Shop Girl: A Memoir by Mary Portas, book review: A testament to survival

Memoir reveals how the Portas persona was fashioned from white heat of grief

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The Independent Culture

"A chasm had opened in our family and I knew instinctively that I must stop everyone disappearing inside it." For the first half of her new memoir, Mary Portas fashions a deceptively upbeat coming-of-age story, set in 1970s Watford: a world of Green Shield stamps, chopper bikes and hand-me-downs.

The youngest but one of five siblings, she adores her fiery Irish Catholic mother; while Dad (a bus conductor-turned-factory manager for Brooke Bond) is more remote. Young Mary is a tomboy, constantly in trouble (setting fire to the local school, eating the still-life fruit bowl intended for the A-level art class). Money is tight but in the cramped semi there are books and ideas. Mary loves fashion and plans to go to RADA (anticipating her future career as television's Mary Queen of Shops). Her elder brother, a hairdresser, creates the Portas chiselled bob we know so well today.

Then bang. The world implodes. In 1977, her mother dies from meningitis; her father remarries six months later, making Mary, 16, and her younger brother Laurence, 14, homeless. All their childhood possessions are sold. Then, nine months later her father dies of a heart attack, leaving everything to his new wife.

You begin to see how the Portas persona – a funny but scary head girl – was fashioned from the white heat of grief. She learns to cook and iron before school. The local shops open late so she can pick up groceries. Dreams of RADA over, she gets a job as a window dresser. The book ends just as she leaves Harrods to set up as freelance designer. Portas is no literary stylist but she writes with wit and verve. Far from making herself the heroine, she sends up her own narcissism, and her ability to wind people up. The book has the narrative charm of Anita and Me or The Buddha of Suburbia; so when the darkness comes it's genuinely shocking. When she hears of her mother's death, she feels "as if I'm at the highest point on a swing, suspended in the moment when you feel weightless, for a second before plunging downwards".

Loss of childhood meant Portas grew up needing to manage and control "to make another world like the one I lost". As her own best self-creation, it taught her the power of authenticity. When her marriage ended amicably, she fell in love with a woman. But she buried her fury with her father for years. It was only after appearing on Desert Island Discs in 2010, that the floodgates opened. She had therapy. The result is this memoir. Shop Girl is a testament to survival.

But most of all it is a love letter to her mother, Mary Flynn. Every joke, argument, cake baked, tenderness proffered, sings off the page. "To my mum (How lucky was I getting you)" is the book's dedication. And we are lucky to read it.