Touching story of a boy growing up in a hard-drinking, dysfunctional household in sunny Algarve
Recently-launched memoir Don’t Be So Sensitive: Surviving a Broken Boyhood in a Foolish Era, by author Daniel Kupfermann, tells a touching story about a highly sensitive boy having to deal with more than he should in beautiful Praia da Luz in the late seventies.
The book opens and closes in Praia da Luz in 1977. Says the author: “Everything in the book is true (in my recollection), but most of the names have been changed or omitted completely.”
Alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, this memoir tells how an ostensibly loving, even enviable 1970s boyhood – with a large house in London, and a holiday home in Praia da Luz – degenerated into a fiasco of drunkenness, anti-semitism, and neglect.
It’s a touching story of how a sensitive, stammering boy almost self-destructed completely with drink as he battled anxiety and depression – only to turn what he was always told was his greatest curse into a virtue.
Along the way, Kupfermann wittily evokes a brutish decade in which children suffered in silence, senior educators occupied a compassion-free zone, and parents could seclude themselves in phone-free paradise.
Ultimately, it’s also a story of love and forgiveness as the author comes to understand his parents’ emotional pain, and how good people came to do bad things (read extract from the book below).
A 10-year-old boy, Daniel, is beaten senseless by his stepfather in a holiday villa in Praia da Luz in 1977 after protesting at his mother’s drunken outburst against his Jewish father from whom she is divorced.
The early days in Praia da Luz are traced and how having a holiday home in the sun (which was very novel when it was bought in 1970) enabled some wonderful holidays but also some drunken irresponsibility.
The Algarve forms the backdrop for an escape plan for his London-based mother and stepfather. Their seasonal jobs enable them to escape every winter to Praia da Luz throughout the late 1970s. Daniel is left in a large house in London with a drunken half-brother and, later, a housekeeper. We see his growing sense of abandonment; we follow him on some lonely escapades around London – at his posh school in London’s Chelsea – and traveling as an unaccompanied minor to Praia da Luz for the Christmas holidays.
We see that his family is drinking heavily and Daniel’s daily task in London and Portugal is to squeeze oranges until his wrists ache for lunchtime and evening gin and orange sessions. Daniel too starts drinking at a precocious age. He faces growing anti-Semitism from his stepfather, and half-brother, and at school. His stepfather eventually walks out after a drunken row.
Daniel feels different from other young men. Later he learns he was always a Highly Sensitive Person. But the 1970s and early 1980s were no era to be highly sensitive, especially in the context of his all-boys independent school and his dysfunctional background. We see how he ‘internalized’ that being sensitive was a shameful characteristic. He starts drinking heavily.
When he turns 19, his father dies and Daniel, with some inherited money and battling anxiety and depression and a speech problem, sets out on a drunken path of self-destruction, dropping out of university and doing menial jobs. We come to see how early events in his life, including some pivotal humiliations early on in his life, shaped his self-doubt.
He reaches rock bottom in his mid-twenties. But, gradually, he comes to see the damaging effects of alcohol on his mother, his half-brothers, and himself.
The memoir ends with Daniel, now aged 55, now able to manage his dark moods, having learned that his own drinking was probably falsely diagnosed as alcoholism. He is now happily married with two children.
Don’t Be So Sensitive: Surviving a Broken Boyhood in a Foolish Era, by author Daniel Kupfermann is only available from Amazon. To buy it, click here.
Extract from the book
“Luz had first become famous back in 1968 when Paul McCartney had spent time there, staying right by the beach in a house rented by his friend Hunter Davies. A stream of famous visitors followed in the 1970s. We saw Pauline Collins and John Alderton having dinner on the beach, and Bob Holness by the Luz Bay Club pool. Comedian Dave Allen arrived and asked the Luz Bay Club management for a secluded villa with an instruction to be left alone. Maybe he didn’t realise residents had no access to British TV and so he was an unknown quantity!
But, outside the glitterati, buying a holiday home in the sun was still a precociously daring venture in 1969. My mother knew little of the Algarve when an advert was sent to her London home advertising a new development in Praia da Luz. I say “my mother” because it was her decision to buy an off-plan villa, I feel sure. My dad was not one to make a speculative purchase of any kind, let alone in Portugal. He only visited Luz two or three times.
In 1969, Faro Airport had only been open for four years. It looked more like a private airfield. But it soon became a familiar commute because, on average, I visited Praia da Luz three, even four times annually between 1970 and 1985. So 50-odd trips in total, spending about three months a year there.
Here I should pay tribute to her decision, or at least the original premise behind it. It led to inter-family schisms but also supplied me with great holidays. The communal nature of the Luz Bay Club, its accessibility only to villa owners, made it so easy to make “friends”. I’d arrive after a gap of a few months, bump into other children I’d played with before, and re-connect as though there’d been no interruption. And it was easy to bond because of the guaranteed sunshine and the postcard-perfect pools and beach.
I loved Luz from the start. But even then there were inklings there could be trouble in paradise. My father, long after he’d stopped coming to Luz, once asked me about an American expat he’d met on the beach. My dad recalled this guy as “a keep-fit fanatic”. That confounded me because, several years on, this expat was known to be a chronic alcoholic. And so many people I knew from there in the 1970s were drinking heavily. According to a bar owner, the town was “full of gin-soaked expats with nothing to do”.
My dad was teetotal and so the gin and tonic brigade wouldn’t have found him convivial. He didn’t travel well. My mother told me he was “impossible” on holiday and I believe her. He hated air travel, long car journeys, changes and unfamiliarity. As a highly sensitive person (HSP), he also disliked surprises; creeping up on my dad unexpectedly was a no-no. He’d have reacted especially badly to any disruption to his routine. He also would have hated anywhere reeking of fascism and Portugal was, technically, still a fascist country. So that “disqualified” him from enjoying it there on several counts.
If my dad wasn’t happy, he tended to “grizzle”: little complaints about the bathroom, the mosquitoes, the food, and the wind – whatever. My mother said he “grizzled” so much that she almost belted him. My mother, who had her faults, was undeniably easier to be with over an extended period, less nervous, more accommodating to change, unruffled by a break in habit and less “irritable”, a favourite word my dad used to describe his own moods. He’d snap easily because, as she said, he couldn’t help it. He was too exhausted by the day, from feeling everything over deeply.
Owning a house in London and a villa in the Algarve made my mother a catch after my parents’ divorce. In 1973 we were in Luz when my late aunt’s Jewish widower Adolf (yes, Jews were so named before the war!) called at our villa. I opened the door.
“I just happened to be passing and wondered if you were at home.”
Even though I was only six years old I couldn’t help laughing. No one “happened” to be passing by Praia da Luz back then. A trip took careful planning. We played mini golf together in the Luz Bay Club but evidently his courtship didn’t take off.
My mother preferred Portugal over Spain. Later, Gerard (my stepfather) said he favoured Spain. This was a common division between the sexes. Portugal was less aggressive, less macho; maybe its brand of fascism had been marginally less brutal and its people gentler. Even the bull wasn’t killed in a Portuguese bullfight, it was proclaimed. The centuries of seafaring had created the Saudade (loosely translated as a sadness or nostalgic yearning) for which the people are known. The Portuguese were quieter, without the famed “animation” of the Spanish.
In April 1974, however, our idyll looked close to being shattered. The Portuguese Revolution overthrew 40 years of dictatorship. We were walking in London one afternoon when an Evening Standard vendor bellowed “PORTUGAL GONE COMMUNIST”.
My mother burst into tears. She must have been distraught. For a while there was serious talk of properties being confiscated and foreigners – wealthy capitalists! – would have been first in line. Would we lose our villa? For a while the atmosphere was feverish and many overseas owners fled, taking their valuables. Motorists, usually assumed (correctly) to be foreigners because most Algarveans had a donkey or cart, found it difficult to buy petrol. There were inconveniences for sure but the communists, whose strongholds were in the Alentejo, gave up confiscating property down south.
“The Carnation Revolution”, so-called because it was non-violent, fizzled out. A friend joked that the Portuguese deemed communism a great idea until they were told they’d have to share their pigs! Thankfully, the Luz Bay Club’s British manager had managed to keep the Club running throughout because many locals relied on it for their jobs. So Portugal began clambering unsteadily toward social democracy. Foreign-owned properties were safe, after all.
My mother was agreeably surprised to find the villa untouched when we arrived later that year, 1974. Even our adopted cat, Bobby, knew we were coming, waiting for us on the doormat outside. The publicity in the UK had been so bad we’d half expected to find a Commie cat raising the red flag!
In the years between my parents’ divorce and her meeting Gerard, I was happy. These were the halcyon days of my childhood. We visited Luz several times – sometimes only the two of us because my older half-brothers were working or studying – during this period. There’s a picture of me as a seven-year-old reading a book while a fat Bobby lazes nearby, looking out over the sun-kissed terrace. I can date it to late 1974 because it’s post-Revolution but pre-Gerard. Also, the furnishings were still makeshift, just before my mother lavished money on the place.
Our family doctor once dubbed me “a sensitive squaggy”. There’s no such word, of course, but it was oddly appropriate and onomatopoeic. Even my dad called me “squaggy”. At this point I’d have been content to keep my mother to myself. Particularly for a vulnerable little fellow it’s comforting not having to vie for your mother’s attention. You look up and there she is. No competition, no rivalry, and no expectations … a “sensitive squaggy” nestling near his mummy in the Algarve, with reassuring smells emanating from the gas-fired stove and a friendly cat nearby. For me this was just p-u-r-r-f-e-c-t. (Yes, I know, I know!) When I look back at the time when I was happiest I don’t hark back to big occasions but rather a mood of undisturbed innocence.”