It was the birthday party of the year, hands down. How could it not be? The summer holidays had only just begun. It must have been about 2pm on a weekday, because that’s when my parents turned off the fryers and closed up for the afternoon. On my eighth birthday though, they kept the fryers on – and when all my friends finally arrived, my mother put the “CLOSED” sign up, while my dad opened up the front panels of all the pinball machines and did what he always did for me on holiday afternoons. Pressing down the wire lever on the inside of the machines – once for each credit – he racked up enough games to keep us all amused for an hour. Then, when we were done, we were beckoned out of the back room of the shop and to a table beside the counter, where everyone was given their own bag of fish and chips and pop of their own choice: Tango, Corona Lemonade or Lockwoods Cola.
A single blurred black and white photograph places that afternoon in time. Without even a discussion, we did what any group of eight year-old children did when posing for a picture in 1977. We assumed a Bruce Forsyth “thinker” pose – forehead resting on raised left fist, back leg up. Didn’t we do well? Conspicuous by his absence in that lineup is poor Paul Blunn – victim of his own terrible timing. Days before the invites were issued, Blunn had seen fit to taunt me on the basis that: (a) I was Greek; (b) Greece sounds a bit like grease; (c) I lived above a chip shop; and, therefore, (d) this made me “a greasy chip”. “Greasy chip! Greasy chip!” he repeated incessantly, until I waited outside the school gates and – excuse the pun – battered him.
Growing up above The Great Western Fish Bar in the Birmingham suburb of Acocks Green had made me different, but until that eighth birthday, I didn’t know whether this was good-difference or bad-difference. I had never stopped to consider why the room we called “the front room” wasn’t actually at the front, but right in the middle between the shop and the house kitchen. Aged four, I just accepted it – like I accepted the fact that the transition from a waking to dreaming state always happened over the faint ring of a cash till and the scattergun ack-ack-ack of six pinball machines. My earliest memories are all rooted in the front room that wasn’t a front room. Until I started school, this was where I could be found most mornings, arranging my Matchbox cars in a perfect line. Once in a while, a pair of legs – belonging either to my mum or dad – would hurry past with an empty bucket, somehow clearing the miniature motorcade that threatened to upend them on their way to the storeroom, where the chips sat in plastic barrels. On a Monday lunchtime, it would be once an hour; on Friday teatime, every ten minutes.
Childcare, inasmuch as we understand the term now, was scant. Between the end of the children’s programmes on BBC1 and bedtime, I would wander into the smoky backroom of the shop, when Brummie youths with names like Bolt, Ranjo and Bic acted as my de facto childminders. Between the age of four and seven, chronic shyness meant that I didn’t speak to anyone apart from my parents and my brother. But after years of free pinball practice, I sure played a mean pinball. With a mane of curly hair I looked and behaved like a Bonsai Roger Daltrey in Tommy. When I wandered in, one teenager would move a chair to the front of the machine, on which I would stand. On some weekends, it felt as though every denim-covered Brummie teen with volcanic skin and a provincial feather-cut was lining up to beat the mute pinball freak. Not only would they pay for their own game, but they would pay for mine. If my parents had actually planned to pimp out my pinball skills, it couldn’t have worked out better.
In fact, for the longest time, there was no downside. On Saturdays, after I had returned from the newsagents and read the latest Whizzer & Chips, Whoopee! and Krazy, I would amble into the shop take eight pieces of chip paper, fold them over and make a cut down the middle – thus making my own blank 32-page comic. After three pages spent trying to think of comic strips to rival the exploits of Sid’s Snake, Val’s Vanishing Cream and The Bumpkin Billionaires, I’d lose interest until the following week.
At this point, if I had to draw a list of the best things about living above a chippy, the food probably wouldn’t have figured in the top five. I’ve a clear memory of the day we started selling mushy peas for the first time, because I remember my mother carefully writing, “LOOK! MUSHY PEAS!” complete with a pair of eyes doubling up as the Os in “LOOK!” and pinning the home-made sign up on the wall-tiles. However, early memories of eating chips from the shop are relatively late.
My mother would insist on using the kitchen at the back if she ever made me chips – slicing the potatoes herself and placing them in a pan of sunflower and olive oil. It took me decades to realise what an odd thing this was, longer still to deduce the reason. In Athens, where she grew up, she had trained as a draughtswoman. For her, coming over to Britain and helping to run a chip shop was a means to an end. There had never been any greater intention than to come here, build up the business, pay back the loan needed to buy the shop in the first place, sell it at a profit and return to Greece or to Cyprus, where my dad had grown up. I think the thing with the chips fed into some sense of pride that she was trying to ring-fence – something that predated a situation that she felt was beneath her. In fact, for the longest time, we rarely seemed to eat anything from the shop. If she couldn’t go back to Athens, at least she could try and serve it up on a plate. Moussaka, dolmades and keftedes always took precedence over pies, saveloys and cod.
I guess we must have repaid the loan by 1981, because we sold up the shop and moved into a house whose front room was actually at the front of the house. At the same time, we found The Kingfisher – a stand-alone shop about a mile away from the house. Leaving Britain was no longer an option. My brother and I trenchantly opposed the idea – and the prospect of national service at 16 meant that my mother sided with us. The fact that my parents now had to travel to work meant that suddenly Aki and I saw less of them. And the less of them we saw, the more “English” we seemed to become.
Pop music usurped comics in my affections. Now, I used chip paper to create my own music magazines. I was comfortable enough with the vernacular of my brother’s NMEs and Record Mirrors to attempt my own rival publication. Espying a gap in the market, I noticed that no existing magazine offered a review of every single record in the current Top 40. And so, Pop Scene was born. I still have the sole copy. It reads like a cross between Paul Gambaccini and antique specialist freak-child James Harries. Reviewing Green Door, I wrote, “It doesn’t seem right that all Shakin’ Stevens needs to do is pick an old song and have a hit with it. Time to try harder, Mr Stevens!” Reviewing a Squeeze record, I wrote, “Squeeze have got two things, most other groups don’t have – Difford and Tilbrook. Squeeze deserve more than they’re getting.”
There was a certain symmetry in the idea of attempting to create a music publication out of chip paper. Being a music writer and running a chip shop have quite a lot in common. Just as you get sent promo copies of all the latest albums, reps from food manufacturers would ply us with products we might be interested in adding to The Kingfisher menu. They all got passed on to me: microwaveable Shepherds Pies, vacuum-packed heat-and-serve kebabs; extrusions of processed turkey on a stick. Everything was rejected, except for spring rolls (nee crispy pancake rolls) and something called a Dandy Burger. So called, presumably, because its contents were some distant relative of Korky The Cat, the Dandy Burger came in a box which depicted a Union Jack coloured bun. With McDonalds yet to shatter Wimpy’s stronghold in Birmingham, Dandy Burgers flew out of the shop – and at about 7pm, when the teatime rush had died down, so would my mother. If she hadn’t had a chance to prepare anything that morning, she would call and ask what I wanted bringing back. A Dandy Burger would be fine. Moussaka only got a look in at weekends.
Set amid middle-class residential Olton, with its name illuminated in chunky italicized 70s lettering, The Kingfisher was a step up, whichever way you looked at it. And yet, it was hard to get excited about it. The shop changed from being a source of recreation to a potential threat, something to fall back on if we decided not to stay on at school. Save for a sole Asteroids machine that constantly seemed to be in use, there were no “amusements” here. As Aki fast-forwarded to adolescence, I noticed he was being expected to work increasingly longer hours in the shop. But if his sullen demeanour and his spiky Ian McCulloch hairstyle portended anything, it was that he and his Echo & The Bunnymen 12-inches were going off to art school and out of reach at the soonest opportunity.
On the other hand, I wasn’t going anywhere for the time being. Straight after school on Friday and then Saturday teatimes, I would stay the extra three stops on the 37 bus and spend the hours between 4pm and 8.30pm spooning curry sauce and mushy peas into polystyrene cups and ferrying buckets of uncooked chips from the storeroom to the front of the shop. I did so on the proviso that the transistor radio above the deep freeze be tuned in to Radio 1. The memory of John Peel and Sheena Easton on Roundtable being rude about Supertramp’s It’s Raining Again means that I must have been there in the autumn of 1982. Serving was never an option. My parents deemed me too scruffy to look people in the eye and asked them if they wanted salt and vinegar, which suited me fine. I couldn’t imagine myself ever doing what my parents did – not least because, within their postcode, they were minor celebrities, on first name terms with over 90 per cent of the people who crossed the shop threshold. My mother always gave old people a few free chips if they asked for fish on its own. Word spread, and before long, half our custom on Tuesdays – my dad’s night off – was from pensioners asking for “just cod”.
At teatime on a Friday, the queue would snake right out of the shop. In quieter moments, my dad would explain why a tiny chippy in a residential area could do such a roaring trade. Quality was the bottom line. He favoured Maris Pipers over whites. Other chip shop owners would get their fish delivered in the mornings. Every other morning, he would make a point of going to the wholesale market, choosing his own fish and haggling the best price – “fresh from Aberdeen”, he would boast to his customers. And the more we sold, the better the deals he got. He’d pay more for better quality chickens, but we sold over five times more than our nearest competitor. Because more customers wanted breasts than legs, we used the surplus of legs to make a chicken curry. The currys did fine, but by the mid-80s an irreversible sea change had swept across the chip shops of the West Midlands. Kebabs. Everyone wanted kebabs.
We saw them appear, one by one, through the window of every rival establishment – The Dolphin, The Seaspray, The Happy Plaice – until, finally, The Kingfisher was the only chip shop in the vicinity not to yield to the sweaty rotating elephant’s foot of indeterminate provenance. For all we knew, Bolt, Ranjo and Bic were still flipping flippers in a parallel 70s that never ended. The next generation of young Brummies spilt out from the pub across the road. They seemed lairier than their predecessors. Their lustrous mullets hung down to meet the collars of their pink Pringles. They were all after the same thing. “When are you gonna do kebabs, Chris? I thought you were Greek, weren’t you? Well, where’s the kebab machine?”
“Actually, the kebabs you’re referring to are Turkish. The Greek version of the kebab is actually called a souvlaki.”
“What about kebabs? What are they called?”
“Well, they’re just called kebabs. That’s their name.”
“Right! Kebabs! Get one of them!”
Showing a peculiar purism that made absolutely no sense, given where we were, my mother decided that if we were going to sell kebabs, she was going to make them herself, using only the best incredients. With all the self-sacrifice that seems to define all Greek matriarchs, my mother decided to make them herself, to her own recipe. During 2pm and 4.30pm when the shop was closed, she mixed together two loaves of minced lamb with bread, finely-chopped onions, parsley, pepper, a pinch of cinnamon and ground cumin. Then she left them in the oven for two hours. I got the first taste. They were sensational. She wrapped them in silver foil and put them in the steamer to stay warm throughout the day. Deploying tried and trusted marketing practices, she then she folded over a sheet of chip paper and wrote “LOOK!” with a green marker, eyes and everything. “KEBABS! £2!!” But this wasn’t Moro; this was Birmingham in 1986. Our customers simply couldn’t reconcile the promise of kebabs to the visible absence of the revolving rotunda which spawned them. As far as they were concerned, if it wasn’t shaved off the side of a warm dribbling edifice and shoved into some pitta bread to make a big meaty mouth organ, it wasn’t a kebab.
Perhaps I would have had more sympathy for my parents’ perfectionism if I hadn’t been expected to take the reins later on in life. The venus flytrap of familial obligation was closing in. At 18, I passed my driving test only to be congratulated with the news that I was no qualified to do two extra jobs. I could drive to the cash and carry and buy supplies for the shop – then, on the way back, I could stop off at the remote industrial estate where my dad’s friend “Uncle” Kostas ran a saveloy factory. I’d handled saveloys for the best part of eight years, at this stage, but I was no clearer about what was contained within their luminescently pink casing.
As I pulled up to the saveloy plant for the very first time, in my mother’s Vauxhall Astra, Kostas was waiting for me. This wasn’t just a saveloy-fetching errand. This was a rite of passage. “Your dad tells me you’re going to run the chip shop one day!” His wig bore as much resemblance to real hair as his saveloys did to anything that the EEC would ever allow you to call a sausage.
“Actually,” I said, “I’m hoping to study philosophy at university. His features fell – presumably out of sympathy for my poor parents – leaving his hair behind as they did so. If I told him I was going to hitch to Piccadilly Square and frot strangers for loose change, I couldn’t have hoped for a more crestfallen reaction. After a couple of seconds, Kostas merely decided to disregard anything I had told him.
“Let me tell you Kostas’s philosophy!” he said, placing a friendly arm around my shoulder. “You’ll earn a lot more money running your dad’s business than being a philosopher.”
As if to formally commence our business relationship, he took me on a tour of the shop floor: a dense network of machinery which spat out a ceaseless succession of saveloys. Mounds of pink sludge littered the floor. Our long and fruitful relationship extended to just two more visits. My exam results came through and it was time for me to go. A year later into my degree in rural Wales, my parents cashed in their chips, and proceeded never to feel quite at home in Greece, Cyprus or Birmingham. In the union common room, I no longer needed to stand on a chair to play pinball. But I was still impossible to beat. Once in a while, I’d stagger into the town and buy a kebab. But I never told my parents about that. Somehow, it seemed disrespectful.