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I'm sure most of you will have seen or at least heard of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, the extremely popular channel 4 documentary showing travellers weddings. This programme helped Thelma Madine to be pushed into the limelight as the famous dressmaker who made all the fabulous and at times shocking designs for the travellers.
This book Tales of the Gypsy Dressmaker is Thelma's first piece of writing and it tells her story, not just how she makes dresses for traveller weddings but also background information about how she first got involved with dressmaking and of course, how she got welcomed into the traveller communities.
I wasn't actually aware that this book was being released but my sisters partner bought it for her birthday back in May. We were all on holiday together at the time and she couldn't keep her nose out of this book. I remember thinking to myself oh I must snag that once she's finished but forgot all about it until a couple of weeks ago when I went to see her and she had left it out to lend me. Initially I was a bit skeptical about whether I would enjoy it. Whilst I did like the series Big Fat Gypsy Weddings I wouldn't say it was something I couldn't live without. However, Thelma's recent project Thelma's Gypsy Girls which involved Thelma training traveller girls to be dressmakers was something I very much enjoyed. However, as the book seemed to focus more around the weddings I was unsure, also I wasn't sure if I would enjoy the writing style as I'm very much one for fiction over factual when it comes to reading.
The book begins with Thelma giving us a brief background of how she began to make dresses. She then goes into detail of an important time in her life after she was married to her husband Kenny and they had had their children. Though Thelma loved being a mum and adored her kids she couldn't help but want more. Kenny earned a good wage and the family were comfortable, even owning a Rolls Royce but Thelma wanted to do something herself. She began to use her dressmaking skills to create dresses for young children. Thelma has a huge interest in historical dress and she would spend hours poring over textbooks looking at the clothes. She would then try to recreate this for modern children.
In time she got a stall at a market in Liverpool, what is known locally as Paddy's Market. Here her clothes began to sell well and over time Thelma noticed that the people that were buying her designs were all distinctive. They were all perfectly presented and money seemed no object yet despite this they loved to haggle. Thelma learned that they were gypsies and soon she was the talk of the local gypsy community.
However, soon after disaster struck. Thelma and Kenny's marriage had finally drawn to a close and she was struggling to make ends meet to support her kids whilst going through a bitter divorce. She ended up signing on for benefits to feed her children, however over time her business picked up and she didn't tell the authorities as quickly as she should have. This led to a two year long investigation and Thelma ended up in the dock. The judge sentenced Thelma to a year in prison in order to make an example.
Once being released from prison, Thelma got straight back to business and in this book she tells her story - the ups, the downs, the sleepless nights and the hard work, not forgetting of course her inclusion in the traveller community.
As stated above I was a little skeptical about this book. I think that I thought it would be all about the weddings and also very focused around the TV show but it wasn't. Yes, obviously the weddings play a big part of the story and Thelma discusses them a lot throughout the book but her memoirs involve a lot more than this. I felt that what she was really telling the story of was the traveller community. Thelma is very close to various families in traveller communities and as a result of this she knows that they are subject to stereotypical assumptions and exclusion from British society. I believe that by writing this book Thelma hoped to tell her story whilst educating the public about travellers at the same time.
The writing style used is laid back and informal and for some reason I found myself reading it in my head in Thelma's voice the whole way through! I don't know why, maybe I felt that her introduction to the book had allowed me to get to know her very well. The writing style really makes you feel as though you are sat there with Thelma having a cuppa in her office rather than reading what she has written. I really liked the style of writing as I felt it allowed me to get to know Thelma better and often it allowed me to understand particular points she was trying to get across much more quickly.
The book is not in chronological order which initially set alarm bells ringing for me as I thought I may get confused but this is not the case at all and I found it really easy to follow. The story of Thelma's career is told vaguely in the order that it happened but often she will bring in a new concept or subject after talking about something familiar. I enjoyed this as it allowed Thelma to give examples and evidence of whatever she was describing.
I would say that the book primarily focuses around Thelma's adult life, especially her time at the market and her success after being released from prison and her relationship with travellers.
Each chapter involves a different event and she often talks about various weddings she has done. I like the way she does this as in just a couple of pages she manages to set the scene well so we feel as though we know those involved. A lot of the stories told are humerous so this provides some fun to the book.
To be honest I've never really had a great deal to do with travellers. I do know one guy whose from a traveller family but he spent most of his life settled so although I know him as a person I don't really know much about what life as a traveller entails. Thelma does a superb job of helping the reader to understand travellers a little more and she is keen to rid them of the stereotype that seems to follow them around.
I really enjoyed the plot and found myself hooked throughout. Though we all know the outcome of Thelma's story I still found myself desperate to read another chapter when I had a spare ten minutes. I just really loved learning a bit more about the travelling community and being able to understand how they live their lives a little more. The chapters didn't necessarily flow on from one another but I found that everything slotted into place nicely and I thought that it was both an exciting and educational read throughout.
The book was released in 2012.
It is published by Harper Collins.
It has 289 pages spread over 15 chapters, a prologue and an introduction.
The hardback cover price for the book is £16.99 but it can now be found cheaper elsewhere.
==The Gypsy Dressmaker - worth a punt?==
As I'm sure you can tell from my review I absolutely adored reading Thelma's story. I found her life fascinating and found her an inspiration. I thought she displayed courage by talking openly about her time in prison and I think she has done the travelling community proud in this book. I would recommend this book to anyone, especially those looking for an inspiring read.
Thelma Madine will need no introduction to fans of "Big Fat Gypsy Wedding" the documentary that has been a huge Channel Four success and shows glitzy traveller weddings - she's the seamstress who makes "those dresses" - the light up, pink and encrusted with crystal creations that are in some ways the star of the show. In this book, Madine pretty well comes across as she does on screen - likeable, funny, very definitely from Liverpool and most importantly very discrete. The tales, this her autobiography, focus on her work with the Traveller community and how she came to be making huge dresses having started out on a market stall selling and then making children's clothes. If you are not familiar with the programme the tales are probably going to only keep you moderately entertained and if you are you may not feel you learned that much more about this fascinating world. Madine is very sympathetic towards her customers whilst quite honest about quite how challenging yet never boring they can be to work with, however it does somehow feel like she is a little too careful not to offend them in this book - for obvious reasons I suppose and there was probably more about Thelma and less tales then I was expecting.
I found the section of the book devoted to the problems the author had which lead to her being in prison for a short time rather uncomfortable reading - not for the subject matter - she was open about how having claimed benefits while having the stall lead her there, but just though she was honest she did seem to be justifying what most of us would find dishonest. She held back too about what she acknowledges is the thing most people want to know, how much the dresses cost, a ball park figure would have been interesting but I suppose I can understand her reasons. Other parts of the book were quite entertaining, such as the stories of 100 foot train dresses and Cinderella carriages that are the kind of thing that was covered in the show, there's a little more insight here and some of her recollections are quite entertaining and there are a few photos in the middle of the book to flick through.
Overall I thought this book was quite interesting and in parts quite funny but it told me less than I thought it would and I felt it was a glimpse through a door rather than a feeling that you were part of the wedding. The rather rambling stream of consciousness "chatty" style grated a little after a while, I suppose at least to her credit this doesn't appear to have been jazzed up by a ghost writer - you did feel like it was all her own work. This book is probably only one for anyone who loves the show - if you do you may feel at the end of it like you have sat down for a bit of a chat with Thelma but been left wanting a bit more. I received the book as part of the Amazon Vine programme, in hard back version - it's currently half price at £8.33 - if you do think think that this book is something that would appeal to you I would say it would be best bought in paper back form. I read my copy in just over a day, it's not a difficult read and I suppose may be enjoyable for the airport lounge or by the pool this summer - I liked it, I just didn't love it.