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Alex Askaroff on how fixing sewing machines results in some incredible stories

PUBLISHED: 11:20 21 November 2017

Alex Askaroff with one of the first British sewing machines - a Bradbury B2 dated circa 1880

Alex Askaroff with one of the first British sewing machines - a Bradbury B2 dated circa 1880

Archant

He spends his days travelling the county fixing sewing machines, but Eastbourne’s Alex Askaroff has a sideline in stories, as he tells Duncan Hall

His business card may read “engineer”, but Eastbourne’s Alex Askaroff is doing more than keeping Sussex’s sewing machines alive. Once he has finished a long day travelling the county to service and repair customers’ machines he spends his evenings scribbling down the stories his clients tell him before they are lost forever.

“I should have started earlier,” says Alex, who released his 11th book Glory Days earlier this year. “I kept getting told stories from World War I, looking back 30 or 40 years ago now, but that generation has disappeared. I’m into the World War II stories now.”

Glory Days features an unlikely secret agent, a schoolboy who earned a medal in the London Blitz, Eastbourne’s own Doctor Death and Alex’s own brush with national fame when he appeared on the BBC’s talent competition The Great Sewing Bee as a talking head. All the stories are wrapped up in James Herriott-esque minutiae from Alex’s working days, which read like diary entries encompassing childhood memories, Sussex trivia and unusual characters. “It’s a potted history of our area of Sussex,” says the 60-year-old father of two who was born and bred in Eastbourne. “It’s the famous and not so famous.” Although in his latest book he may give his take on the Battle of Lewes or the history of the sewing machine – a passion of his as proved by his large collection of vintage machines – it’s the people he meets who shine through. The books only scratch the surface of the stories he is told through his working days – he generally tries to focus on the more life-affirming and upbeat tales. “When I get a good story, which is only every third blue moon, I have to scribble it down and then go back [to the teller] to make sure I’ve got it right,” he says. “I keep going back until we’re both happy. When I’ve got about 20 or so it goes into the next book.”

There can be challenges – such as a proud wife who told him her husband was a rear gunner on a Lancaster bomber. “Halfway through fixing her machine the husband walked in,” says Alex. “It turned out he was a mechanic who used to change the spark plugs!” Worse are the stories that get away, as in the case of 92-year-old former despatch rider Arthur who took his full tale to the grave. There are others which Alex still has in his head, but hasn’t had the time to write them down. “Luckily enough I can remember vast amounts of interesting stories,” says Alex. “Once I’ve written them down it’s a sort of release – I don’t have to remember it.”

It is Alex’s trade as a sewing machine mechanic which gives him access to such amazing memories. “I’m in with the customer, sitting in their home, but not like a plumber with his head up a pipe,” he says. “I’m on a dining room table having a conversation – it’s a unique situation.

“It’s a trade that is dying like so many old skills, but it’s interesting – a lot of youngsters are sewing more because of the cheap clothes they are buying. Their mum doesn’t sew, but granny will show them how to pleat something and make it look perfect.

“The generation that went through the war were the last to have those amazing dramatic moments in their lives. It is when the real human spirit shines brightest. It’s about those special people who stand out from the crowd and then go into the normal world. You never know who they could be – they could be standing in front of you at the bus stop or in the post office.”

Alex’s new book Glory Days is available from amazon.co.uk at £14.99. For more information about Alex visit www.sewalot.com

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