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Harding’s century of love, war and politics

Richard Harding, 100 years old and keeping a good sense of humour. PHOTOS/MARY ARGUE

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It’s 1921. The world is on the brink of a depression, trying to forget the Great War and unaware a second is on the horizon. The polygraph test has just been invented in the US, and in the UK, the Irish Treaty Conference opens as riots escalate in Belfast.

Far from the chaos, in the seaside town of Portsmouth, Richard and Barbara Harding welcome their first child, who inherits his father’s name.

On Monday that child, former Greytown mayor and local legend, Richard Harding, celebrated his 100th birthday.

Sitting in his shiny new MG, Harding flicks the keys, and classical music surged through the surround sound. Ever the gentlemen and excessively polite, he apologised.

“Sorry about that. I don’t listen to the modern stuff. I’m a bit old fashioned.”

His rescue dog Toby is thumping his tail in the back seat, it’s time for his daily river walk, and he knows it.

Harding has had Toby with him for three years, and it’s clear they adore each other.

“He’s a good chap, and he thinks I’m the best thing since sliced bread.”

He’s a success story, said Harding.

Richard Harding lives with Toby in Greytown, where he has been for more than 50 years. He was mayor of the township in the 1980s when it was still a borough and is the closest thing to a celebrity the town has.

He is stopped multiple times on the way to the Waiohine, passers-by wishing him well for the big 100.

“G’day Richard, big birthday coming up, I hear? Best wishes for it!”

Although born in England, Harding says he is very much a New Zealander, but it was not a direct route to Aotearoa.

He said three more children followed him, one of whom, Prudence, will be joining him for his birthday.

Harding said as the eldest in the family, he was raised to cope.

His father, an officer in the British navy, was a bit eccentric and took the family to Australia in the 1920s, where they settled in the northwest of Newcastle.

“We lived off rabbits in a caravan, drawn by a horse called Peggy.

“I remember golden syrup was the flavour of the month. It just melted in the heat. Australia is bloody hot.”

Harding said his teacher at the “bush school” was one of the best, but eventually, his mother put her foot down, and in 1929, the family immigrated to Christchurch.

Before he wound up at Christ’s College, there were a series of primary schools, but more memorable than the education is the technology.

It was the early days of radio, said Harding, and there were only a couple of stations available.

“The average child didn’t have anything very smart. But many boys had a crystal set. You would use the crystal for broadcast reception and listen with headphones.

“Gadgets have always appealed to me,” he said.

“I like technology.”

A commander in the Royal New Zealand Navy.

Leaving school, Harding worked on the family farm and then, at 18, joined the New Zealand Navy as World War II dawned, serving throughout on British ships.

He said he was lucky.

Many of his graduating class were sent to the ill-fated HMS Neptune, whose sinking in a Mediterranean minefield remained Aotearoa’s worst naval tragedy, killing 150 New Zealanders.

Harding joined a destroyer north of London.

“It was brand-new and had two twin guns.

“The projectiles were very heavy to load. I was 19 years old, and I remember struggling with the weight.”

He said any semblance of a pop scene was devastated by the war but remembered listening to the “Forces’ Sweetheart” Vera Lynn.

Before the war ended, Harding had met Gabrielle, with whom he was married for 72 years, and had two children, Caroline and John.

“John has arranged this big ‘do’ that we’re having. He is very very good about keeping an eye on me.”

Harding described Caroline, who sadly passed away some years ago, as “the sweetest girl”.

“She was very bright and did law at a time when not many women were lawyers. It was frowned upon.”

He said it is a good thing attitudes have moved on since then.

After rising through the ranks, Harding retired as a naval commander. He says it got to a point where it was no longer sustainable.

“Looking back, I feel regretful that I stuck it out so long. It is no life for a wife to be left behind to bring up the children.

“That doesn’t happen now.”

When asked about his mayoralty in the 80s, Harding brushed it aside.

He said Greytown was just a little village then.

“The council only employed about four people, and they did all the maintenance.

“I don’t think I was particularly brilliant, so I don’t make a deal of it.”

On the banks of the Waiohine, as Toby trotted about the car, Harding’s iPhone [latest model] rang. It’s his granddaughter in the UK.

Alice Harding is one of his seven grandchildren. He also has 15 great-grandchildren.

She’s heartbroken the pandemic had kept her from celebrating his birthday with him, but she had a lot to say about him.

Alice said she loves her granddad’s sense of modernism.

“He’s on Facebook and Instagram. He adapts so incredibly quickly. He is a little bit of an enigma in that respect.”

She also admired his “English” sense of style.

“What is really important to him are manners and how he presents himself to the world.”

Back in his Kuratawhiti St home Harding’s kettle is on. He sits in the conservatory shuffling through a stack of envelopes.

“This one’s from the Queen,” he said, holding up an envelope with a crested seal. It’s unopened.

“I’ll get to it to some time.”

Harding said that as he aged, his memory is no longer what it was, but he maintained a good sense of humour, which had helped him deal with everything else.

It’s the golden rule, he said.

Just recently, he sat and passed his licence. “It’s the best birthday present. I can drive for another two years.”

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