Shop Girl by Mary Portas

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Review by Annabel

Mary Portas is one of those TV presenter/gurus you either love or find profoundly irritating. I love her and her championing of the high street and independent retailers. Her TV programmes where she helps ailing businesses are full of common sense and good advice jazzed up with her team’s design flair. The shame is that nearly always once her team have left, the businesses helped often gently slide back towards their former bad habits.

Running her own design agency, she has far reaching influence in high places. She was appointed by the Government to survey Britain’s high streets and put forward ways to regenerate them which she did – and then the Government invited towns to make bids for a Portas grant. My home town, Abingdon put a bid in but it didn’t win one – but our town desperately needs something to happen – our little shopping centre is owned by an insurance company, who set the rents so high that no-one can afford to open a shop in it. While property prices are on the up, this doesn’t bother the landlords; units full or empty, are accruing in value on their books anyway. It’s a sad state of affairs, and is happening the whole country over – leading to homogenisation of high streets as the big chains are the only ones who can afford the rents, and independent retailers suffer.

Anyway, Mary’s memoir is not about that part of her life – I just took the opportunity to comment!

Shop Girl is a delight, following Mary’s childhood and first steps into the world of retail design up until she plucks up courage to freelance.  She was born in 1960 into a big Irish family in Watford. They all squashed into a small end of terrace house. Mary’s Dad worked for tea manufacturer Brooke Bond, and her mum (to whom she dedicates the book) was the typical loving Irish mother who spends much of her time putting food on the table for her big brood.  Fourth of five kids, Mary, it’s fair to say was the naughty one. Giggling in church, eating dog food for a dare, loud and always looking for fun, and all too often getting caught!

The book is written in short chapters – extended vignettes, typically of three or four pages – and each is titled with a product of the 1960s or 1970s. It’s a memoir driven by sensory memories – the smell of her mum’s Coty L’Aimant perfume, the first taste of a Caramac bar, hearing Marc Bolan’s Ride a White Swan.  (Another sensory memoir is Philippe Claudel’s Parfums which I reviewed for Shiny New Books here.)  It’s an effective style – I was in reveries each time one of my childhood memories was evoked by these headings, (I was born in 1960 too!) – what a nostalgia trip!

The teenaged Mary constantly challenged her teachers at school, but they found a channel for her outgoing personality in drama, at school and at home:

Lawrence hands me the mirror and I stare at myself. My temples and cheeks are dusted with fuchsia eye shadow and there’s a huge red zigzag edged in blue running from my forehead down over my right eye and onto my cheek. My hair looks as if I’ve just stuck my finger into a plug socket. I look like a miniature version of Bowie himself. […]

Mum walks into the room and looks at me singing. ‘Don’t you look grand!’ she says absentmindedly. ‘Now I really must get over to Jean’s. There’s a lot to do for the church jumble sale tomorrow.’

But I hardly notice her leave. I am lost in the moment. Michael, Joe, Tish and Lawrence are my audience and there is nowhere else I’d rather be.

Sadly, Mary’s mum died when she was 16, and with Mary’s older siblings flying the nest into the world of work, she became more and more of a carer to her little brother Lawrence. When she was offered a place at RADA, she turned it down, she couldn’t bear to leave Lawrence. Instead Mary enrolled at Cassio college in Watford on a course that specialised in shop window design.

As I stared at the huge store-front windows at the end of the day, I suddenly glimpsed the possibility that Cassion might offer for the first time. Sitting in a lecture, I’d heard that Salvador Dali had designed windows. So had Andy Warhol. Now I understood why. These windows were art, drama, performance. They were a stage, and through them the audience of passers-by were transported just as they were when they watched a play. My love of drama had found a new outlet.

A placement at Harvey Nicholls brought good references but no permanent job, but this didn’t deter Mary who talked her way into Harrods’s shop windows team – and so she takes her first steps towards retail stardom.

The young Mary on the page is totally recognizable as the older, more suave Mary off the telly. The same sense of humour, straight-talking and big heartedness was there all along. This is a warm and happy memoir, although tinged with sadness at losing both parents while still young, her determination shines through. Fabulous stuff – I do hope she writes a sequel.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny editors.

Mary Portas, Shop Girl (Doubleday, 2015) ISBN 9780857522863, Hardback, 288 pages.

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