The pandemic and its never-ending news cycle had been a bit too stimulating – and it got to me. After a year and a half of gigs cancellations, limited social activity and the worry that I’d be quite a bit older when this all ended, I got a bit bored of my usual music rotation and even lost the passion to write about it. Instead, I threw myself into work, and in the process, I forgot why music was so important to me in the first place.
This is the story of what swiftly ended that phase.
In the summer of 2021, a book arrived in the post. The book was Broken Greek by music journalist Pete Paphides – a gift from one of my friends, who came across the book online and thought I’d enjoy reading it. He also thought I’d find some common ground with it as, first of all, I too had family who had emigrated from Cyprus to find a better life in the UK (though for me, it was my grandparents, who earned a living working in a textiles factory in Hackney in the 1960s). I also loved writing and talking about music – albeit not in a professional capacity.
Similarities aside, I hadn’t anticipated just how much I was going to love this book.
When one person’s story becomes universal
Although it is a memoir principally about Pete’s childhood and upbringing, Broken Greek is a beautiful and universal read about childhood, family, and the songs which enhance our lives. Music helps us to form our own identities, yet it also helps us find some common ground with others. And on a deeper level, it also acts as a tool to help us make sense of those thoughts and feelings we cannot comprehend alone. For Pete, the occasional pop band, from ABBA to Brotherhood of Man, helped him to understand his thoughts and feelings during the years he spent not speaking to anyone outside of his family. On a cultural level, English-language pop music also played a vital role in the formation of his new, British identity.
For me, I am at my most comfortable, receptive and animated when I am listening to – or talking about – music. When I didn’t have any friends at school, I always had my music. At that point, I almost felt like it was fine if I wasn’t having conversations with anyone because I’d often have a song playing in my head instead. Listening to music was like a conversation itself, between myself and the singer/band, which often rotated between The Ramones, The Clash, The Smiths, KC and the Sunshine Band and the Bee Gees. However, once I found my ‘people’, music acted as a tool to build those connections. What started as a fairly solitary activity became a social one.
As a lover of 70s and 80s pop music, I found Pete’s song choices in Broken Greek delightful. I still watch the re-runs of old Top of the Pops episodes with my dad and often delight in how varied and unpredictable the charts used to be. I imagine how it must have been to be alive at a time where Sparks made their Top of the Pops debut in 1974 with ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for The Both of Us’, or when Gary Numan topped the charts with ‘Are Friends Electric?’ with his band The Tubeway Army in 1979, beating a lot of emerging British electronic acts to it.
Broken Greek and the immigrant experience
In a cultural sense, Broken Greek made me think of my grandparents. Apart from the very brave decision to move to England in search of a better life, music played a big part in their life too. With it, they formed their new, blended cultural identities, built connections with their new neighbours and learned the lingo. It also provided an exciting new soundtrack for all of their parties, where music by David Bowie and The Beatles featured heavily.
In the book, especially in its first hundred or so pages, I enjoyed reading about the experiences of his parents the most. Stories of his mother responding to newspaper ads to come up with slogans for food items, or of the time, on a very foggy day, when she got lost on her way home from work – highlighting the tremendous warmth and kindness of those who helped and made this time a little easier. In the end, a lot of the book is about family – a family making do with their unique set of circumstances in a new place, slowly encountering the hurdles and complications involved yet still wishing to carry on regardless because, well, at this point, the alternatives seemed more and more distant.
This made me think of a couple of shows I watched growing up. The best example of this is the Channel 4 comedy Desmond’s, which is predominately set in Desmond Ambrose’s barbershop in Peckham. Even though Desmond often sees his stint in England as relatively brief, often talking about returning to Guyana eventually to retire, it becomes clear that the family are very much rooted in Peckham, with the added complication that they now have kids who have been born and raised in the UK. So they settle, and that dream drifts further away. Pete
Broken Greek remains the best book I read last year. It is beautiful, and life-affirming, and enhanced my understanding of where we come from. I better understood the lives my parents and grandparents led in the 60s and 70s, the struggles they went through to build a life in London, and the interesting cultural dichotomy that any child of immigrants feels.
It also reignited my passion for music. I once again delighted in listening to it, whether that be listening to old favourites (hello Oasis) or hearing your new favourite song for the first time. I cannot do without music and, if you’ve made it this far, then neither can you.
And even if you don’t relate to it the same way I did, Broken Greek is also a beautiful reading experience. Whether it’s the pop songs which draw you in or its nostalgia for childhood, there is something in this book for everyone. It is wonderfully written and almost resembles a novel in its prose – you become invested in the characters involved and want everything to work out well for them. And at a time when I wanted to be anywhere else but here, Pete’s descriptions of the setting transport you to a different time with ease. You can almost smell the fish and chips now…
Thanks for reading!
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