The Mayor of Darlington pulled off a coup last week by 'stalking' one of the country's most influential business figures and persuading him to be speaker at a virtual fundraising event. PETER BARRON reports

WHEN the pubs finally reopen properly, there’s a good chance that regulars in The Travellers Rest, in Darlington, might find themselves having a pint alongside an easy-going, unassuming chap called Nigel Wilson.

What they may not realise is that the bloke playing dominoes in the corner is one of the world’s leading businessmen, running a company responsible for £1.3 trillion pounds, and regularly rubbing shoulders with Prime Ministers and Chancellors of the Exchequer.

Dr Nigel Wilson, to give him his full, well-earned title, has done rather well for himself since spending the early part of his childhood up the road from “The Travellers” when he lived in Bates Avenue, Cockerton.

From those humble, council estate beginnings, he has gone on to become Group Chief Executive of one of the world’s leading financial services companies – Legal & General – as well as a trusted economic adviser to the Government.

And, thanks to an admirable but blatant piece of opportunism by the Mayor of Darlington, Chris McEwan, Dr Wilson was last week persuaded to take a break from the world of international high finance and politics, to be keynote speaker on Zoom at a charity event focused on his home town.

The event took root two years ago, when the future Mayor saw Dr Wilson speak at a business event at The Sage, Gateshead, and heard the revelation that he came from Darlington. The Mayor takes up the story: “I immediately turned into a stalker. When it came to lunch, I hovered round him with a sandwich, made sure I sat next to him, and went for it,” he said. “It was like finding a tool in the garage. You don’t quite know how to use it, but you don’t want to chuck it away, because you know it’ll come in handy one day.”

That day came last Thursday, with Chris nearing the end of his lockdown year as Mayor, during which he’s arranged a series of virtual events to raise money for his charities: Darlington Dementia Friendly Communities, and The Lullaby Trust.

The connection made over a sandwich led to Dr Wilson agreeing to speak to a virtual gathering from the local business community at an event – sponsored by The Endeavour Partnership and hosted by myself – on the theme of “Darlington On The Rise: The Future of the Economy.

It really was quite a coup to get a man who is a key figure on the Government’s “Build Back Better” Business Council, having previously been a member of David Cameron’s Business Advisory Group when he was Prime Minister. Among a long list of other duties, he is also a member of the Bank of England’s Climate Financial Forum’s Innovation Working Group, and on first name terms with economic and political leaders worldwide.

And it all started in Darlington. From Bates Avenue, his family moved to Newton Aycliffe, then Ferryhill and Heighington, where he was chairman of the youth club. After graduating in economics from the University of Essex, he took a PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the world’s leading universities, before building his illustrious career.

As well as a glittering track record in business, he also happens to be a star athlete, winning several British masters titles at 100m, 200m, 400m, and 800m.

With family still in Heighington, he visits the North-East frequently during normal times, enjoying his games of dominoes with his uncles at The Travellers, and sampling the real ales at 22 Coniscliffe Road ahead of catching the train to see his beloved Newcastle United play.

“Darlington has played a very important part in my life, and my values of intellectual honesty, kindness and being forgiving come from the North-East,” he said as he began his speech.

He talked of his pride in Darlington’s heritage in leading the agricultural and industrial revolutions, and declared that it was “great to see Darlington pulling together”, especially in the light of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s recent Budget announcement that the town has been chosen as a new Treasury hub, with 750 jobs coming to the town.

“If we are going to create a better future for us all, we need to invest in places that have fallen behind, rather than those that are already very productive,” he said. “I’ve dealt with many Chancellors over the years and Rishi Sunak is the first one with real enthusiasm and interest in the North-East.”

Inveitably, a range of questions raised included Brexit. “There will be lots of opportunities from being close to Europe but separate from Europe,” he replied. “There will be teething problems but, in a few months, most of those will be gone, and we just need to focus on celebrating the good things. Remainers have to become supportive.”

The benefits of Teesside being given Freeport status, the opportunities presented by wind energy off the North-East coast, and climate change were all covered during a fascinating hour and a half.

It was positive and optimistic outlook from a Darlington lad made very good indeed, and who remains refreshingly down to earth.

“Legal & General might look after £1.3 trillion but when I come home, my mam still doesn’t trust me to go to the shop over the road without giving me a list,” he revealed.

It doesn’t matter how high you climb, you can always trust your mother to keep your feet on the ground.

THERE’S also very little chance of the Darlington's first citizen getting ideas above his station – even if he does have valuable chains hanging from his shoulders.

As the event featuring Dr Nigel Wilson was coming to a close, the Mayor received an urgent message from his daughter to get home as soon as possible. She’d dropped a beloved earring down the kitchen sink plughole.

Within seconds, the chains had been removed, the Mayor had raced home, dismantled the sink, and rescued the piece of jewellery in the nick of time.

It was then straight back to the Town Hall to be reunited with the chains in readiness for the next ceremonial duty.

Serving as the Mayor is a big job – but it will never be more important than being a dad.

IN last week's column, I confessed to having plundered some amusing church notices from the pages of the All Saints Church Parish Newsletter in my home village of Hurworth-on-Tees.

The following message subsequently arrived from the newsletter's esteemed editor, Denis Pinnegar: "In the interests of village harmony, we will waive our normal fee."

He's even given me permission to pinch some more funnies when the May edition comes out.

Praise the Lord!