Belfast Telegraph

Local angle on Portas book serves up a reading delight

By Paul Connolly

Serendipity is one of the great joys of reading; the simple act of turning a page to find something new and unexpected has few parallels.

So it was with the Belfast Telegraph last week, when we found out that Mary Portas, the so-called Queen of Shops, has Ulster roots. And quite deep ones, too.

I had known that her mum Theresa was Irish. But that was all. Turns out her dad, too, was from these parts.

I haven't read her memoir, Shop Girl, published by Doubleday, but I had heard extracts on Radio 4, ably read by Portas herself. The radio extracts, adapted admittedly by a journalist, read beautifully, the prose vivid and quite stark in a matter of fact sort of way.

The death of her mother from meningitis is truly heartbreaking. Her father remarried six months later, only to die of a heart attack nine months after that.

But it was the Northern Irish background, highlighted in the Telegraph, that will be of particular interest in this part of the world.

"Religion was so ingrained in my mother that she once went to the cinema and absent-mindedly genuflected as she walked down the aisle to her seat," she writes.

"Growing up a Catholic, she was taught to pray each night, attend church every Sunday and regard the local priest as the God's earth-bound embodiment.

"Her family was appalled when she married a Protestant from the wrong side of Belfast and never quite forgave my dad for whisking Mum to a new life in England."

Perhaps I'm being super-sensitive, but it does slightly rankle that the Northern Irish-ness bit does centre on religion. But I guess that is what we are - or were back then, anyway - about.

Theresa was one of eight children brought up on a farm in the Northern Ireland countryside although alas, we don't appear to know precisely where.

"Her father worked the land by day, then played the violin and read poetry at night, so the love of learning was in Mum's blood," Portas continues.

"She aspired to something more, just like Dad, and while he moved us up in the world through hard work, her job was to ensure that one day we'd make the most of ourselves through education."

This is to me the stuff of good journalism: distilling the key bits of an important book into its essentials for a local audience.

It's why journalism will survive all the changes the industry will thrown at us: there will always be a demand for good content relevant to the audience it's aimed at. It's just the delivery mechanisms that will change.

lProof has been provided, if it were needed, that the underlying motives for many - not all - who attacked the Press following the phone hacking revelations were political and nothing really to do with journalistic standards and ethics.

After years of mendacity and evasion, the Mirror is finally being forced to come clean about the disgraceful scale of phone hacking at the heart of its empire.

The illegal interception of phone calls was done on an "industrial scale" that made hacking at the News of the World look like a "cottage industry", said one lawyer.

Yet where is the massive clamour from the cheerleaders so keen to get Cameron (via Andy Coulson), the Murdoch papers and the Mail? All largely silent.

I do happen to believe the hacking revelations did the trade a favour. Something was clearly rotten at a small number of London tabloids and it needed to be fixed.

But in their mad lust to finally neutralise the "right-wing tabloids", sections of the left have hobbled the once-great UK Press, the police can openly spy on the media and the climate is generally hostile to whistleblowers. Job done.

Belfast Telegraph


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