EVENT REVIEW: Mary Portas at Durham Book Festival

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Friday 16 October
Gala Theatre, Durham

Review by Adam Dawson

Mary Portas is fierce. You’ve seen her shows, you know that. She’ll tear strips from you if you’re doing something wrong, keeping at it until you do it right. Which is to say her way. She’s earned that authority though. At 30 she was on the board of Harvey Nichols. She’s advised the government, spoken with the Dalai Llama, and launched her own range of British-made knickers. Who knows which of those she’s most proud of?

The meticulously crafted TV persona softens in front of the audience at the Gala Theatre. Portas is here to talk about how the fiery, angry Mary – the one from TV – was born. Her new memoir, Shop Girl, takes us back to 60s Watford. It’s the creation of Mary.

She grins when she tells stories of the naughty young girl she was: to land her first job at Harrods, she broke into her college tutor’s office to use the phone every day for three weeks, asking for a job. She ate the fruit meant to be part of a still life drawing exam.

Childhood joy is cut short when Portas’ mother died. She was 17 at the time. The death broke her father, who abandoned Mary to raise her 14 year old brother alone. This is when the big ‘it’ happened. This is when she first experienced the power of community – which is what her high-street saving mission is really about.

She wants to restore the kind of community who helped her when her mother died. Local butchers and shop owners, who saw Mrs Portas every day, told Mary what her mother bought, how to prepare that food, and always had it ready for her daily visits after school. If the shop had closed, the food was left in a bag outside with instructions on its preparation pinned to it. The story gets a loud “awww” from the audience, even from those of us not old enough to remember the time before Tesco who are swept up in this romantic, nostalgic vision of a what high street could be again.

She points out that the recession has driven people back to the high street, where once the huge Tesco on the outskirts of town would have always won. Tesco lost £6.4 billion in mind the £6.4 billion in annual profit this year. Take that, The Man.

People don’t want to waste petrol driving there, only to throw out half of their shop at the end of the week before repeating the process over and over. As for Amazon? If they weren’t above the law, there’d be enough room to compete with them if everyone is on a level playing field. Which currently doesn’t exist thanks to tax-dodging, profit-driven maniacs.

At the end of the event, a man on the upper balcony waves frantically, needing to get his question to Portas. Turns out he used to teach at a school she attended, and asks about the positive influence of the head-teacher, Sister Saint James. Portas lights up when she talks about the support the nun gave her after her mother died. She ends the event revealing she received a handwritten letter from the head who took over from the Sister, 30 years after her school career was over, saying he was immensely proud of what Mary had achieved.

Mary Portas went through her life without a big plan. It only leads to disappointments, or to missing out on amazing experiences which might take away from the long list of goals you set yourself. Just put all of your energy into the job at hand, be great at that. It worked, and still works, for Mary.


Adam Dawson 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.