Prince Harming

Spare, Prince Harry, London: Transworld, 2023, hb., 410pps., £28

There are times when English feelings for their royal family come close to obsession. Through all the tumults of England’s trajectory, its monarchy has formed an imaginative bond between Anglo-Saxon origins and today’s Kingdom – celebrated by its greatest writers, and extolled as an exemplar of national persistence (notwithstanding the regrettable events of 1642-1660). As other countries descended into revolutions, or became republics, many English came to believe that their system was ineffably superior. In recent times, the impassive endurance evinced by Elizabeth II disarmed criticism of an institution incompatible with democracy, and made more palatable her realm’s long decline. Today, the monarchy is almost all the English have left to recall old greatness. It was therefore unsurprising that Prince Harry’s attack on the institution, and his family, should have elicited powerful passions.

Spare is a phenomenon, the swiftest selling non-fiction title ever, artfully ghost-written to capitalize on the insatiable global fascination for all things Windsor. It appeals viscerally to people like the many thousands who in 1997 filled England’s air and London’s streets with cellophaned flowers and unwrapped emotion after Diana died – and many millions elsewhere, perhaps especially in America.

Spare is a book of emotional spasms, broken down into bite-sized segments of staccato sentences expressing everything from extravagant griefs to lavish hatreds and saccharine love scenes, with every shade of angst, bathos, and exaltation in between. There are anecdotes of alcohol and narcotic abuse, intimate medical information, demotic vocabulary, and gossipy glimpses into everyday encounters with ‘Pa’, ‘Granny’, ‘Kate’ and ‘Willy’ – and (for some reason) a synopsis of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. For a book of short snippets, Spare can feel oddly long.

The tone is candid without being revealing – perfect tabloid pabulum. This is ironic, because Harry loathes the tabloids, whom he blames squarely for killing his mother. After Diana’s death, their cynical prurience was transferred to her sons, with reporters chronicling every event and faux-pas – a slavering pack who harried Harry and everyone he knew – who, he says in Spare, “flung questions at my head like cleavers”, and “tortured” him, on the orders of “mullah” editors. They attacked him for playing pool while naked, and for wearing clothes (an Afrika Korps uniform, at a fancy-dress party). They dubbed him “Prince Thicko” for cheating at Eton (which he denies), and called him out for drug use, and using the word ‘Paki’. In 2004, he was involved in a small-hours altercation with photographers which earned him the soubriquet “Harry Potty”, and then in 2018 issued a lawsuit against the Daily Mail, which merely had the effect of provoking other journalists, who saw this as an assault on Fourth Estate prerogatives.

There is always volatility between royals and the mass media, with obsequiousness always in balance with obsession, and veneration with voyeurism, and all capable of switching overnight to venom. Harry’s great hate, the Daily Mail, has also carried frontpage photos of him and his new family, with headlines like “The stars were all aligned…this beautiful woman just fell into my life”, “Harry ever after”, and “Aaahh! It’s Archie the Adorable”. Most of those who berated the tabloids for causing Diana’s death will have been life-long purchasers of the self-same papers, panting for photos of the hounded Princess, and bleeding gobbets of palace tittle-tattle. Diana herself was no mean manipulator of the media, but her youngest son appears fixated on what journalists say, unhealthily reading unreadable articles, and parsing them for possible insult, especially racism (he conflates the tabloids with social media). All this has earned him many enemies, and accentuated inherent insecurities. If he had followed his Pa’s vainly-repeated advice – “Darling boy, just don’t read it!” – he might not have become so alienated.

It is admittedly a dismal destiny to be a royal in a post-royal world, expected to set a constant example of comportment, and sentenced to an existence of excruciating events – ceremonies, concerts, dinners, openings, presentations, speeches, sports games, and state visits. ‘Spares’ in monarchical systems are always at loose ends anyway – unlikely ever to succeed to the throne, but unfitted to succeed at anything else. They traditionally attract coteries of restive camp-followers which at times act as counter-courts, but omnipresent lenses condemned Harry instead to an often-lonely life, cooking for one in basement flats (albeit in palaces), drying hoodies on radiators, and dropping hallucinogenic drugs that on one occasion transformed the kitchen bin into a sentient being. He had too much time for Instagram and shows like Suits, watching which he became transfixed by a certain actress, who seemed to his feverish mind to inhabit a world of expressiveness and freedom. He fulminates in Spare, “I was the shadow, the support, the Plan B…summoned to provide back-up, distraction, diversion and, if necessary, a spare part.” He has now fulfilled the distraction and diversion parts of that understanding, although the back-up and support are less in evidence. “My family had declared me a nullity. The Spare. I didn’t complain about it”, he goes on. He has now made up for that omission.

Reviewers revenged themselves right-royally for his imprudent attacks on them, ladling out metaphors and puns about this prince that turned into a frog – “a house divided”, “un-Merry Wives of Windsor”, “tears of the crown”. Spare is, they opined, embarrassing, hypocritical, inaccurate, inadvertently funny, institutionally damaging, lowering, narcissistic, schmaltzy, superficial, and ‘woke’, written by a “cossetted brat”, “ginger whinger”, and “global wellness dork”. The Sunday Telegraph called it “the anguished exclamation of a not terribly bright young man”. The BBC’s Sean Coughlan marvelled, “In places it feels like the longest angry drunk text ever sent”. Others pointed out that hard done-by Harry is earning a reported US$112m from this book, threatened follow-ups, and the Netflix series, Harry & Meghan. South Park skewered a “Prince and Princess of Canada” who travel on a “A Worldwide Privacy Tour”, carrying placards, beating drums, and launching fireworks to demand people stop looking at them. Of course, even the most justified criticism will make little difference to the un-bookish millions who adored and ordered in advance.

Harry makes no claims to intellectualism; his father once told him gently that he was “not the family scholar”. This seems hard to square with Spare’s unexpectedly frequent literary allusions, which include Shakespeare, Gray, Tennyson, Kafka and Hilary Mantel. Then, we remember – ghostwriter. It nevertheless requires great skill to fly an Apache helicopter, which Harry did in Afghanistan, earning comradely and even media respect, blasting twenty-five Taliban prematurely to their paradise, as coolly as if still playing Call of Duty. Army comrades were startled when he discussed this in Spare, seeing it as bad form and braggadocio, while others felt it would inflame Islamists and so endanger others – perhaps even the injured veterans Harry had adopted as his excellent personal charity. Harry describes all this in detail, although these sections are exciting rather than interesting, and seem chiefly likely to appeal to other helicopter pilots.

There are striking vignettes – the late Queen wisely wearing ear-plugs during rock concerts in her honour, the new King doing exercises in his underwear, Kate and Meghan arguing about hormones, and Harry suffering from frostbite in his penis (he dwells on this last at almost Oedipal length). We hear how he lost his virginity in a field behind a pub, to a horsy older woman who “treated me not unlike a young stallion”; the woman in question would later tell an agog world about the prince’s “peachy bum”.

He complains his father cannot show emotion, and yet the book has many examples of Charles doing just that – helping young, frightened-of-the-dark Harry go off to sleep by sitting with him and stroking his face, listening patiently to his prattle, leaving notes on his pillow telling him how proud he was of something Harry had done, sending weekly parcels when Harry was in Afghanistan. Many fathers are much less demonstrative. We also learn that Charles still has his childhood teddy bear, and works so hard promulgating his charities that he would fall asleep over his desk, sitting up when awakened with correspondence clinging to his face.

Harry is besotted with Meghan, as his great-great uncle was with Wallis Simpson, a parallel frequently drawn. Much British coverage of Meghan ridicules her ‘Californian’ persona – breezy informality, indifference to history, pop-philosophy, and trust in ‘therapy’ as panacea. They also discern darker threads – ambition, arrogance, bullying, cupidity, disingenuousness, manipulativeness, and racial grievance. Harry, they feel, has been imposed upon by a woman cleverer than himself. Palace staff called Harry “the hostage“, and he himself termed Meghan “captain of my soul”.

Meghan’s original hold on him seems largely due to her apparent lack of “throne syndrome” – her repeated assertions that she barely knew who he was when they met, or much about the monarchy. As he recalls fondly, “she seemed to know almost nothing”. Yet old friends recall Meghan tearfully watching Diana’s funeral and reading books about her, and in 2011 even writing, “Little girls dream of being princesses. And grown women seem to retain this childhood fantasy”. Harry assails his (still much-resented) stepmother Camilla as a divorcée who schemes to snare a prince, but overlooks a possible parallel.

Meghan’s complaints of never having been helped to assimilate into the regal way of life have also been disproven, with multiple offers of assistance made (and usually rejected). Charles was especially welcoming; yet Harry now alleges he resented the attention given to her. The taxpayer-funded £31m wedding (to which Meghan invited celebrities she had never met) was the highest-profile possible embrace by a supposedly stuffy and ‘unconsciously biased’ institution. As for Meghan’s famous flare-ups with the Princess of Wales, even in this partisan account Kate comes across as kinder, who when she does lose her temper is quick to make peace – whereas Meghan throws thespian histrionics, and nurses misunderstandings as motivated by malice against her (and by extension all ‘people of color’).

William is Harry’s “arch-nemesis” (not to be confused with “Archie the Adorable”). This is everyday sibling rivalry translated to a palatial stage, starting when Harry noticed William had a larger share of the nursery, and continuing when William blanked him at Eton (as if older brothers don’t often blank their siblings at school). He rejoices that William is even balder than he is, and accuses him of marrying for duty rather than love. Their tense relations climax comically when Harry and William have a shoving match after William says Meghan is rude and abrasive (a charge made by many), and Harry’s necklace is broken as he falls down, breaking the dog-bowl. The war-hero gets back onto his feet and – calls his therapist. Again, the air ace misfires, and comes out of the dogfight more damaged than his target.

The moderately Tory prince who once fought bravely for his country is now both battler and battleground – a bundle of neuroses waging a one-prince culture war in the names of mental wellness and social justice. None of his vaunted therapies have so far proven obviously efficacious; as the New Statesman noted, “The more he talks about his happiness, the less we believe it”. He fires off random rockets that fizzle out mid-air, but rain down collateral damage of cliches – “misogynistic”, “objectifying”, “classism”, “structural racism”. He is deserting his own side in the hope that he can find refuge in some country of his dreams, where he can be forever ‘free’ and whole. But his fantastical ‘California’ is if anything even less real than his old country, and his new nostrums even less substantial than those he has rejected – a hucksterish hoard of trite slogans, breathless psychobabble, and rank superstition. He sings to seals to find out if Meghan is pregnant. A picture hanging in his American house, stared at by infant Archie, was of – Diana! A Christmas tree ornament of the Queen was – symbolically smashed! A medium informs him gravely that his mother can see the broken ornament from the astral plane – and a hummingbird briefly trapped in his house “could be a sign”.

He may even find his new country is even crueller, and less private. Stripped of the last protections of old prestige, he and his family may be even more exposed to cold-eyed curiosity – an A-lister, but also an embodiment of Eurotrash, ashamed of his inheritance yet unable ever to let go, and valued only because of its vestigial afterglow. He has exchanged one kind of puppetry for another, and one ordeal of terrible speechmaking for another – but now he will also be a showbiz fun figure, talking about his penis for money. It seems an unattractive end to a once-romantic story, and unlikely to have a happy sequel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.