by Prince Harry
Random House, 2023
416 pp., $36.00
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 its Anglo-Saxon origins and today’s Kingdom—celebrated by its greatest writers and extolled as an exemplar of national persistence, notwithstanding the regrettable civil wars 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, Elizabeth II’s impassive endurance 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 through this book on the institution, and his family, should have elicited powerful passions.
In recent days, those passions have rebounded back onto Harry. In early October, tabloids reported that he was on the verge of a split from his American starlet wife, Meghan Markle and said he “wants his old life back,” although whether this is more than rumor is unclear.
Written months earlier in the fullness of conviction for his new Hollywood life, Spare is a publishing phenomenon. It is the swiftest selling nonfiction title ever, artfully ghost-written to capitalize on the insatiable global fascination for all things Windsor. It appeals viscerally to celebrity worshippers, like the many thousands who in 1997 filled England’s air and London’s streets with cellophaned flowers and unwrapped emotion after Diana’s death—and many millions elsewhere, perhaps especially in America.
It 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 unexplained reason a synopsis of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. For a book of short snippets, Spare can feel awfully long.
Spare’s tone is candid but not revealing—in other words, it’s perfect tabloid pabulum. This is ironic, because Harry loathes the tabloids, which 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 a Nazi Afrika Korps uniform at a costume 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 he issued a lawsuit against the Daily Mail, which merely had the effect of provoking other journalists, who interpreted 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 in balance with voyeurism, and all capable of switching overnight to venom. Harry’s great hate, the Daily Mail, has also carried front-page photos of him and his new family, with nauseating 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, all the while conflating the tabloids with social media. All this has earned him many enemies and accentuated his 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 excruciatingly mind-numbing 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.
Omnipresent paparazzi lenses condemned Harry instead to an often lonely life, cooking for one in basement flats (albeit in palaces), drying hoodies on radiators, and consuming hallucinogenic drugs that on one occasion transformed the kitchen bin into a sentient being. He had too much time to spend on Instagram and shows like Suits, which starred a certain American actress named Meghan Markle, 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.”
Harry 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 in the mainstream press revenged themselves right-royally for his imprudent attacks on them, ladling out metaphors and puns about this prince who turned into a frog—“a house divided,” “un-Merry Wives of Windsor,” “tears of the crown.” Spare, they opined, is 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 reportedly earned $20 million from this book as part of a multi-book deal and $112 million from Netflix, which is creating a reality series, Harry & Meghan. The American satirical cartoon show South Park skewered the pair with the characters of 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 unbookish millions who adored and ordered in advance.
Harry makes no claim to be an intellectual; 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: the ghostwriter.
Nevertheless, it requires great skill to fly an Apache helicopter, which Harry did in Afghanistan, blasting 25 Taliban prematurely to their paradise as coolly as if he was still in his palace flat playing Call of Duty. This feat earned him comradely and even media respect, and yet Army comrades were startled when he discussed this in Spare, seeing his braggadocio as bad form, 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 his military exploits in detail, but these sections are exciting rather than interesting and seem likely to appeal chiefly to other helicopter pilots.
There are striking vignettes: the late queen wisely wearing earplugs 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 on his penis, which he unfortunately dwells on obsessively. 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 as besotted with Meghan as his great-great uncle King Edward VIII was with the American socialite 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 he. 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 in his own life.
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 rejected. Charles was especially welcoming; yet Harry now alleges he resented the attention given to her. The taxpayer-funded £31m (US$37.5 million) 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, and as one 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.”
Harry calls William his “beloved brother and archnemesis.” This is everyday sibling rivalry transported 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 struggles back to his feet and—calls his therapist. Again, the air ace misfires, and comes out of the dogfight more damaged than his target.
Harry 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 verbal rockets that fizzle out in mid-air, but rain down the collateral damage of clichés—“misogynistic,” “objectifying,” “classism,” and “structural racism.”
Harry 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 believes that he and Meghan encountered mythical seal-like creatures called selkies in Scotland—and that by singing to them, they granted his wish that Meghan become 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. In California, he is 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 is also 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.