'The family unravelled the minute that my mum died'
Mary Portas reveals the catastrophic effect the death of her mother had on her family in her new memoir, Shop Girl. She tells Hannah Stephenson about finding true happiness
On TV, she's best known as the no-nonsense red-headed Queen of Shops and Secret Shopper, sweeping into struggling retail outlets and telling shopkeepers in no uncertain terms what they need to do to turn their businesses around.
Yet there is an incredibly soft side to Mary Portas, Watford-girl-made-good, who worked her way up from window dressing in Harrods to helping transform Harvey Nichols and advising David Cameron on the much-needed rejuvenation of the high street.
Meeting her today, she's quick-witted and plain-speaking as you'd expect, but there are times when she's close to tears as she recalls intensely painful fragments from her past.
Many of these are detailed in Shop Girl, an early memoir charting her happy childhood as Mary Newton, one of five siblings growing up in a big, noisy Irish household in an end-of-terrace in north Watford.
The mischief she got up to against a backdrop of Seventies culture, her memories of Crackerjack, introduction to Vesta curry, Chopper bikes, and later the Sex Pistols and Pernod and black, are all relayed with wonderful humour.
But her childhood and adolescence came to an abrupt halt when her mother (also called Mary), the strong, loving linchpin of the family, died suddenly from meningitis when Mary was 16.
She had gone to bed feeling unwell and was delirious by the time a doctor visited her the next day. He put it down to the menopause and prescribed anti-depressants. She was taken to hospital as her condition worsened, but less than three weeks later she was dead.
"I can still feel it so vividly," Mary says. "The family unit unravelled the minute she died. It was the end of my childhood, the end of freedom to be the one having fun, pushing boundaries. There was no structure left. It was a very bleak time."
Her father, Sam Newton, a bus conductor-turned-sales manager for Brooke Bond, couldn't cope - leaving Mary and her 14-year-old brother Lawrence, as the youngest siblings, to fend for themselves. He rarely gave Mary enough housekeeping money to feed the family.
When he left the family home for another woman soon after, Mary was left alone to look after Lawrence.
"Weirdly, my father leaving was a relief, because he was so hopeless that his grief was always there. I'd come home from school to an empty house, Lawrence would come in and then dad, and he'd be depressed, or crying. There was a relief when it was just Lawrence and I. It became this little unit, however dysfunctional.
"I don't think I grieved properly. Lawrence went into a black space of depression. Today, there would have been more help around."
The book is in many ways a homage to her mother, but writing it has been massively therapeutic for Mary. She was prompted to confront the pain of her past when Kirstie Young interviewed her on Desert Island Discs.
"She asked me about my childhood and I realised that there was still this pain deep down inside of me. I'd picked all these pieces of music that were heightened times of my life, but when it came to expressing them, I had to tell the story. I started to feel this pain and anger towards my father and all the stuff that had happened."
She had therapy for six months after the programme, which helped enormously, she reflects.
"I liked little Mary Newton in the end," she says quietly, tears welling. "Because I was always in trouble, I thought I was a bad person. But I've just realised that I've got to like her, scruffy little thing that I was."
After her mother died, Mary gave up a place at Rada - she had always wanted to be an actress - to look after Lawrence. A family friend took her in when her father announced he was selling up and getting married, while Lawrence was pushed into the police cadets, primarily to give him a roof over his head.
Her father died just two years after her mother, leaving everything to his new wife, Rebecca. The siblings asked for their mother's possessions back - photos, trinkets, a quilt with Scottie dogs on it - but never received anything.
The one thing she possesses is her mother's wedding ring, a simple gold band, which she wears all the time. "I took it off her finger in the hospital because she was wasting away."
The dramatic change in her life made her resilient, thrifty and forced her into being in control of the situation.
"I had to be canny, efficient and strong for my little brother. I had to learn how to manage finance. Even today, I can't stand waste."
She went to a local art college, gaining some work experience at Harvey Nichols. But on leaving college, she badgered Harrods' personnel department for an interview, even though no job had been advertised, ringing every day for weeks until she was finally granted one - and got a window dresser's job.
"I worked harder, because I needed the money. I had the fear that it could be lost."
She went on to marry chemical engineer Graham Portas in 1990 and they had two children. The couple divorced in 2003, but remain good friends.
Today, she lives in a £6m house in London with her wife, fashion journalist Melanie Rickey. They married in December, becoming one of the first couples to convert their civil partnership into a same-sex marriage after the law was changed.
"Mel's made a huge difference to my life, she's wonderful," Mary says. "She was the one who proposed to me when we had a civil partnership. Then the person who did our civil partnership rang and said, 'Do you want to be the first [to convert it to same-sex marriage]?'"
Melanie had IVF treatment and gave birth to their son, Horatio, in 2012. Mary recently announced that her brother, Lawrence, is the biological father.
"We've just had the nicest time. Horatio has mummy [Melanie] and mama [Mary] and he knows that daddy is Lawrence. He was a wonderful little gift.
"I know that I'm not going to have any more. It's exhausting. But I'm very clever on my timing. I never work weekends. I work from home on a Monday and a Friday if I'm not filming."
The entrepreneur has her own agency, Portas, is the global retail ambassador for Save the Children and remains a great supporter of communities and small businesses.
The book ends as she quits her job at Harrods for a bigger, wider world. She's not sure if she'll write a sequel, but she should, because her life beyond this first chapter has been a brilliantly colourful one.
Shop Girl by Mary Portas is published by Doubleday, priced £16.99