Mr Harding by Steve Harley

18th July 2014 at 01:00
The singer-songwriter praises the man who switched him on to literature, nourished his creativity and has become an unlikely family friend

I went to Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham Boys' Grammar School in South London from 1962 to 1968. Part of the English education was getting the apostrophes right when writing the school name.

In 1954 my right leg got hit with polio and I spent four years in hospital. Then between the ages of 12 and 13 I was in there for a full 10 months.

I couldn't walk when I went back to school. I was on crutches and it was a 10-minute, uphill journey from home. My dad was at work and my mum didn't drive, so for a whole term a young English master named Mr Ruston would pull up on the A2, come up to the front of my block of flats, carry me down the steps and drive me to school. Looking back now, I realise just how kind that was.

But he wasn't the teacher who influenced my life. Tony Harding, a close friend to this day, did that. Tony was an Askean who read English at the University of Oxford, came back to teach and became head of department. It sounds like a classic case of a man who never saw life - going to school, university and then back to school - but he's exceedingly worldly and philosophical. To say he is intelligent would be to do him an injustice.

When I was 15, he gave me a copy of The Old Man and the Sea and that was me hooked on Hemingway for life. I remember it vividly. It was completely outside the curriculum. He said, "You'll like this, bury your nose in it. It's right up your street." I read it in about 10 minutes and I loved that terse, descriptive prose. How did he know that I would?

Tony was also the editor of the school newspaper and I was determined to be a journalist. He gave me my first taste of journalism, asking me to review the school play. The paper hadn't had reviews up to that point, but he saw that it was something I could do, so he introduced them. He gave me the confidence to say, "Yes, I can do this."

Most of my teachers were Edwardian types who were born in the First World War and lived through the Second World War. It's hard to imagine nowadays, but they were authoritarians and they bashed and beat us. Tony Harding? Not a bit of it. He loves life, he loves people and he wouldn't harm anyone. He was the most popular teacher; the pupils liked him and he liked us. In short, he is a great man.

Tony took an interest in my life after I left school. All four boys in my family went to Aske's - I was the first and Tony taught us all. Over those years, he and his wife made a social connection with my parents, which is in itself intriguing. My milkman dad left school when he was 13 and yet struck up a friendship with this Oxford scholar, head of English at a leading grammar school. I've never understood what they had in common. Tony had no interest in Millwall Football Club and my dad had no interest in the words of T S Eliot, so what they talked about is anyone's guess. But I'm glad they did because I have a friendship with Tony as a result.

He took an interest in my journalism, and when I became a musician he would come to my gigs and write to me afterwards complimenting my performance, my lyrics, my way with the audience. While Melody Maker and the NME would tear me to shreds, here was Tony still boosting my confidence long after my school days had finished.

Steve Harley was talking to Tom Cullen

Rise of a rebel

Steve Harley

Born 27 February 1951, London

Education Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham Boys' Grammar School, London

Career Journalist and singer-songwriter with 1970s rock group Cockney Rebel, with whom he recorded the number one and million-selling single Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)

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