Mary Portas: ‘I put a shell round myself to get through life’

Lunch with Mary Portas presents something of a sartorial challenge. You hardly want to turn up for the Queen of Shops wearing a dodgy outfit hauled from the back of the wardrobe; then again, dress too sharply and you might find yourself becoming an unwitting philanthropist. We meet for lunch in the Greenberry Café in London’s Primrose Hill, just a few doors up from one of Portas’s Living & Giving charity shops, which she and Save the Children set up in 2009. There are now 20 of them, and Portas will go along and open new additions to the chain, recalling an occasion when her wife, journalist Melanie Rickey, came too. The couple were having lunch at a nearby cafe afterwards when a woman came up and congratulated Portas on the shop. Alas, Rickey recognised her very own Burberry mac. Portas concedes that she should have asked before donating it – though, she adds, she hadn’t seen her wearing it for ages.

I’m not 100% convinced she’s learned her lesson, given that her daughter Verity recently spotted her Clarks Wallabee shoes in the basement of a branch – though her mother did let her reclaim them and furnished the shop with a replacement. She tells me she spent the previous day doing nothing, although that turns out to be a Portas kind of nothing – listening to opera, making an apple crumble and clearing out a cupboard in the house she shares with Rickey, their son Horatio, nearly four, and, when they’re home from university, her older children, Mylo and Verity. “We have too much stuff in this world!” laughs Portas. I shift my jacket to another chair.

This is Portas’s local, and local is one of her favourite words. “That looks stunning!” she cries, as a colourful salad arrives. “Look, it matches my hair! This is our local caff!” In all truth, you might struggle to find a proper fry-up along this chi-chi street, home to long established restaurants such as Limonia and Odette’s and all manner of upscale boutiques, but Greenberry is popular, filled to bursting on a Monday lunchtime, with punters from architect Ron Arad in his trademark upturned brim hat to tiny-totted families.

Over herrings and quinoa and pomegranate seeds, Portas and I fall to talking about the food she grew up eating; it’s a theme that runs through her memoir,Shop Girl, in which she describes growing up as Mary Newton, the fourth of five children in an Irish family in Watford. The book is written in a series of sketches, and dinners range from the salvaged steak that was distributed throughout the neighbourhood following a fire at a butcher’s factory to the advent, in 1974, of Vesta curry, which Portas’s mother serves with a bowl of mash, prompting her daughter to ask, “Is it supposed to be crunchy?”

But period nostalgia is only one aspect of the book. When Portas was 16, her mother – misdiagnosed as menopausal and prescribed antidepressants – died unexpectedly of meningitis. Portas stepped into the domestic breach, helped by shopkeepers who would advise her on cuts of meat and vegetables. Their role in her life has informed her commitment to the importance of retailers to communities; many of them, she explains, “are what kept me rooted in the day, and guided me, and I don’t think you can overestimate that”.

Her traumatic introduction to housekeeping stunted any early enthusiasm for the kitchen. “I had it sort of thrust upon me, being a cook,” she says, “and so those early days weren’t very much fun.” What was it like, I ask her, to bring to life years in which her father also died and she found herself adrift? “The weird thing is,” she replies, “because I didn’t really go into the public eye until my mid-40s, you don’t ever really articulate that pain, or have to, unless to your partner, or you have memories, where you’re in those intimate situations where you can reflect on those times.”

But things shifted when, in 2010 – by now, a columnist and TV presenter – Portas went on Desert Island Discs, and started to talk about her childhoodand family. “I came out of recording and I rang Melanie, and I couldn’t speak. It had uncovered it in the most wonderful way – stuff that I hadn’t really dealt with. And so I decided to write these little vignettes down.” Aside from her own recollections, she gathered together her siblings, “and it was joyous. Did I cry? Yes. And I remember the day I was looking at Mylo and Verity, who were 16 and 14, and that was me, and that was Lawrence [her younger brother]. And I was running the home. And I think I just grieved for that, really, and I don’t mean in any ‘poor me’ sense ... I put a shell round myself to get through life, and actually I wanted to protect that girl and write about her, and at the end of it, I liked her.”

To hear her speak about the fear she felt following her parents’ deaths – “you were an orphan. So there was nobody to go home to on a Sunday. There was no home” – chimes, unsurprisingly, with Portas’s forthright, no-nonsense persona. If you’ve reached the other side of such a profound loss still standing, you might well be inclined to grasp what life has to offer. Portas got a job dressing windows at Harrods, and later joined Harvey Nichols as creative director, joining the board before she was 30, by which point she also had two children with her husband, Graham Portas. She left when she couldn’t get a bonus for a hard-working colleague: “I thought, GOODBYE,” she remembers, handed in her company Mercedes, got the tube home and started her own agency. She and the family lived out of a tin of money kept in the kitchen.

Portas still has her agency, plus media work, charity shops and lecturing. But she has also had some fairly mixed experiences working with politicians – both as the public face of the “Portas Pilot” towns earmarked for investment, and as the author of a review into the future of the high street commissioned by the government in 2011. Suffice to say she has little time for the manipulations and manoeuvres of political life. At the same time, she has an undimmed enthusiasm for imagining what communities could and should look like. Her current thinking is that town centres need to deliver what online spaces can’t, via “anchors” – yoga centres, libraries, creches – that extend beyond retailing.

Like many, she bemoans London’s increasing unaffordability, and the narrowing it’s likely to have on cultural life, arguing that government should identify spaces in all parts of the capital in which to build housing with capped prices for the under-35s. We are, she says, “the most creative country in the world, and undoubtedly, the greatest creativity comes out of this city”. Would she ever want to be mayor of London? “Be an amazing job to do, wouldn’t it? But no, because of all that… it’s politics… and it’s a shame because I do realise there are some politicians who genuinely care. And you look at Obama – he’s been unable to be Obama because of the system. And so we are actually looking at the thought that some shredded wheat, vile, hideous individual, could possibly take over from him. It is beyond shocking.”

In the middle of all this activity, Portas, now sipping tea, meditates, reads philosophy and walks to calm her mind; “I’m very thinky,” she says. And she also spends a great deal of time ensuring that her own family enjoys the stability that she herself did until it was abruptly interrupted. “One of the worst things that ever happened when Mum died,” she tells me, “was coming home to an empty house. It was just the worst – from coming home never having a key, opening the gate, opening the back door, the smell of cooking, your mum there, there might be someone chatting with her – but it was home. To opening the front door – just, dead. Grey, nothing. Nothing moved since you left that morning, you’d left your dirty dishes because you were in a hurry, nothing smelt clean because you hadn’t been there during the day.”

She recalls the tussle between her and Lawrence – “both of us wanting to get there first so at least one person would say hello when you got in” – which led to what she calls an obsession with her own children never having to come into an empty house. She laughs. About four years ago, her daughter casually mentioned that her favourite time was when she got home and the house was empty – she could get what she wanted out of the fridge, put some music on, normal teenage stuff. Portas was shocked: “Sorry? Did you say your fav–… and then I thought, because you’re safe. And I’ve given you that safety.”