When I spotted this headline in today’s The Times I didn’t give it much thought. Side-effect of working in this sector: you get used to non-stereotypical families and to the most extraordinary steps people take to achieve parenthood.
It was only when another journalist rang that I was reminded of the squeamishness many people have about this. Lesbians having babies is already a challenging concept for quite a few but to add a brother to the mix somehow makes it even more awkward, borderline incestious maybe even.
For me it makes perfect sense. Providing all parties are appropriately supported and have received implications counselling, wanting a child from the gene pool from your loved one or yourself, is human nature. Wanting a child that has traits from both parents is something most people want and the lack of it is a pain that some who have to rely on egg – or sperm donation will have to come to terms with.
No doubt will it hit all sorts of buttons with all sorts of people. I just hope they’re all happy and healthy and look after each other. Surely that’s the main thing.
I’ve copied the article from http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/magazine/article4349696.ece as it’s behind a pay-wall.
The private lives of Mary Portas
Published at 10:49AM, February 14 2015
She is the tough-talking Queen of Shops, but behind the glamour is a family tragedy that has shaped her life. Mary Portas on how her new wife helped her confront the past – and how her brother enabled them to have a baby
When Mary Portas became a mother for the third time after her wife, Melanie Rickey, gave birth to their little boy, Horatio, two years ago, she texted her younger brother, Lawrence, with the words, “Your son’s been born.”
The couple had desperately wanted a baby together and with Mel being younger and the obvious birth mother, Portas had wanted a genetic link, too. (“Bring it on!” Mel said when Portas suggested her brother. Lawrence said, “I’d be honoured.”) Rickey became pregnant on her second round of IVF. The birth “was beautiful”, Portas remembers. “Just extraordinary turning up with Mel and seeing this child come into the world. Amazing.
“The sun was just coming out. Lawrence was the first one there [with us] and he picked him up and it was just very emotional. He and I walked out into the sunshine holding him. I remember we were round the back of the hospital and I said to him, ‘Thank you!’ and he said, ‘It’s my pleasure,’ and we just held each other. And that was it, you know? It’s amazing. And now, when I look at Horatio, he is a complete mix of [Mel] and me.”
Today, Portas is very relaxed – not a word associated with her TV persona, first seen in the BBC Two series Mary Queen of Shops, which ran for three series until 2010.
For that, she became known as the arse-whipping, carrot-topped woman who appeared to have blown in from the luxe, Ab Fab world of Harvey Nichols (where she actually was from 1989 to 1997, first as a window-dresser, then working her way up to become creative director with a seat on the board). Her role was to pour some of her high-end glamour on people in grey places who had lost their mojo. As struggling shopkeepers shuffled out from behind the counter to greet her, metaphorically in their old slippers, she delivered hilarious but apposite advice such as: “It’s like a bad swingers’ party in here!” She was like a very funny but scary head girl.
For the tabloids, there was also the titillating fact that she was living with Rickey, whom she met at a Royal College of Art dinner in 2003, 10 months after she had separated from her husband, Graham Portas, the father of her two almost grown-up children and now her great friend. Mary Queen of Shocks! ran one red-top headline. (“There aren’t many glamorous lesbians on TV,” someone once told her, so characteristically she thought, “Well, sod that, there’s going to be a first one.”)
And then, more recently, there was her role as the government’s shopping tsar, battling on behalf of independent shop owners against the power of the supermarkets. In 2011, she produced for David Cameron the Portas Review, an independent audit of the high street, which outlined 28 recommendations and attracted £10 million of government funding for ailing towns in need of help. This foray into a semi-political arena saw various politicians and interested parties accuse her of taking on the review to increase her public profile and cash in for her own gain. As a result, she had to appear before the Communities and Local Government select committee to defend her £500,000 fee for two years of planned TV work for Channel 4 involving 20 shows. The whole thing, she says now, was horrible and left a nasty taste in her mouth. (“I wanted to say [to a critic], ‘You complete berk! I never got any negative press before you lot came along and started doing this, so berk off!’”)
Still, a year later, in September 2012, the sun came out from behind the clouds again when Horatio was born. “He is extraordinarily charming, so full of life,” she says beaming. “He’s slept since he was five months old. He loves kicking a ball, he loves puzzles, music – I think because there is so much joy and easiness around him. We are all calmer … but we still get that thing at 6.30am when he shouts out, ‘MAMA! MAMA!’”
Portas, 54, is “Mama”, Rickey is “Mummy” and Lawrence is “Daddy Lawrence”. Lawrence has moved in with them for three months, before moving permanently to Bermuda to be with his girlfriend – “You go! You just fly, mate,” Portas told him. Lawrence Newton is 52 and doesn’t want a family of his own, nor does their elder brother, Joe: a legacy, Portas thinks, of the tragedy that befell their family almost 40 years ago. (Their older siblings, Tish and Michael, have families.) This was their mother’s sudden death when Portas was 16 and Lawrence 14; in itself, traumatic and life-changing enough, but compounded by their father’s terrible grief and the devastating consequences of his swift remarriage and sale of the family home, which effectively left the five Newton children destitute and, within two years, penniless and orphaned, probably hardest for Portas and Lawrence, who were the youngest. She effectively became Lawrence’s mother (more of which to come).
She sacrificed her place at Rada for him and their bond has never weakened. “We are just so close,” she explains. “[Our bond] is never going to change, never ever going to change. Of course, there has been a scarring for us all. It would be wrong of me to guess how each of us have been scarred in different ways, but I think I just put my foot down on the pedal andwent, ‘RRRRRRR, don’t stop me! I’ve got to be changing the gear; I’ve got to be checking the road; I’ve got to be the one who is making sure [of everything],’ and I don’t think my sister was too dissimilar in being very self-sufficient, and my elder brother. But Lawrence and Joe made their worlds the size that was safe for them.”
Portas says it’s heaven having Lawrence at home with her (she and Rickey live in a socking great house in Primrose Hill, paid for by her work in TV and the Harvey Nicks boardroom), with her making him roar with laughter, just like when they were rogueish Irish Catholic kids when their mother was still alive, growing up hand-to-mouth in a semi in Watford, the five kids packed in like sardines, peeing and pooing in an outside loo with part of the wall smashed through to the kitchen.
“I remember when I did my charity shop show [Mary Queen of Charity Shops in 2008] and somebody wrote in, ‘I don’t think Mary Portas has ever seen the inside of a charity shop!’ and I thought, ‘You have no idea! You have no IDEA what my life is like.’ But you have to take that, and also you don’t want to have to prove yourself to people.”
Her elder children, Mylo, 21, and Verity, 18, are smitten with Horatio, too. Graham Portas often pops round for supper, so they’re like one big modern happy family. “Honestly, you never know who’s going to come out of which room,” she says, beaming again. Rickey wants another baby, but Portas says she can’t go through it again – she hasn’t got the energy. “God, I couldn’t have another one! I’m tired,” she says, “We’ve got three. I also like balance in my life.”
These days, Portas is scaling back a bit, “taking my foot off the throttle and doing what makes my heart sing”. This means focusing on home life and her communications agency, Portas (it employs 50 staff with clients such as Habitat and Mercedes-Benz), delivering business lectures and overseeing her string of charity shops for Save the Children. She still has her fashion range in House of Fraser, but she says, “I keep getting offers to do this and that and suddenly you go, ‘How much money do I need? Where do I want to be?’ Doing the stuff that matters and being with my family. I have a lovely life.”
On the night of December 9 last year, the eve of the day when civil partnerships could be converted to marriage, Portas took Rickey to dinner and then surprised her by heading for the register office at midnight (they had a very stylish civil partnership back in 2010).
Their family was waiting for them, with Horatio holding a little bouquet of flowers. Portas’s eyes mist over as she tells the story: “I know, I know,” she says, acknowledging the romance of the occasion and the sweetness of their new child being present, too. She shakes her orange bob to rearrange her fringe.
And what a bob! The cut! The colour! It is looking immaculate, tweaked a little in a new direction. (“Less severe,” Rickey tells me later, looking at Portas protectively.) But today Portas – as if proof of this new relaxed approach to life – is dressed down. She’s not wearing heels or makeup. She’s dismissed her assistant to leave us to talk alone (“Miky, I adore you, but I’m finding it difficult with you sitting there”) and when one of the crew for the shoot appears looking stressed, she says in a faux hippy voice, pretending to take a toke on a joint: “Hey, man, you need to chill out.”
Putting on voices, mimicking – she’s great at it all, combined with expert comic timing. It’s no wonder she was all set to be an actress. And she really does love a laugh. “There’s nothing better, is there?. I’m a big kid still.”
But Portas the chilled hippy? These days she’s most happy not at swanky fashion do’s in uncomfortable shoes and oversized jewellery, nor when squaring up to a sexist superstore official, but rather when sitting at home with Lawrence and Rickey, watching Wolf Hall with a glass of wine, Horatio upstairs asleep, the older kids hanging around with their mates.
“I want to find a deep sense of peace,” she says, almost with a sigh. “I just want peace. A lot of people think I’m tough. They want to make a tough clichéd woman on TV and it’s not who I am. I have this survival instinct and there is a level of [me] where I have to be strong, but that doesn’t have to be ‘tough’. I’m not hard-nosed – I’m ridiculously soft, actually – but my whole life, I’ve been driven by fear and fear is a terrible thing, a terrible thing.”
Mary Portas has never made any secret of the terrible events of her childhood (unlike the identity of Horatio’s father, which outside their circle of close family and friends, has in the past been attributed to an anonymous sperm donor). In 2010, on Desert Island Discs, she spoke of how her father, crippled by grief at the sudden loss of his wife, had met a woman soon after, married her and left his children to fend for themselves. With her elder siblings no longer living at home, it was left to Portas to look after Lawrence, from feeding him by going into the local butcher’s on the bus home from school (the shop was kept open for her) and asking what her mum would have bought (therein lies her love of the high street), to trying to comfort and protect him from the chaos that surrounded them all.
When the house was sold, they had nowhere to go. They were split up between obliging relatives – something that caused her deep shame and embarrassment – until Lawrence was old enough to go to police cadet school, a path that was so very wrong for him, but was a port in a storm.
Instead of Rada, Portas went to college to learn to be a window-dresser (Harrods and Harvey Nicks followed), full of bitterness and anger at a world that had taken her mother, her father and her home in two years.
But that experience of talking about it in 2010 plunged her into the depths of a rage towards her father. “I remember coming out of the recording and phoning Mel. I could hardly speak. I just knew it was all there and it had to come out. I had buried my anger with my father, what he did to Lawrence.”
Portas’s voice starts to wobble. “That’s what killed me, and at the time of Desert Island Discs I was still seeing my younger brother struggling. And I was like, ‘No!’ I remember my son and my daughter being the same age as we were when she died and I’m looking at these two kids and thinking, ‘Jesus! That was me, coming home to do all the cooking. That’s you, Lawrence. This is just criminal.’
“And I grieved for this 14-year-old boy – and I suppose I grieved for the 16-year-old girl that I was. I didn’t have a life for five years. It was a grey world, a very grey world. I did share it, but Mel has also had quite a traumatised time [herself] and she is very much, ‘You get up and dust yourself down,’ which I did, but it was sticking and I couldn’t move with it, I couldn’t get over the fact that more than anything, being a mother … It wouldn’t leave me. I was so angry with him, I couldn’t bear it.”
She has been in therapy for four years, trying to unravel her feelings and her anger. The result is Shop Girl, her memoir, whichis out this month. It is a kind of love letter to her dead Irish Catholic mother, whose warmth and love she has tried to capture in its pages for want of anything else to remember her by, bar a Marguerite Patten cookbook and her statue of St Therese of the Roses.
When the house was cleared out from under them, all her possessions – photographs, mementoes, everything to do with her mother – disappeared. The children had nothing. Within two years, her father was dead, too, and her stepmother kept the lot. “You know what I miss? All the pictures. [My stepmother] had everything. We’ve got nothing. There are no pictures of my mother, nothing.
“I had this Scottie blanket which Mum got me second-hand because I loved the Scottie dog next door called Reg. Where’s that blanket?” Portas asks. “God, I loved that blanket,” she says quietly. “We never had anything new … Mel’s started looking for another one for me.”
The book contains hilarity, too, in the shape of the naughtiness of Portas before the tragedy struck. But its power lies in the heartbreaking recollections. It is the result, Portas says, of her approaching all her siblings and recording their memories as well, because she wanted it to be a collective project. “With all the trauma in there, this is a beautiful, happy little world, in a way,” she says. “I wanted to give that to my family, to my siblings.”
If anybody wanted to find a reason for Portas’s subsequent need to “control” her life (a word often used in profiles of her), her need to manage everything around her, here it is.
“Everything I did, I did through fear and anxiety and wanting to make another world like the one I lost,” she explains. “Lawrence became the hedonist [in later life] and ran away, whereas I felt that if I was ‘there’, nothing bad was going to happen, if I was able to ‘control’, if my family was near, then nothing would happen because I would be able to somehow ‘manage’ it. And that is very, very, very tiring.”
There was also the familiar instinct felt by those who have suffered poverty – post her mother’s death – of panic around the issue of money. It is no surprise that Portas and two brothers are hugely successful businesspeople (her eldest brother runs bars and restaurants) and her sister is director of nursing for southwest Hertfordshire. “We were bright kids,” she says, shaking her head. “Bright kids.”
But they were children plunged into an adult world, not confident enough in themselves to put up a challenge. They were fobbed off by a doctor who suggested their mother, crippled and bedridden by a blinding headache, was simply going through the menopause. In fact, her mother had meningitis encephalitis, and later developed pneumonia. Finally, her eldest brother did take charge and called an ambulance. It was too late. Two weeks later she was dead. “And where was Dad then?” Portas asks.
After the death, her father, a salesman, collapsed into a self-absorbed black hole. Portas remembers of her time at college, “I sit in lectures on retail commerce and art history, thinking about what jobs I need to do at home … I worry about Lawrence as teachers talk.”
Lawrence couldn’t get out of bed following the death. His grades slipped; Portas, struggling herself to cope, tried to chivvy him along. At one stage, when Lawrence was being made to go to police cadet school because it was somewhere to live, he said to her, “Don’t worry about me, Mary, I’ll be fine. I’m not a baby, you know.”
When Portas was offered a Rada place, all she had ever wanted, before the house was sold, she remembers thinking, “I can’t leave Lawrence. I need him as much as he needs me. We are a unit. Together we have created our own way of being. However flawed. We are home and we are together.”
She often refers to things in the present tense, to the point where you imagine her forgetting she’s not still back there. Portas’s eyes fill with tears again, like she is there.
“It’s so visceral it’s like you’ve been filleted. You are raw. It never goes away. There is no safety net. There is no one else, nothing to fall back on. There is nowhere to go. There is no one there for you, that’s the thing. And you haven’t transferred your love to anyone else. So your only massive love has gone.”
When the new woman came on the scene, with a son the same age as Lawrence, Portas’s father took away Lawrence’s skateboard – his prize possession – to give to the woman’s own boy. Their elder brother Joe shouted at their father, “Why do you keep giving his stuff away? He doesn’t have much and now you’re giving it away.”
When the family dog started messing in the kitchen because their mother was no longer around to let him out (Portas had to clear up the dog mess every day after school before making the supper), her dad made her take the beloved pet to the vet to be put down.
Talking to Portas about this is no less heartbreaking than reading the book, which is dedicated to her mother. Pretty much the first thing Portas says to me, poignantly, is, “I don’t remember telling her how much I appreciated or loved her. I just don’t remember doing that. I suppose there was just never that huge intimate amount of time that one has in a family of five children. I felt I hadn’t really acknowledged her. Having children of my own – and a third child – you realise what a huge job she did.”
She recalls, too, the misplaced guilt that children can so often feel, in her case because she was often naughty at school, larking about, challenging authority and getting into scrapes, like eating the still-life set-up for the A-level art class. “I cannot stop myself wondering if all the trouble I caused Mum somehow made her ill. She had so little. No holidays or meals out, new clothes or treats … I was always giving Mum problems. Was it me who made her ill?”
The only point at which all five siblings stood up to their stepmother was after their father’s death, when she initially refused to let him be buried in the grave he had bought next to their mother’s. It was only with the intervention of the family priest that the children finally got their way.
I ask her whether she has finally forgiven her father – something that I find almost incredible, given what he did.
“Of course, of course,” she says softly. “His own father died when he was young. I don’t think he was ever shown how to be a human actually able to love openly. He worked and made sure we were safe but that was the one dimension. My mother was everything else [to us]. So when that went, he just went back to this probably fearful, selfish man who thought, ‘I’ve got to look after me,’ because actually, who else was going to do that for him? How can you not forgive that? What did he ever learn about giving back? But I had to go through the anger first to get to that point.”
I think Portas probably has forgiven her father, but perhaps not on every level. A large measure of the peace she feels now has been brought about by her marriage to Rickey, a brave life decision given how, for years, she had striven to build a strong stable home in a world geared predominately towards heterosexual marriage and child-rearing.
She had been happily married for years, but it had run its course. It certainly wasn’t a case of exploring suppressed sexuality: “[Mel] was someone I loved so much and made me feel so free,” she explains, “that that was the path I had to go on. It was out of my control in a way, and so beautifully out of my control. And to be in that place was just remarkable and wonderful, and I feel privileged to have had it and still have it to this day.
“At the beginning I thought, ‘Can I do this? How am I going to bring my children into this?’ And of course, I had to manage that, and manage it I did. On one side it was about freedom and love and this was the right thing to do, but on the other side – and this was 11 years ago when it wasn’t so groovy – we had to speak to the children about it. I remember I would ring up their friends’ parents and say, ‘I want you to let George know Mylo’s mother is in a single-sex relationship.’”
It was only after she met Rickey that Portas says she began to come to terms with who she really was, that she was relaxed enough to stop “that fear of running and having to control everything”.
“Melanie is extraordinary. She really helped give me a more relaxed confidence, even though I didn’t think I needed help. Because [before her], on the one hand I became my mother, this matriarchal figure, but on the other side it is extraordinarily, emotionally very, very tense and difficult but you are the only one. There is this fear all around you.”
After a couple of hours, Rickey arrives with Horatio, who, true to Portas’s word, is “cute as pie” and possibly the most chilled, well-behaved two-year-old boy I’ve ever encountered. “Hi, Scrufty!” Portas shouts from the other side of the room. “Mama!”
And so many things become clear.
“Of course, now I know it could only ever have been Lawrence who was Horatio’s father,” Portas says of Horatio’s conception. Given their past, there is something profoundly moving in knowing Lawrence is his father.
There is some discussion between the stylish Rickey and Portas about what Portas will wear in the photographs. “Babe, do you want me to come and go through it with you?” Rickey says.
“What do you think?” Portas asks her about a shirt. “OK?”
“Yes, that shirt looks just incredible.”
The day my brother left home
From Shop Girl by Mary Portas
Everything was changing as the Seventies drew to a close: the winter of discontent saw Margaret Thatcher swept to power and Sid Vicious overdose in a blaze of publicity. Earl Mountbatten was blown up off the coast of Ireland and a killer dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper terrorised women.
But time was suspended in Windsor Road as we waited to see what would happen with the house and where we would go. Dad stayed more and more at his girlfriend’s after the estate agent’s board went up. Coming home only to drop off some money for food and give me a bag of his washing, he’d look nervously around before leaving again. Once he appeared with a cuddly Womble.
“Thought you might like it,” he said, as he handed it to me and I stared at the toy, wondering why my father would think it was appropriate for a daughter he kept insisting was old enough to fend completely for herself.
The air between us hummed, yet neither of us said a word. I dreaded the moment when I heard the familiar thrum of his Rover outside. I dreaded the moment when I heard it disappear into the distance again.
There were many days when I stayed in bed instead of going into college. Lying underneath the blankets, I’d hear the phone ring and reluctantly go downstairs to pick it up.
“Can I speak to Mr Newton? It’s Matthew the estate agent.”
“He’s not here. Can I help?”
“I’ve got a couple who want to see the house. Can I bring them over tonight, please?”
Some days the phone rang several times and each time it did I’d reluctantly agree to show people around. Couples would appear on the doorstep, smiling eagerly before walking around and peering into cupboards as they discussed what colour they’d paint the walls. As I listened to them, I did not trust myself to speak. I knew the house would sell soon and I had hoped that I could move in with my sister and her boyfriend. But while I often went to stay in the two-bed maisonette they’d bought around the corner, I knew I couldn’t stay there permanently. It was tiny and they were starting a new life together. My sister would have done anything for me but I couldn’t ask her that.
I dreaded the thought of [younger brother] Lawrence leaving for the police cadets. He was going to the Police Academy in Hendon initially and would then move to Sunbury-on-Thames to do more training. After turning 18, he’d train to be an officer proper and I wished I could protect him from a path that I feared wasn’t right for him. Music was Lawrence’s passion. He listened to John Peel religiously, bought all the latest releases and took me to gigs by new bands such as the Cure. Standing watching Robert Smith, with his wonky red lipstick and nest of hair, Lawrence was truly happy.
He wanted to be a sound engineer or a producer. Instead Dad had convinced him that becoming a police officer was the right thing. A. Good. Steady. Job.
By the time Lawrence left for Hendon, Dad had proposed to Rebecca. The thought of being without my brother made me feel hollow as I packed up his wash bag. Looking after him had given me structure since Mum’s death and now he was leaving. I’d baked him a coffee cake, made sure he’d had a haircut and hugged him for what felt like the final time.
We all took him to Hendon, cramming into his room as he tried to smile. Holding him tightly, I said goodbye.
“Don’t worry about me, Mary,” Lawrence said. “I’ll be fine. I’m not a baby, you know.”