Review by Hannah Morpeth
Mary Portas is famed for transforming Harvey Nichols into the fashion force that it is today as the creative director, hosting television shows Mary the Queen of Shops and, more recently, Mary Portas: Secret Shopper and writing a column for The Telegraph. Now, Portas is unveiling a difficult upbringing that led to her love of fashion and art in her latest book Shop Girl, A Memoir.
Shop Girl, A Memoir has a certain characterising rhythm to it, as we are given access to the soundtrack of Portas’ youth. It stretches from her first love, Marc Bolan, to the infamous Ziggy Stardust and the moment Blondie tore into the music scene. It also expresses Portas’ anger and frustration at Making Your Mind Up topping the charts, while she was listening to Spandau Ballet and Simple Minds. The moment Portas realised it was perfectly okay to cry at work was following the death of John Lennon, where colleagues shared memories over wine in a candle lit studio – crying.
The expectation of what women should be and how they should behave is littered through the book. This starts with Portas as a young girl, envying her brothers as they took up their positions as alter-boys in church, a place where women had a very little role. The traditional family that Portas grew up in, comprised of a stay-at-home mother and a father who was responsible for bringing in the money, had very little space for affection. Also, the expectation of Portas to assume the same role as her mother came around a lot earlier than expected with her mother’s untimely death. The picture painted of life in the Newton household as a place of unity, cluttered with children and home-baking makes the silence brought by her mother’s death even more destroying.
No matter what age you grew up in, Portas’ accounts of her childhood can resonate with all of us. It’s the fear of a maths teacher picking on you to recite your times tables that you still haven’t learned and the envy you have towards your sibling that gets the rollerblades you’ve always wanted. It’s the naivety of being a child, when not getting the right ribbons in your hair for school is the closest you can come to hating your mother.
Over everything else, it’s Portas’ growing love for art and fashion that is the most fascinating element of the book. Portas turned down a place at RADA to study drama. However, this is the perfect example of everything happening for a reason. This saw her go to a local college and pursue window dressing, which would lead her to the fame she has today. The book takes us on her journey of understanding the power of fashion.
“It’s not just what they wear. It’s the way their clothes are used to express something that I don’t fully understand. It’s the first time I’ve realised clothes can say something about you, tell the world what you want to know.”
Shop Girl: A Memoir is a light, engaging read which details the struggles and triumphs of Mary Portas’ life, especially those that led her to become the woman we know her as today.
Hannah Morpeth is a Reviewer in Residence at Durham Book Festival.
Reviewers in Residence is a Cuckoo Young Writers programme which allows young critics to develop an in-depth relationship with a venue or art form, and take part in exclusively tailored writing masterclasses.