This week’s episode brings together 2 of the UK’s most established broadcasters and journalists, Stuart Maconie and Pete
Paphides to discuss their latest books, The Nanny State Made Me and Broken Greek. In conversation with writer and poet Jo Bell, they discuss the personal and cultural importance of music, their deep connection to the Midlands and what it is like to have a life so different to that of your parents.
Paphides to discuss their latest books, The Nanny State Made Me and Broken Greek. In conversation with writer and poet Jo Bell, they discuss the personal and cultural importance of music, their deep connection to the Midlands and what it is like to have a life so different to that of your parents.
The Birmingham Lit Fest Presents... podcast brings writers and readers together to discuss some of 2020’s best books. Each Thursday across the next few months we’ll be releasing new episodes of the podcast, including wonderful discussions
about writing, poetry, big ideas and social issues. Join us each week for exciting and inspiring conversations with new, and familiar, writers from the Midlands and beyond.
Take a look at the rest of this year's digital programme on our website: https://www.birminghamliteraturefestival.org/.
For more information on Writing West Midlands, visit https://writingwestmidlands.org/
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Curator: Shantel Edwards (Festival director)
Guest Curator: Kit de Waal
Production: 11C/ Birmingham Podcast Studios for Writing West Midlands
Birmingham Lit Fest presents…podcast
Episode 1: Stuart Maconie and Pete Paphides
Kit de Waal
Welcome to episode 1 of the Birmingham Lit Fest presents…podcast. I’m Kit de Waal, writer and Guest
Curator of this year’s podcast. This week’s episode brings together in conversation 2 of the UK’s most
established broadcasters and journalists, Stuart Maconie and Pete Paphides to discuss their latest books,
The Nanny State Made Me and Broken Greek. In conversation with writer and poet Jo Bell, they discuss the
personal and cultural importance of music, their deep connection to the Midlands, redefining our
understanding of the ‘Nanny State’ and what it is to have a life so different to that of your parents.
This episode of the Birmingham Lit Fest presents… podcast is brought to you in partnership with Dains
Accounting. Visit their website for more information about their services at www.dains.com.
Hello, and welcome to Birmingham Literature Festival. You'll be used to recordings by now from all kinds of
different places, so if you hear the slight creaking of timbers, that's because my part of this podcast is being
recorded on a boat. I'm Jo Bell, I'm a poet who has often been a guest of this festival. And today I'm
speaking to two men whose recent books have a lot in common. Pete Paphides' Broken Greek and Stuart
Maconie's The Nanny State Made Me are both funny, they're thoughtful, they're what you might call lyric
histories telling the story of a personal life and looking at a larger world through the rear-view mirror.
Stuart Maconie's book looks at the impact of the welfare state through its framing of his own life. And Pete
Paphides shows us what it was like to grow up in Birmingham during the 70s and 80s as a secondgeneration Greek through the records that saw him through childhood and adolescence. So hello, both
where are you today? Stuart, where are you?
Hi, Jo. I'm in a almost completely deserted BBC MediaCity studio. I've been incredibly the … we were
designated my show and Lauren Laverne's show on [Radio] 6 Music were designated 'key workers' at the
beginning of this, at the beginning of this crisis. And so I've been working, I've been coming here every
weekend and although there's been a slight increase in busyness, pretty much still … It's slightly weird. So
I'm in a deserted studio in Salford at the moment.
Wow, wow! Thanks. Where are you Pete?
I'm – slightly less romantically – I'm in the shed at the bottom of the garden. I've sort of commandeered,
which is my daughter's office usually, but I've, I've ousted her. And so me and the dog are just sitting here.
But I do like … Stuart situation sounds quite romantic. I quite like being in radio studios when they're mostly
empty. They have, there's a certain kind of romance about it, which I dare say, probably wore off quite a
long time ago.
No, it is. I do … You're right, you're absolutely right. There is a strange kind of feeling. It's like radio studios
in the middle of the night, people who do those kind of shows where you go, “Hi, it's coming up to twenty
to 4 a.m.” you know, that kind of thing. It's, it is quite romantic. Yeah, but, and I can see Winter Hill from
my window. So it's all quite nice,
Fantastic. Ian Macmillan told me once that he had been at Radio 4 when the shipping forecast was on and
how he imagined that the whole station was just switched off like a light switch at the end, and he said,
“And it was just like that; it was just like that – they finished the shipping forecast and and then they turned
it off Radio 4 went to bed”.
My favourite entry in the BBC Duty log, which used to be … it's probably all online now. It used to be when
people called up with complaints and stuff, they used to put it in what was called the Duty log. My favourite
complaint was, “Shipping forecast too fast”.
It's important. I mean, you are, you're all doing important work for the nation. And no one is perhaps more
important than they should be focused, especially to those of us who have no real idea what it means. So
we're here today to celebrate your two books, which I've re-read and enjoyed, and I've listened to Pete's as
well as the Book of the Week on Radio 4. And it strikes me how much they've got in common and, of
course, how separate they are. So what I'd like to do is to hear an extract first from Stuart's book, and a
couple of questions for Stuart, and then we'll repeat that process with Pete, and then we'll bring you both
into a conversation together.
So I'm going to introduce Stuart first. For those of you who don't know him, which can't be many of you,
Stuart Maconie is a music journalist, a broadcaster, and author of broad-ranging social histories, which
often start from pop culture but they go much deeper; they go much wider. And in the words of the Daily
Mail – Stuart Maconie, do you want to hear this, Stuart, what the Daily Mail said about you–
Yes, please. What did they say?
They said you are “a lefty – but he's not one of those hectoring ideologues who stands astride social media
bellowing at people”. So Stuart, could you please bellow or otherwise a few words from your book, The
Nanny State Made Me?
Okay, this is from the very short – this is the opening page or two – it's from the very short prologue, that
sort of scene setting.
“London's skyline bristles with towers old and new, bloody and sleek, monuments to kings and to
commerce, from the giants of the City's swampy money jungle, to the high-rise canyons of Camden, visitor
and native steers and orients by them, lifting your eyes from your book or your phone or your feet as the
train exhales into Euston as the bus crests Muswell Hill, as you jostle through the West End. Whenever I
pace the narrow lanes of Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia, I look up, fly favourite, a Grade II-listed building, more
human and generous than the monstrosities of Canary Wharf. It's had many names, and many lovers. It
looms over works by Ian McEwan, the Goodies, Alan Moore, Harry Potter and Doctor Who. It is part of our
shared national iconography. It is a symbol of something – but what? I think I know: glamour, vision,
adventure, the future that was coming. Early in the 21st century, just as we were realising that that future
wasn't coming for most of us down below, I had lunch at the top of that tower in the restaurant that used
to revolve, the restaurant of failed dreams, with a man who helped to build it. I was filming an interview
with Tony Benn, the grand old firebrand of the Labour movement about the tower's history. In 1966, along
with the holiday camp magnate, Billy Butlin, he opened what was then called the GPO or General Post
Office Tower. He was Postmaster General, and the tower was designed by the architects of the Ministry of
Public Buildings. Neither of those positions or organisations exist now. With the coming of Margaret
Thatcher's new, changed Britain, the tower as part of the privatisation of the Post Office, the first of many,
it became first the Telecom and then the BT Tower. And as we sat in the restaurant eyrie, closed to the
public for decades on the vague and spurious grounds of it being a terrorist target, I could sense the
mounting anxiety of the slick besuited PR man, eventually, he came over to our table.
'Hey, I can't help noticing guys, Stuart, Tony, that you're referring to the building as the GPO Tower,' he
laughed indulgently. 'Now, it's not been that for a long, long time, guys. Can I just remind you, it's the BT
Tower – as in British Telecom – who own it.'
Benn fixed him with a stare that combined pity and scorn. 'Excuse me, I commissioned this building. I built
it using British labour and skills with the money of the British people who paid for it with their taxes. It
belongs to them. And it always will. Margaret Thatcher took it from them and gave it to you when it was
not hers to give. This is not your building. It is theirs.' And he pointed to the streets below and the rushing
crowds. 'It was stolen from them.'
The PR guy, crushed, moved silently back into the shadows, then turned to me, rolled his eyes and winked.
At that point the seed of this book was planted. This is my story, your story and how it was stolen from us.”
Brilliant, thank you. Tony, Tony Benn nailing his cards to the table as usual there.
And, and you laying out yours as well. Partly, one of the things that strikes me through reading this book is
how important individuals are in all of our lives – but in shaping the world that we live in. And I briefly met
Tony Benn because he came to my school and spoke to us with that same truth to power, uncompromising,
starey-eyed “Listen here!” attitude that framed us all. And you, in, in framing the book in that way you set
yourself up as a provocateur deliberately. What is the nanny state? And who calls it that?
Well, it's interesting. I mean, when we first had the discussions, when I had the discussions with my
publisher, Penguin Random House Ebury about this, and I said, I want to call it The Nanny State Made Me
they came back to me and said, “We're not sure; it's kind of negative, isn't it, the nanny state?” And I said,
“Well, that's kind of the point – I'm trying to reclaim it, you know”. And they said, “It feels a little bit
downbeat”. And I said, “Well, Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race is quite negative, you
know, but that's, that's … and I think they eventually they came around, and they saw that what I was
trying to do was take this term, which is a bizarre term …
I did a programme with Michael Rosen about language in which I talked, I tried to try to unpick, as it were,
that phrase, 'nanny state'. It is used as a shorthand by people who wouldn't know what a nanny is. It's used
by, you know, builders, and shop workers who've never had any experience of a nanny – a nana maybe, I
mean. But they've, they've, they've taken it on board as this is this terrible, pejorative description of … And,
well, my point of view, my point in the book is, well, I suppose firstly, because the point of view … What are
governments for, if not to look after their people? I mean, that's my that's my starting point. We alone
almost in the world – well, us and the Americans arguably at the moment, the two most potty countries on
earth. Us and the Americans alone in the civilized world seems to say, 'Oh, no, governments, we don't want
them to do anything'. Well, that's fine, that's fine if we don't want the government to do anything: I'll stop
paying taxes then. But as long as we do pay taxes, and we have a civic shared responsibility, that's the point
of a government to do stuff for people. And it seems that we now think that's anathema in this country.
And I do, as I say, it's a glib joke, but it's, it's one with a kernel of truth – as I say early on in the book, the
people who moan about the nanny state are the people who had nannies. It's people like Jacob Rees-Mogg,
etc., etc., etc. And I find it, I find it extraordinary. And so I mean, as you can tell, I'm kind of, I'm kind of
angry about all this but I hope it's not an angry book. I hope it's more of a … I hope it's funny and fist bump
on the table as it were.
It is, it is all of that. And actually, it has, it has a quality which I can only remember Richard Dawkins bringing
about in me before, which is that it made me furiously angry as I read it, because I agreed with every word
It, you know, it made me laugh out loud. It is very funny. There are so many anecdotes and, and personal
starting points. And, of course, you frame it in terms of your own life. But it is also a book and the title
brings me back to that; it is also a book in which the title is that clear statement. It sits alongside Why I'm
No Longer Talking to White People About Race or Kit de Waal's Common People* or Akala's Natives**. And I
think Pete's book does this as well in a very different way – that you're, you're putting your cards on the
table and saying: 'Right, this is what this book is about'. And sometimes, as with Natives or Common People,
the phrasing of the title is reclaiming that which we have been called.
It is, it is a polemic. But it's a, it's a polemic and it's got interviews, it's got travel in it, but it's obviously, it
has an element of memoir, in which – not, not as strongly as Pete's does – but I think it challenged initially,
when I learned that Pete and I's books were coming out around the same time. I mean, I was keen on is
doing some events together, which I'm so glad we're doing this together. Because I did think that although
they're coming from different angles, they have quite a lot of, there's quite a lot of shared, there's a
commonality about them I think, so …
No, I just totally agree. You know, there were so many sorts of things that I, I, you know, Stuart's … What I
liked about Stuart's book is obviously, there is a lot of anger in it, but it's actually, it's a very celebratory
book as well. And it wears it lightly in a way that, you know, I loved the almost incidental way that there are
certain kind of parts of Birmingham that I found very beautiful as I was growing up in a completely, you
know, in a way that you don't analyse because you're young. And, and I really loved the way, the way Stuart
kind of celebrated those same places and, you know, in the, the Central Library and, you know, just, just
the, just the, his use of the word 'planter' when the bit where he's sitting on a planter. That alone just
evoked such a rush of warm feelings for me because planters to me with these beautiful things that I could
kind of, like, line up my toy cars on. And, you know, the, you know, the, the, the, the new town, the kind of
the optimism, optimism of new towns. Yeah, I loved all of that. Sorry, carry on – this isn't my bit.
No, it is, it's a really, it's a joyful reclaiming of the public and the municipal, which are often sneered at and
considered second rate in some way. And your chapters, Stuart, have titles like 'I am born', 'I go to school',
'I have fun' and 'I travel'. So it sounds almost like a Ladybird children's book: Stuart Maconie has fun.
It was kind of, yes, it was deliberate, it was deliberately meant to echo those and, you know, those kind of
picaresques like Tom Jones, where they say, like, 'In which our hero goes to school for the first time'. And it
was meant to … You and Peter absolutely right: one of the real points of it was it was a love letter to those
things that are routinely sneered at when people go, 'Oh, new towns, those soulless monstrosities! Oh,
council estates, that soulless monstrosity!' And I go: I grew up on one and it was great. I loved it, and you
know, and I just wanted to reclaim for the vast majority, 'cos that's the thing, it's for the many not the few.
The people who say these things are a tiny minority of people who really say, 'Oh, new towns are ghastly!'
you know, it's, it's …
No I'm, I'm reminded of that. It's that whole idea of public libraries, for instance, as a place which are
scorned, but which have been taken for granted by many of us until they disappeared. Sorry, Pete, what
were you about to say?
What were you punching the air at, Pete?
I was punching the air as you go off to Cumbernauld.
Where Gregory's Girl was filmed. And you know, God, I so wanted to just jump into the television screen–
Oh my God!
–and experience a Cumbernauld sunset as, as this kind of plaintive saxophone music kind of piped up and
you see Gregory kind of lying on the ground dancing with Clare Grogan.
That's exactly right. I mean, Bill Forsyth's film, that film, what I loved about Gregory's Girl is he doesn't at
any point in that say, 'Look at how these people live in their extraordinary and benighted way'. It's just
presented as normal life. And, and, and as it was for millions of us, you know?
Yeah. And likewise, both of your books are very non-metropolitan, you know, they are unapologetically, of
course, celebrating that which is not London, that which is perfectly normal. It's not like, of course, Wigan
was fascinating at the time, but now I've outgrown it. There is a deep affection for the places from which
you began and in some ways have come right back to.
And one of the things I want to ask you as you as you look at those, that interface between the personal
and the political, the larger environment is – your personal anecdote about Birkenhead and its parks, public
parks, you were talking about as places of recreation. And along the way you tell us about the relationship
between Birkenhead and Central Park. Tell us about that.
Well, yeah, this connection was pointed out to me, unexpectedly, but brilliantly by Nigel, the lead singer
and chief songwriter of Half Man Half Biscuit, who I've seen described as Britain's greatest living satirist,
and I think that might be true. And he, he's a history buff. He comes from Birkenhead. He's very proud to
come from Birkenhead, he's a history buff. And he told me this, and it is indeed, I mean, it's an
extraordinary story. The man who designed Central Park was on a walking tour of the North West,
apparently, and popped into tobacconist's. And, and the tobacconist said, 'What brings you round here?'
And he said, 'I'm having a, I'm on holiday. I actually design public parks for living. And I'm going to design
one in New York. And the tobacconist said, 'Oh, you want to have a look at ours, mate, it's great.' And he,
and he had a look and said, 'This is wonderful. I'm going to base it on this. And I don't know Central Park
that well in New York, but those people who do say, 'Yeah, it's modelled on it.
And it's interesting, the fortunes of Birkenhead Park, like a lot of the things in this book are malleable, like
libraries and schools – the fortunes of it are sort of Britain in miniature, launched in the heyday of great
civic pride, and then, you know, then recessions come and wars come and go, and then Thatcher comes
and the public realm is kind of put on hold and, and as happened. And, I don't know whether we will
emerge from all this crisis with any new public and civic energies. I hope we do. I'm not holding my breath.
But yeah, those things like municipal golf courses, municipal libraries, municipal swimming baths, the
neglect, the rise and fall kind of reflects our rise and fall I think, as a properly grown-up country.
And I wonder if some of that disdain for the nanny state comes from that opposition, perceived opposition
between aspiration and community, you know, that when you talk about the, the rising importance of the
individual as a rather selfish thing – a sort of me, me, me generation rather than an us, us, us generation
The last chapter was incredibly prophetic I now realise… It talks about Eyam in Derbyshire, where they
isolated themselves from the plague, and I wouldn't for the life of me––
Excuse me, speaking as a Derbyshire native, that's [pronounced] 'Eem'.
It's 'Eem?' I do apologise.
I just have to say that, I have to say that on behalf of the Peak District population.
Okay, I didn't know that. 'Eem' in Derbyshire, thank you, is that, you know, I wondered aloud in the end of
the book, 'Would we do this now?' Well, we got the chance to find out, didn't we, about three weeks after
the book came out about isolation and things like that? But what I, just I wonder aloud at the end of the
book, and I do say – whilst I totally understand that there has been a move towards individual
empowerment and what loosely gets called 'identity politics' in the last few years. Whilst I totally get that
to a degree, I also think that it will only take you so far. And there are times when the good of the whole of
us is more important than unfettered individual expression. I do believe that.
Brilliant. And the subtitle of your book is A Story of Britain and How to Save It. So no pressure there.
I'm not sure that I, I came up with that subtitle. I think someone else did, but I thought, 'Well, it's
provocative, I'll stick with it'.
Well, exactly. So who, what I'm, what I'm interested in is: who do you hope will read this book? Is it? I
mean, I cannot pretend to be an impartial observer here, because I pretty much agree with everything you
said. But who do you hope will read it? Will it be to confirm the experience of people like ourselves? Will it
be for younger people or for people from a different perspective altogether? And what do you hope will be
its effect on them?
I don't know who [will] read it. It certainly wasn't a partisan political book because I wrote the book at the
time of deep disenchantment with the Labour Party, so it was not a partisan political book. I think it could
appeal to people really across the political spectrum because, don't forget that the Toryism says that
there's no such thing as society is a very small brand of Toryism. It isn't, you know, there plenty of people
on the soft right who do not agree with that, who may not vote like I do, but who do think that the public,
the public realm is important. So I'm hoping it kind of re-energises people a bit across all, you know,
perhaps people who may have forgotten about the poetry and loveliness of … Caitlin, Pete's wife talks
beautifully and lyrically in the book, Caitlin Moran, about, you know, the, the loveliness of a public library,
the beauty, and how sad she was to go back and see Wolverhampton Public Library reduced to a shell of its
form. So I hope it just gets people to think: 'We should be proud of these things'. You know, I mean, in a
romantic way, but you … Clapping for nurses only goes so far. But I mean, it would help if we started to,
start to look around us and say, 'Hang on, we've been worshipping and venerating the wrong kinds of
people and the wrong kinds of things for 40-odd years'.
And just before, just before Pete comes in because I know Pete's book is hugely about music, and about the
powerful force music's been in his life and my life. It is not 'I do not want the state'; it is not a Maoist blue
serge suit wearing book. I do not want the state, as I say early on, to make my curries or to make my pop
music. I'm fully in favour of private individuals and private enterprise to a degree, but I don't think they
should be running our schools, our hospitals, our reservoirs, our jails, etc., etc., etc.
Yeah, no, that's very clear in the book. And it is joyful, I mean, we've discussed the sort of political
framework of it. But it is a joyful celebration of those things which have surrounded us and been the literal
built fabric around our lives, and I was going to come to – so you've spared me the effort of coming to
those musical references that you naturally populate the book with that you mentioned: Richard Hawley
and Jarvis Cocker from my hometown. You mentioned Caitlin, you mention Danny Boyle and Maxine Peake.
And there's a feeling of a book populated with cultural figures who are very non-metropolitan, very vibrant,
who are telling of an authentic experience. And I just wanted to end before I move on to Pete's book with:
is pop culture, which is the thing that the two of you have always written about, is pop culture, the
opposite of high culture, or is it a close relation?
I think it's, I think it's a close relation. I think what Pete and I share is a love of popular music in all its forms.
I don't think either of us, I think we both in our writing down the years have always railed against snobbery
in it. And I think we love its commonality. I think we do love the commonality of it, that it is, it has been for
many years. It's less homogenised now so you don't get the whole nation falling in love with the Beatles or
the Spice Girls or whatever. I think it's more fragmented now naturally because of the nature of the beast,
but I think we love its commonality and the fact that it has been something that we measure our lives in,
which it would have, of course, that is much more beautifully and directly addressed in Pete’s …
It does strike me, thank you very much, it does strike me that, that, that counterbalance between the
individual and the community is what you're both looking at in your different ways. And that brings me to
Pete's book. So just to introduce those of you who haven't heard of it or who haven't read it yet, Pete
Paphides' book, Broken Greek, is a life story told through pop music as it might well be because Pete is, as
we know, a rock critic and music writer. And one critic said that this book is “drenched in sentiment, yet not
in the least sentimental,” and that describes it neatly. It's again, funny, it's touching, it's horribly truthful
about the embarrassments of any UK childhood. But it's also a story of two cultures meeting in one person.
Pete Paphides' parents are Greek and Greek-Cypriot, which makes him maybe a Greek-Brummie. And like
Stuart's book, he's telling his own story and simultaneously the larger story that he's a part of, a story that
we can all identify with even if we aren't quite so keen as him on Dexys Midnight Runners. So, Pete, I
wonder if you could kick us off please by reading us a short piece from Broken Greek.
Okay, just to set things up. This is a, I sort of chose this because it echoes a lot of the sentiments of Stuart's
book and it's about The Jam's 1980 album Sound Affects. About three paragraphs in there is a 'Takis' which
is referred to. That is what, what my parents called, that's my real, my sort of real Greek name as it were.
So anyway, here we go.
“Sound Affects was, in its way, as psychedelic a record as the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper or the Moody Blues' Days
of Future Passed. As with those albums it ensured the surrounding streets would never be the same once
you'd seen them as these songs saw them. In interviews, Paul Weller hymned the beauty of electricity
pylons, caught somewhere between William Blake and Colin MacInnes, he set about making the suburbs
sparkle. It was a record which sought to reassure you that, even though life could be tough, you controlled
the magic. It was right there in Pretty Green, the tune which oscillated at a perfect point of tension
between the innocent release of spending your wages and the shit you have to go through in order to earn
them. It also had a hook so catchy I remember Jed, the teenage girl who lived next door, singing it a few
days previously before telling me what the song was about.
'He's singing about pound notes, Takis. I've got a pocket full of pretty green. I've never heard them called
that before. It's clever, isn't it Takis? Don't you think it's clever?'
It was clever. But it wasn't the cleverness that forged that afternoon into my memory. Aki and I frequently
fought in the way that brothers do. But in the simple act of taping this record for him so he could listen to it
in hospital, I missed him terribly. There was a space between the world as I saw it, and the world as Aki saw
it. Paul Weller's songs caught between childhood innocence and the looming obligations of adulthood
occupied that space.
For Monday, he set himself the challenge of, as he put it, writing a love song about the least romantic day
of the week. In my head, a fairy-tale ideal of love was swiftly supplanted by a new one. Monday ached like
no other Paul Weller song had ached. It ached like your first 7 a.m. start in a strange workplace when all
you want to do is be with your sweetheart. And perhaps, most incredibly, Monday took all of this and made
it aspirational. The character in the song was anything but a victim. His hardship was fuelled for the
promise of what the weekend had in store: 'a sunshine girl like you / it's worth going through / I will never
be embarrassed about love again'.
Writing to John Peel in the late 60s, David Bowie said that out in the suburbs of Kent, he could be found
'dancing a furious boredom'. The same could be said about Sound Affects' most universally adored track.
That's Entertainment glistened like a wet Cortina under a streetlamp – a sonic simulation of eventless days
in unloved conurbations. He knew because this was where he came from. Almost any other writer would
have removed the line as mundane as 'Watching the telly and thinking 'bout your holidays'. But these were
the details that authenticated the entire thing, setting everything up for a final verse whose bittersweet
intimacies would emotionally blindside me for decades to come: 'Two lovers kissing masks a scream of
midnight / Two lovers missing the tranquility of solitude / Getting a cab and travelling on buses / Reading
the graffiti about slashed seat affairs / that's entertainment'. 'Slashed seat affairs', a perfect three-word
encapsulation of the top-deck trysts forged by fumbling teens on every night bus between town and
terminus. Every moment of joy described on Sound Affects was a sweet steal from a world in which
romance and wonder were busted currency.”
Thank you. And you go on to demonstrate in every word of the book that romance and wonder are not
busted currencies because, like Stuart's book, this is a love story with more than one, 'lovee' as it were. It's,
it's about Birmingham, it's about music, it's about your family, and one of the focal points of it is growing up
in Birmingham as the son of immigrant parents. Have you found that that life story chimes with other
readers who come from very different backgrounds at different times?
Yeah, I have. And it's a huge source of relief that it did, because obviously, you sort of hope that it will. And
I thought, you know, there might be some kinship with some people that maybe come from Indian families
or Italian families or families from Hong Kong and so on. Because, you know, there is a sort of tension, and I
totally understand that tension, I totally see from, you know, my parents' point of view, because, you know,
this was the first time that, you know, huge amounts of people had come over to Britain, and not really sort
of thinking through because it, you know, it was a relatively untried experiment, what kind of children they
would be bringing up, if they were bringing up those children in a different country to the one that they
grew up in.
So I think that as I, to be honest, when I was writing the book, I didn't think that that story was going to
loom as large; I thought it was probably going to be about 75 per cent a book about music. But I sort of
realised–– When I really tried to sort of, when I started to think about why the music I loved made me feel
the way that I did, I kind of real––, I realised there was a lot of guilt there. And as I sort of explain––, you
know, that guilt exists for a variety of reasons. First of all, well, the big reason was 'cos I was, I was sort of
turning into something that was very different to my parents, and I knew what that meant, and I kind of
thought that that might be a disappointing outcome for them. And also early on I felt guilty because I
decided not to talk to anyone for three years, almost any, anyone between those three years, the ages of
four and seven. So yeah, people, people, but I think people do feel, you know, any young person will feel
confused. You know, childhood is 70 per cent confusion, I think, you know.
Well, exactly, thank you. Because adults have got no time. Adults certainly in the 70s didn't have time to
explain all this stuff, you know, certainly not before dishwashers were invented.
And do you think that music filled in some of those gaps? I mean, it's clear from, from listening to you
speaking about The Jam, or when you write about Bowie or about, particularly Boy George and Karma
Chameleon, and I remember too that experience of seeing Boy George and like everybody else's father in
the whole of Britain, my father said, 'She's got a nice voice'. You know, we, we learned some of those things
about gender or about politics or about shared frustration perhaps through music. Was that part of it that
that they were articulating what you literally, literally couldn't articulate in your case?
Yeah, it was a sort of a proxy. It was a proxy space in which you know, all this stuff could be decanted; and,
you know, the, sort of intense emotions you were feeling about certain songs were partly predicated on
things that you were watching happening around you. I mean, I really do think that's the reason why we
love a lot of the songs.
So it's clear that in, in very deep and meaningful ways music populates and furnishes life. But at the same
time, you tell us that little Jimmy Osmond was a threat to you. And I'm interested to know why that was.
He was a threat to me, you know, he was on the television an awful lot. And you know, he was this very,
very obliging, sunny, all-singing, dancing, outgoing, sort of best-case scenario, what it was to be a, to be a
child – at least, that's how he came across to me. And by this time, I'd stopped speaking to everyone, apart
from my parents, and sometimes a teacher, you know, there were no children in, in, in earshot. And the
reasons for that were sort of partly, I think, to do with the fact that we, we'd been, we were preparing to
move to Cyprus, and then the, the partition of the island happened, and it was too dangerous a place to go
back to. My dad, my dad couldn't go back to his home, go back to his home village. So I was very
discombobulated. And I was turning into something very quickly that I knew my parents didn't want me to
turn into. And so Jimmy – I'd sort of hide behind the sofa every time Jimmy Osmond came in on the
television. And it would, like, very deeply upset, you know, uncontrollable crying, and, you know, he was
like a bogeyman to me. The thing is, you don't have the words at that age to really explain what it, what it is
that you're feeling. But if you can remember the emotion, then you certainly do have the words sort of
later on in life. There are a lot of situations like that where I could, I could very easily go back and sort of
put words to something that I would have struggled to put words to at the time.
Yes, and I'm struck by how, how many people will recognise that experience that music articulates
emotions. For me, the equivalent was poetry, I think. That poetry expressed large emotions in a way that I
couldn't possibly articulate in my own speech. And music, of course, goes further and speaks straight to the
gut, doesn't it in many ways? You actually say, 'Do you sometimes feel like the music you're hearing is
explaining your life to you?' And I think that makes, that will make perfect sense to a lot of readers,
including perhaps Stuart Maconie. Is that, does that phrase make sense to you, Stuart, that the music
you're hearing is explaining your life to you?
I think, I think at various pivotal points … I mean, sometimes I think you like music, because you don't know
what it means. I like a lot of music that I simply find I don't know what it means, you know, and I don't know
what it's saying to me, the sheer mystery and strangeness of it gets me. But I think, I mean, a case in point
would be, and this is a cliché – this is not a purely original thought – but even as in my late teens with the
Smiths, for the first time in my life, I remember, and I think this was shared by a generation of people
everywhere, particularly in the north, that suddenly you went, 'Oh my God! This is, you know, that he's
singing about my life. He's singing about being on the dole in Wigan. He's singing, he's making romantic all
the things that we have been told are terrible about our times and our life. And I think that's why they
instantly struck a chord with so many people.
It was the prosaic and the mundane and that, that so many people like Joe Jackson were doing the same
thing. You know, 'Don't you know, that it's different for girls?' was something that, that chimed with me.
But yes, you have a Broken Greek playlist on Spotify as well. Can you … If you tell us some of the things that
are on that, that may well give us a sense of the timeframe that we're talking about and what the
soundtrack was for the younger Paphides.
It starts with things like Sugar Baby Love by the Rubettes and, and, you know, Waterloo by ABBA. You
know, ABBA are sort of the Greek chorus really in a way to the whole, the whole story because, you know, I
would sort of, I would, I would see aspects of my parents' situation in a, and sort of revealed back to me in
ABBA lyrics, and there just seemed to be an uncanny kind of parallel – certainly in my own mind, maybe not
in real life to what was happening between my my parents and ABBA?
But yeah, the thing about the playlist. I'm so happy you know, that, you know, it's great that the book is out
in 2020 because, you know, the technology allows me to do this. You know, I like the idea of people kind of
ping-ponging between the book and the playlist, and sort of reminding themselves of certain songs, or even
hearing them for the first time. And the thing about the playlist, it's not, like the book it's not, it's, you
know, there's about 600 songs on it, or something, you know, colossal like that. And a lot of them, they're
not very good, at least to a lot of people. I mean, I've got a lot of affection for most of them, but I don't
really sit around listening to The Barron Knights these days, you know. But the thing is, every song
mentioned in the book is on the playlist. And so, so that's, it's just to give you a sense–– … to allow you to if
you wanted to immerse yourself further in the book as you're reading it, because it's hard enough to
explain the concept of The Barron Knights, you know, anyway,
Yeah, I remember The Barron Knights perhaps too vividly. And it strikes me that you're doing the same as
Stuart is doing and that to explain my mystery: 'My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun'. You're not just
saying, 'I love the welfare state', 'I love Birmingham', 'I love pop music', but in order to acknowledge that
love, you have to say, 'but it does have a wart on its nose', 'you know, it does have these features that
aren't all that great', and I know about that too, 'but I love it in spite of that'. And that the, the, the sort of
passing musical fads, or the comic music things are just as much a part of our wallpaper as the greats.
But I noticed that you also speak unapologetically about listening to a Beatles album as great art. And that
pop music is entitled to that claim. It's not a guilty pleasure for you, it's a common culture. Is that right?
Absolutely. I mean, I do understand why people have felt the need to invent guilty pleasures, because, you
know, Stuart and I are music journalists and, you know, we, you know, we appear to have acquired a
modest amount of status so that when we say we like something uncool, we're probably not going to get
lynched. In certain situations, you know, if someone might be shy or, you know, not very confident, then I
can see why someone might sort of, you know, so you know, if they're talking about a song by, I don't
know, Barbara Dixon as I do at some point in the book, I might say, well––
Elkie Brooks you mention as well…
Elkie Brooks, yes. Someone might say, 'Well, Pearl's a Singer, get of your bike!'. That's a bit of a guilty
pleasure for me. And then there are people that come along that say, 'Well, I don't believe there's any such
thing as guilty pleasures; you just like what you like, and you know, you shouldn't really be sorry about it.
But I sort of think that these things, if someone went to the trouble of thinking the term 'guilty pleasures'
that it has to be doing some useful lifting somewhere, it has to, it has to exist for a reason. Otherwise, it just
wouldn't have, the term wouldn't have caught on. And I think guilty pleasures are a kind of quarantine area
for, for low art that we are, that is in the process of reappraisal and if enough people enjoy guiltily or
otherwise, then it gets, then it gets moved out of this quarantine area into an area where people can just
say, 'Oh, it's good'.
Perhaps that's part of what you've both done as, as, as music commentators, perhaps what both of you
have done is give people permission to like either the arcane, peculiar music, which is not in the
mainstream, or the music, which is super, super mainstream, which people were quietly liking all along, but
not really daring to say so until one of you says, 'No, really, that's fine'. So I certainly found in both of your
books permission to acknowledge the things that I loved about the welfare state indeed, or about pop
music of the 1970s. You know, for me, it was David Dundas' Blue Jeans, 'I put on my blue jeans', which was
just a soundtrack––
Great record …
–– to where I was living as a kid at the time. And, you know, and for me, 'Oh, now you see, it's all right for
me to like that now, because you said that's okay'. But as it is it's a part of my soundtrack, that it's a part of
what you've done in your books to, to make us own and reclaim those parts of our lives, which we either
took for granted, or which we kind of, we didn't, we didn't know if it was all right to feel that strongly about
it. And that's a great part of what writing can do, what any book can do in making the reader acknowledge:
'Yeah, I feel like that too'.
The spirit of generosity that you apply to music in that way you also apply to your mum and dad and to
their experience in a way, which I haven't often read before. That, of course, your mom and dad are big
characters in your childhood and big characters in every page of the book. But there's a very generous
understanding of, for instance, the experience of your mum, and how she might have felt belittled by the
experience of putting flour on fish, and how hard she worked to make school jumpers to order when the
family needed more cash. And that acknowledgement of their experience. I wondered if the book has
changed or reframed your relationship with them at all?
I think they didn't know what form the book was going to take. And, there was no point in me really
explaining it to them because I felt like almost I would be scaring them if I explained to them what I was
sort of trying to do with the book. And you can't really give people a choice in that way as to what you
choose to write about or not write about. You just have to sort of take that leap and hope that they
understand that, you know, that they feel you contextualised their experience fairly. I think what I wanted,
what I was very careful to try and do was to convey that this was, they were a very, sort of, quite typical
couple of their generation and culture. And a lot of kind of slightly idealised romantic notions about that we
as people in modern relationships have about what it is to be a couple, were not necessarily the norm then,
you know. And I think certainly amongst, you know, the working classes in previous generations, you didn't
marry someone expecting to be madly in love with them 30 years down the line. So this harsh view that we
take of, sort of sitcoms from the 60s and 70s, which, you know, rightly so in some ways, but, you know, the
kind of the depiction of a man and a woman kind of grinding their way through their marital duty, you
know, the woman's a bit of a battle axe, the guy, the bloke's sort of down the pub and all of that. Marriage,
I think, the shadow of duty loomed larger over the definition of a marriage. Which is why, you know, I
wanted to reference Fiddler on the Roof, in the book, because I think that was more what it was like, sort
of back then. And so it was a lesson … in time so, and the work was harder. So you know, there are things
like, you know.
There's a scene where my dad visits my mum in the hospital. She's just had an operation. And I wanted to
and, you know, I remember at the time thinking that he behaved a bit, sort of insensitively towards her. But
looking back now I can sort of see that he was a man who couldn't really express his emotions very well.
And he was very, very scared. And he didn't know how to express those things to a woman who was lying in
a hospital bed, you know, having just had major, major surgery. And so to answer your question, they've
been, they've actually been fantastic about it. I was quite sort of frightened as to what their reaction might
be, but they've come to understand. My mum got it straight away and I think it took my dad a bit longer,
but I think he sort of understands.
Was there any sense, Pete, I wonder, was there any sense at all, when you were writing – and tell me to
mind my own business if you like – but was there any sense, Pete, when you were writing it in which you,
almost, even if they didn't read it, but in some way it was you trying to explain yourself to them?
Yeah, I think I felt that, I think I felt that I had to just sort of put it out there, and then worry about it later,
because I certainly wasn't able to explain myself to them at the time. And, of course, if I had done, when
you're a child, you're an unfinished story. We don't know what the outcome of that story is going to be.
And you know, so when, especially with Greek parents, I think this is the case with a lot of parents, you
know, people who have children in a country other than their own, you know, you lay down a lot of kind of
rules that you think will, that you're laying down really because you can't really control what kind of an
adult you're going to bring up. So oh, you know, 'Only marry someone of your own nationality'; 'Don't get
into that scene', 'Don't move to that city', 'You only do this kind of job'. But of course, you're an unfinished
story. And so if I try to answer your question – which is great question, by the way – I think if I tried to
explain that to them at the time, then they would still have been worried because they would still have felt
a sense of peril as to what the outcome of my story was going to be.
But I can do that now because I'm, you know, I'm 51 now, and, you know, hopefully, nothing really bad was
gonna happen to me. You know, when I moved to, when I finished my degree I moved to London, I just got,
been offered a couple of small reviews in Melody Maker, and so I moved to London straight away. My
parents were expecting me to move back to Birmingham to maybe, like, you know, like take over the chip
shop, or maybe, you know, I could sort of, you know, train to become an accountant or something. And my
mum, I got a kind of bedsit, I moved into a bedsit in Stockwell which was really, really grotty. And they very
kindly offered to kind of move my stuff down. And my mum basically had a panic attack when she saw it,
and she just couldn't stop crying. She just said because I was opposite, I was opposite a slightly less lovely
example of the brutalist estates you describe in your book, Stuart. That was like the view from my … And
we moved my stuff and there was barely any room in my room for anything more than a bed and a chest of
drawers and a record player. And anyway, they made their way home and I called my mum, you know,
about three hours later to make sure they'd got back okay. And she was still crying. She literally hadn't
stopped, she hadn't stopped crying, all the way from Stockwell to Birmingham.
It's unbearable. And, and actually the passage that you speak of, Pete, in your book where your mum is in
hospital, and your dad basically says, 'Well think about me, you know, there's no one in the fish shop to do
the frying and so on'. You manage to, to strike a perfect balance there between the immense shock of that
insensitivity as it must have hit you as a kid, and at exactly the same time, the understanding of him now as
a grown man, looking at how he was actually deflecting and paraphrasing what he was actually feeling. And
so there's that balance between the power of the moment and, and the sort of reframing of it as a situation
that you now understand better.
So I want to draw us 'peacefully to a close' like the life of George VI. But, but I wanted to think also about
what the two books have in common and what they say about unity and division in particular, because I do
see them both as sitting in this, this slew of fantastic books now which are coming out telling corners of
social history, or broader parts of social history that we haven't examined closely enough, like Why I'm No
Longer Speaking [Talking] to White People About Race or Common People or Natives. And they seem to me
both to sit as brilliant stories full of laughter and joy, but also as telling that larger story through an
individual prism. They're super powerful for doing that. And I wanted to ask you a final question, really,
which is: are we becoming more divided nowadays, as is commonly said? And if so, what can unite us?
What can we do to bring ourselves together a little more?
The current crisis – I mean, if you remember, it would be interesting to chart our reactions to it. At the
beginning, there was this feeling of: 'We are going to emerge from this a better, you know, a better nation'.
And I was kind of slightly swept along by that, thinking, 'Well, I hope in future we start to realise who the
real good guys are and who the bad guys are'. That it is underpaid nurses and cleaners and people, and not
the sort of, the sort of people we put on Dragon's Den and The Apprentice, and I, but clearly, that's not
panning out. It's not panning out quite like that. It's become much more nuanced to think about. And I do, I
do hope there'll be a genuine social change after this or a change in attitudes. But it's not quite been it's not
quite been as straightforward as it seemed, I don't think because we've realised that after initially me
thinking, 'Oh, my God, you know, the Conservatives have become one nation party again, and they're
paying out money to people and all this'. And now, of course, they're showing themselves again in their
But I do think, but I do think there might be some kind of change, I don't know, it's difficult. It's difficult. It’s
difficult to say. I think what both our books have in common in their different ways, if that makes sense, is
that I think we are not celebrating the ordinary but celebrating the overlooked in a way. That we've
become very keen on the individual as super special. I think we've been very keen on this idea that there is,
you know, that I am, I am utterly unique and there's no one like me. And maybe my book more than Pete's
… I think, you know what, we've actually all got quite a lot in common then I realised, you know, Pete's
experience, my experience on a council estate in Wigan is different from Pete's experience in Brum and
slightly, slightly years apart. But so much of it struck a chord about, just about the little things that affect us
all – the little family dramas that affect us all, the, you know, friendships and lovers and music and stuff like
that. And I think that we, I just hope we start to think that the things you know – we have more in common
than we have apart really. And that's, we've been, we've stressed … Understandably, we've spent a lot of
time in the last few months thinking about our differences. But thinking about our similarities is quite, is
quite a nice thing to do as well, I think.
Yeah, I think that, you know, I think just to echo Stuart's point, I think that one of the great things about
Stuart's book is, it's the characters that populate it. And, and, you know, I was reminded, you know, there
are some characters that sort of populate my book as well, which sort of reminded me of characters in his
book, especially … Stuart … Obviously, I grew up in Birmingham and Stuart spends an awful lot of time in
Birmingham. And, and, you know, there's a certain kind of, when Stuart's talking about a kind of tenor, a
kind of, sort of grain of the British working-class character that existed in the post-war years, I got a real
pang of nostalgia for a lot of the adults that surrounded me: a lot of my teachers. A certain kind of very
unshowy, unsoppy warmth that existed in working-class life and was absolutely ubiquitous, it was
absolutely widespread. It was just there was a base level of decency that you didn't sort of show off about,
it was just sort of soaked into you, partly as a result of maybe what had happened not only during the war,
but in the years after the war and the values that were reflected in the creation of the welfare state. And
you just saw that in people… and libraries were a part of that and self-improvement. There was an ethos of
self-improvement that was also a part of it. And I really hope that we can find a way to sort of build that
into the infrastructure of political life. I don't know how that could happen. I'm not sure there's much of a
will for it to happen at that political level at the moment. But God, if we lose that we lose so much.
I think what connects both of your books perhaps is the single word I've just jotted down which is
'togetherness' – that sense that collectively we can value and honour one another. And that, that comes
across very clearly both of your books with the way that you acknowledge and talk about all the different
people who come across your path. No matter how minor a role they play, they're all honoured: sometimes
with a joke, sometimes with a rather touching story. But they are fantastic books, they truly are. You can
get both of these books, by the way, as audiobooks read, I think – Pete is your audiobook …? Have you read
Yes. Yes, I did.
I read Pete's and Pete read mine [laughter].
You read Pete's and Pete read mine. Well, that makes my experience of listening to you for four hours on
my allotment last week very disconcerting. You kept me company as I planted the potatoes …
You'd have really got the thin end of the wedge, Stuart, if you'd had to read mine. I think it's 18 hours long
Oh, my God! Yours is a hell of a lot longer than mine, Pete. Bloody hell! How long were you in there for?
They are both fantastic books. They are both completely characterised by a strong sense of what is decent
and fair, the importance of simple pleasures and the company of people who share your experience of life.
And they're both in their own way love stories, they really are. And it's been a very great pleasure to read
them both and to talk to you about them both. So thank you very much to Birmingham Literature Festival
for having us and to Stuart Maconie and to Pete Paphides for talking about your books.
Thank you, Jo. Thanks, Pete. I hope to see both of you in the flesh before too long.
That'd be really nice. Thank you. Thank you.
Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of the Birmingham Lit Fest presents…podcast. If you enjoyed
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The Birmingham Lit Fest presents…podcast is curated by Shantel Edwards and produced by 11C and
Birmingham Podcast Studios for Writing West Midlands.
* Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers edited by Kit de Waal
**Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala
What is Birmingham Lit Fest Presents….?
The Birmingham Literature Festival Podcast - Welcome to the very first Birmingham Literature Festival podcast, bringing writers and readers together to discuss some of 2020’s best books. Each Thursday we’ll be releasing new episodes of the podcast, including wonderful discussions about writing, poetry, big ideas and social issues. Join us each week for exciting and inspiring conversations with new, and familiar, writers from the Midlands and beyond.