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Geoffrey Gillow, the man who brought style to the menfolk of Darlington, is approaching his 100th birthday. He talks about his extraordinary life.

(Northern Echo, August 2016)

TRY as he might, the remarkable Geoffrey Gillow can’t hide his pride at having just passed his driving test with flying colours. 

After all, there aren’t too many who are still driving as they approach their 100th birthday.

Geoffrey, who opened Darlington’s first quality menswear shop in the posh part of Darlington town centre 50 years ago, re-took his driving test voluntarily.

And the only criticism was that he was doing 40mph on a country road, near Sedgefield, where the speed limit was 60.

“The chap said I should have been going faster but it was a bendy road so I think I was right to go steady,” says Geoffrey, defiantly.

“He wanted to know when I’d last read the Highway Code and I said ‘yesterday’. Well, I was going to be taking my test so of course I read it. I’m not daft, am I?”

​​Some will be shocked that at a centenarian should still be driving but Geoffrey’s son, Bill, insists his father is a far better driver than many a fraction of his age.

“He’s not one of these doddery old drivers who are a liability,” says Bill, who took over the family business in 1980. “He doesn’t mess about at junctions and he’s always got his wits about him.”

As well as the independence provided by his silver Mercedes A-Class, Geoffrey’s still living life to the full in other ways. He ends each day with a bottle of red wine in his sheltered accommodation flat, he retains an eye for pretty women, and he still goes to watch his beloved Sunderland given half a chance. He was there for the recent derby defeat to Middlesbrough and is cutting with his verdict: “They were rubbish.”

- “I was there when they played in the Cup Final,” he recalls, bright-eyed at the memory.
- “In 1973?”
- “No, 1937 when they beat Preston North End,” he says. “We didn’t get home that night because we got well and truly p***** up in London and caught the train the next morning.”

Raich Carter was the best Sunderland player Geoffrey ever saw and he remembers playing cricket with him for Hendon.

“He was a county cricketer but I don’t think he was really good enough. I was the better batsman,” he insists.

Geoffrey was still an active member of Darlington Golf Club, as well as Brass Castle in Middlesbrough, until he was 88 but he gave up cricket a long time before that.

Ian Botham remains a loyal customer at the shop in Grange Road, but Geoffrey’s told Beefy straight that he’s only the second best cricketer he’s seen, behind Jack Hobbs.

Charming, witty, and dapper in his navy blue Darlington Golf Club jumper and patterned purple cravat, Geoffrey is now poised to complete his greatest ever century - on September 30 to be exact - and he doesn’t hesitate when asked for the secret to a long life.

“Being a coward,”
he replies. “You just keep your head down and dodge trouble.”

And that brings us to how he managed to get through the war while serving in the 8th Armoured Brigade with Field Marshall Montgomery.
He’d originally joined the Northumberland Fusiliers and was billeted at a disused holiday camp on the Isle of Wight, “waiting for the invasion”, when the call went up for a trained typist.

“I’d messed about the odd time with two fingers on my father’s old typewriter so I volunteered for the job,” he recalls.

He was promptly despatched to Dorking to take a clerical course. Somehow, he passed with distinction despite handing in a test paper that was more or less blank due to a hole in his ribbon and an inability to read the scrawl masquerading as shorthand.

“Some time later, I found myself at El Alamein with Monty but I was only ever behind the lines because I was a clerical worker, even though I couldn’t type to save my life,” he admits.

With the Germans defeated and the war against Japan about to come to its atomic end, there was an Army lottery to win a month’s leave. When Geoffrey’s number came up, he went home and proposed to Minna, the Middlesbrough lass he’d sent letters to throughout the war. They were married on July 20, 1945, and their first child, Pamela, was born exactly nine months later.

Back on civvy street, he resumed the career in retail he’d begun at Blacketts carpet shop in his native Sunderland. He got further experience with Sam’s Furniture in Middlesbrough, before moving to Bainbridge Barkers department store in Darlington. It was from there that he took the plunge and started his own business in 1966. 

The rest is a long and stylish history, with the Geoffrey Gillow shop still trading strongly under Bill’s stewardship.

So what’s the plan for the big birthday? “Oh, I doubt I’ll make it,” groans Geoffrey. “To tell the truth, I’ve been walking around like an old man lately.”

But if, as seems very likely, Geoffrey does make it to September 30, there are two outstanding: to visit The Long Room at Lord’s cricket ground; and to have a tour of the Houses of Parliament. 

“Beyond that, I’ll keep my head down and avoid any trouble ­- it’s got me this far,” he smiles. 

Without further ado - mirror, signal, manoeuvre, and well within the speed limit – Geoffrey Gillow is off in his pristine silver Merc.

On the road in style - at 99