Mary Portas Q&A: “I look at our politicians and think: shame on the lot of you”

The broadcaster talks This Country, Van Morrison, and her favourite Buddhist monk, Pema Chödrön.

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Mary Portas was born in Watford in 1960. She rose to prominence as creative director of Harvey Nichols, before starting her own branding agency. She is known for TV shows including “Mary Queen of Shops”.

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting on top of the pram with my baby brother in it, my mother pushing me down to the shops. I felt on top of the world.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was my mother. I thought the sun shone out of her. She was able to rustle up a meal for five kids, play the violin, teach me algebra, read poetry… there wasn’t anything my mother couldn’t do. Right now, it’s probably the environmentalist Vandana Shiva. She talks about the stupidity of what we’re doing to our world, and how women will save it.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

The book that’s had the biggest influence on me was Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs understood that cities, towns and high streets are for people, and how we connect socially as communities through these spaces. That really influenced my thinking on my high street report, but also the way I live.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Well, they’re very few and far between. But I’d say Mo Mowlam, who was the catalyst for the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. Both my parents are from the north of Ireland, so I grew up with the backdrop of the civil war. Mo Mowlam did things her way. I salute that woman.

What would be your Mastermind subject?

The music of Van Morrison.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Oh, look: I don’t care what anybody says, the world’s got better. I’d love to live 50 years from now to see what my children’s generation are going to do with the world.

What TV show could you not live without?

This Country. It’s a bloody masterpiece!

Who would paint your portrait?

If she was still alive, Tamara de Lempicka. Her slightly geometric, cubist style would have been great with my hair.

What’s your theme tune?

It’s got to be “Proud Mary”, hasn’t it?

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

The advice of Pema Chödrön, my favourite Buddhist monk. I keep her book next to my bed, and when I’m falling off the path, or going for quick ripostes with my tongue – which can be very quick – I pick her up. If I lose myself I say, “I’m sorry Pema!”

What is currently bugging you?

Our politicians. I actually don’t want to think about it. It makes me feel physically sick. I look at them all and I think: you’re just a bunch of arrogant, unevolved, awful people. Shame on the lot of you.

What would make your life better?

Shoving every single one of them out.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I got into Rada, and then I couldn’t go. My mother died, and my father died shortly after that. Everything sort of went wrong. If I had gone, I might have been a theatre director. But I think now I would say an activist. I would do actual activism.

Are we all doomed?

Oh, God no. We can all make change happen, but we’ve got to get up and do it. So I never accept being doomed. Never. 

Mary Portas’s “Work Like a Woman” is published by Bantam Press. She will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival on 24 November.

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great War’s long shadow