Hannah Stephenson on the tragic and tough childhood of shops guru Mary Portas

We know Mary Portas as the Queen of Shops, the hard-hitting, tough-talking red-head troubleshooter who helps struggling retailers turn their businesses around.

Shop Girl, a memoir of her early life growing up one of five siblings in a big Irish family in a semi-detached in Watford, shows just where she gained her hard-working ethos.

Her happy childhood, the harmless mischief she and her siblings made, the memories of Crackerjack, introduction to Vesta curry, Chopper bikes, and later the Sex Pistols and Pernod and black, are all relayed with a wonderful nod to the Seventies.

But at 16, Mary’s happy family unit is torn apart when her mother dies of meningitis and from thereon it’s clear life will never be the same again. Her father can’t cope and goes off with another woman, leaving Mary to look after younger brother Lawrence, living hand-to-mouth, relying on the kindness of relatives to take her in when her father sells the house and remarries.

It’s heart-breaking stuff, as Mary, who had wanted to follow her first love of acting, turns down a place at Rada to take care of Lawrence and ends up going to college and entering the world of window dressing, in Harvey Nicholls and Harrods, while her relationship with her father deteriorates.

This book may chart Portas’s life, but it is also a homage to her mother, the lynchpin of the family, who held her whole childhood and much of her adolescence together.

It ends as Mary quits her job at Harrods for a bigger, wider world. Humorous and heart-rending in equal measure, it begs a sequel, because her life beyond this early chapter has been a brilliantly colourful one.

Shop Girl
* Mary Portas
* Doubleday. Hardback, £16.99

Mary Portas talks about Shop Girl at 10am on Saturday, at Oxford Martin School lecture theatre, as part of the Oxford Literary Festival. Tickets are £12.