Book review: Free Spirit, by Tanya Sarne

Book review: Free Spirit, by Tanya Sarne

Somewhere in my vinyl vault I have a record called Come Outside by a man called Mike Sarne, which previously belonged to my big sister. It came out in 1962 when I was four years old and growing up far from the capital. Come Outside is a comedy pop song in which Paddington-born Sarne plays the part of a cheeky cockney nagging his girlfriend – voiced by a teenage Wendy Richard – for “a bit of slap and tickle”. The song went to Number One in the singles chart and in hindsight I recognise it as one of many bits of popular culture I absorbed as child that helped to form an idea of London in my head.

I had no idea what had become of Mike Sarne until reading the opening pages of Free Spirit, the extraordinary memoir of Tanya Sarne, founder of the fashion label Ghost. Your guess is correct: Tanya, born Tanya Gordon in Southgate in 1945 to refugee parents, married Mike and took his name. They tied the knot at Chelsea Old Town Hall in January 1969, the day after Mr Sarne informed Miss Gordon, as they dined in a fashionable King’s Road restaurant, that they were to be betrothed. He had by then moved on from novelty pop to film directing. He jetted off to California straight after the ceremony to embark on a new project, taking his bewildered spouse with him.

Mike does not emerge terribly well from his now ex-wife’s story of her life, and neither do most of the other men she mentions being romantically involved with. A shining exception is musician (and much more) Andrew McGibbon, whom Tanya first met near the end of 1991 and soon after began a relationship with – one which has, thankfully, stayed strong until this day. I say thankfully because Tanya’s hurtling account of what happened during the decades after her escape from her first marriage gives the firm impression that without McGibbon she might not have lived to write it.

Free Spirit is mostly an account of the remarkable rise of Ghost from the chaos of its creator’s life to becoming one of the biggest fashion success stories of the 1980s and beyond. It also records the simultaneous growth of Sarne’s drug dependencies as Ghost and its demands on her grew. In 1986, as it took off, she moved the company into an old chapel on Kensal Road in North Kensington a stone’s throw from its previous base, where she also lived. The empire kept expanding. Sarne writes:

“I worked incredibly hard, often arriving at the Chapel early in the morning and staying late into the evening. I had never thought of myself as driven person, but that was what I had become. Ghost was my baby. Every decision had to be okayed by me and everyone depended on me. I never got enough sleep and to keep going I began fuelling myself with cocaine and alcohol in the evenings.”

In her book she describes McGibbon, who moved into the Kensal Road house with her in the mid-Nineties, as giving her “the stability and support I needed at a time when I could have buckled under the weight of the demands of running a business”. Even so, she continued to rely on alcohol and coke: “I told myself that my drink and drug habit enabled me to cope and was under control…I wasn’t willing to talk about stopping.”

It took a few more years before she checked into rehab and then attended her first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. When she reveals that she hasn’t touched a drop since that day and it is “now close on 20 years since I have had a drug or a drink,” it comes as a relief.

Free Spirit is a highly personal recollection of a life lived precariously, dangerously, creatively and sometimes wildly energetically, often at the same time. It crosses oceans, but also provides vivid glimpses of a part of the recent history of London which straddles its transition from post-war trauma to late-20th Century boom – elements that will be of particular interest to readers of On London.

The mother of Tanya Sarne’s one-eyed dog is described as a “Portobello Road German Shepherd” and the father as “an aristocratic Airedale Terrier from Knightsbridge” and as having been inherited from an au pair who had been given him by “a good-looking Jamaican Rastafarian and would be soul singer” from the neighbourhood.

The Kensington house where she lived in 1970 with her infant daughter was magnificent on paper – a Victorian five-storey terrace with its own lift – but in reality was an unheated, barely-furnished hovel whose cooker ran on coal that had to be ferried by scuttle from the cellar. Sarne says she stayed afloat financially by taking tea and flirting with Sir Hugh Fraser, the chairman of Harrods where the absent Mike had set up an account for her. The house, by the way, was on an 11-year lease that cost £11,000.

Sarne’s story takes us back to the lost days of Hyper Hyper at Kensington Market, and the advents of the Groucho Club – “where a woman could sit alone at a bar and not be considered a prostitute” – and the original Saatchi Gallery in St John’s Wood. And it details the sometimes mixed blessing of being friends with Swinging Sixties fashion star Ossie Clark.

Her fashion business life moved into its later stages after the shocking loss of Ghost in 2006 to investors to whom she had sold a controlling interest on seemingly co-operative terms in December 2005. The context was the shift of fashion production away from the UK to cheaper factories in China.

There were two subsequent companies, one of which, Handwritten, did pretty well. But the fashion business was changing. Stuck with too much stock, Sarne found a shop at the posh end of Portobello Road, between Elgin and Blenheim Crescents. That was a lifesaver for a while, but Handwritten’s final lines were penned in a short-term office twelve feet from the main line serving Paddington station.

In 2015, Sarne and McGibbon – these days a radio producer with whom I have enjoyed working as a scriptwriter – got married at Chelsea Old Town Hall, the place where Sarne had acquired her surname 46 years earlier. Free Spirit ends on a note of disillusion with the fashion business, but one of warmth for family and friends and of forgiveness, including for the Come Outside man. And as well as telling the story of Ghost, it traces a few ghosts of west London.

Buy Free Spirit – A Memoir of an Extraordinary Life HERE. Photo from Hachette UK.

Twitter: Dave Hill and On London.

On London and its writers need your backing. Give £5 a month or £50 a year and receive in return the weekly newsletter On London Extra and (at no additional charge) invitations to events featuring eminent Londoners. Pay using any of the “donate” buttons on the site, by becoming a paid subscriber to my Substack, or directly into the company bank account. Email for details. Thanks. Dave Hill.

Categories: Culture

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *