Paphides paints an extraordinarily vivid and affectionate picture of the period: calls to Dial-a-Disc in the hope of hearing the Rubettes; gazing in awe at Woolworth’s floor-to-ceiling display of chart singles; and the “state-approved fun” of Noel Edmonds’ Multi-Coloured Swap Shop. If, like Paphides, you felt “a profound sense of well-being” in a record shop in the Seventies and early Eighties, then Broken Greek will transport you back there. You’ll recall how central pop records were, and you’ll be enthralled by Paphides’ funny, warm and sometimes heartbreaking account of how life-affirming music can be.
I started Broken Greek marvelling, and not kindly, at the space he was granting himself. But it doesn’t take long for the reader to be swept willingly along. Paphides’s prose is the kind that excels in marshalling long trains of thought that can start at one end with the Boomtown Rats’s ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ (‘a baroque pop melodrama that wasted no time in letting you know how important it was’) and end ‘next to the newspaper carousel at the seafront kiosk in Limassol’. It’s only later that you might think to ask yourself — as David Byrne did — ‘how did I get here?’
Here’s how: because music is bound up with the self, and its circumstances.
Mostly its appeal lies in Paphides’s guileless musings on life. Aged only 13 when the memoir ends, he writes: “If you had love inside you and you felt you could decant it into somebody on a daily basis, how could you screw it up?” Lucky Caitlin Moran, the Times columnist and his adored wife of 21 years, although Paphides is now a clear competitor to her. Is there a more perfect way to describe a child’s memory of British weather than this? “It was one of those weatherless days: no sun, no rain, no visible clouds, yet no clear sky.” Or youthful bodies? “Her torso was flat and bendy like one of those fruit bars that middle-class parents give to their children.”
It is a doorstop of a book, covering a decade of Paphides’s life in exhaustive detail. There are pages devoted to such subjects as the recording process of Abba’s Voulez-Vous album and an obscure B-side by the Jam. This forensic approach will not work for everyone, but his prose compels (when describing his mother’s best friend he writes: “The lines on Irene’s face had arranged themselves around her smile like ripples around the point at which a rock plunges into a pond”) and his writing about music cleverly juxtaposes the gauche, emotional responses of the boy with the informed analysis of the grown-up critic.
The book’s greatest asset is its abundance of material about musicians and songs, and the way that they guided its author through experiences that would have been impossible to navigate alone. Paphides has made a career out of music writing, and his skills in that field have long been clear. But here, he does something much more singular, describing the deep impact music can have on a particular sort of child, long before they are aware of the codes of cool that dictate what one should and shouldn’t like. By way of setting out his stall, he asks: “Do you sometimes feel like the music you’re hearing is explaining your life to you?”
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.
If there’s a weak area of the book, it is in the rare moments when Paphides introduces non-music asides that involve a leap forward in time. There’s mention of Brexit and Boris Johnson, tangents that jar. But – to repurpose a joke from Paphides – it’s small fry. Because, as well as producing writing that conjures some visually stunning images (a mass of school pupils is a “murmuration of green blazers”), Paphides is funny: “I didn’t know who Lulu was, but I knew she was important, because like Sting, Odysseus and Kojak, she only had one name.”