Thursday, 23 April 2015

'Shop Girl' by Mary Portas

There’s something about Mary Portas that is very compelling. Like her or loathe her, she’s a force to be reckoned with and she gets stuff done. I’ll hold my hands up: I’m a fan. I like Mary's forthright manner, her no-nonsense approach, her can-do attitude and her ability to achieve change while failing to suffer fools gladly or otherwise.

A certain amount about Mary’s private life is already public knowledge. We know both her parents died when Mary was a teenager and that she learned to fend for herself from an early age, scrabbling to make ends meet. We know she worked her way up from a window dresser at luxury department store Harrods to turning around the public perception and fortunes of Harvey Nichols. We know she was married to Graham Portas for many years, but is now married to Grazia fashion editor Melanie Rickey, and that she has children from both relationships. We know her as a dominant but kind TV personality who turns around failing high streets and businesses. I wouldn’t mess with Mary. But I would like to go for a drink with her.

In her memoir Shop Girl all of the above is reinforced. The book mostly covers Mary’s early years: it spells out the closeness she has with her four siblings and the adoration she has for her mother - who clearly lives on in Mary’s defiance. We see Mary struggling to keep the family together after her mother dies and the awful way her father abandons his family after the bereavement. We see Mary start to build her career in Harrods and then test the waters on her own.

And there Shop Girl leaves us. Presumably ready for part two when we see Mary take on Harvey Nichols and really make her name. And the thing about Shop Girl is it does leave you wanting more. It’s an easy read and a quick read. The style is very readable, broken down into bite-size nuggets which, especially in the early stages, are largely nostalgic - remembrances of Boots No 17 make-up counters, R Whites lemonade, certain TV programmes and books of the 1970s that will doubtless appeal to others of a similar age who have the shared childhood.

The sections covering her mother’s death and the family’s shock and grief are truly heartbreaking and I read them through watery eyes. There’s no call for sympathy or woe-is-me attitude, simply a raw depiction of the fallout for the family in the wake of the loss and the appalling abandonment of her father - leading to a second kind of grief for the five children, who inevitably become even more closely knit.

However, despite telling stories of the rawest and most personal times in her life, you finish Shop Girl feeling that Mary has successfully told a great story while playing her cards close to her chest. You don’t leave the book feeling you know much more about Mary than you did beforehand. But you do finish Shop Girl feeling as if you have spent some time with Mary, enjoyed her company, strengthened your respect for her… and that you are itching to read the next instalment.

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