I’m not sure if Sun Tzu’s famous lines, “To know your enemy, you must become your enemy” are on brainyquote.com (Prince Harry’s go to website for received wisdom), but it’s certainly a message the prince seems to have internalised.
Spare, Prince Harry’s hotly touted new memoir (out now from Penguin Random House), is marketed as his story “in his own words”. And yet, it often feels like everyone else’s story in Prince Harry’s words.
The meat of the book lies in the deeply intimate portrait Harry paints of his rather private, very dysfunctional family – a brother with unhealthy sibling rivalry issues who recoils from hugs, a sister-in-law who for all her public smiling doesn’t share lipgloss, an amiable but distant father doing headstands in his boxers and a wicked stepmother in cahoots with the media.
Towering above them all is Harry’s dead mother, Princess Diana, whom time and his own total loss of memory have made into a dazzling, unreachable, ‘uncritiquable’ goddess.
Each line of the book is a tabloid headline in itself. And much like these tabloid headlines, much of what Harry says seems to come from hearsay. Titbits like his father reportedly going off to see his girlfriend on the day Harry was born would be libellous if untrue, but Harry, unlike the newspapers he dislikes so much, doesn’t have to worry about being sued. This is, after all, his story.
Harry’s own story shorn of his royal relatives is frankly dull. There are chapters and chapters of his military reminiscences that remind one of being cornered by an old army brigadier uncle at a wedding who won’t stop talking about that time in 1965 when his convoy came under fire by the Pakistani army. (Your eyes glaze over and you look longingly at the rest of the room for someone to come rescue you as you murmur “yes uncle”). I was just one of the lads, he says, sublimely unaware that not many of the other lads get to cherry pick their deployments over tea with a general.
His Africa stories are even worse. Harry is literally the “gap yah” guy come to life. He puts up pictures of elephants on his Instagram and takes all girls he likes camping in Botswana. His love affairs follow the same tired Hallmark movie pattern – prince meets free-spirited beautiful girl who doesn’t care about titles, love blossoms under the stars in Botswana/ Verbier/ other exotic location, tabloid intrusion, girl dumps Harry/ Harry dumps girl. Finish.
His romance with his wife Meghan follows in the same vein, except she is “The One” and doesn’t dump him (Yay). It is all very nice if you are a super fan but if you didn’t particularly want to know about all their early trysts, it feels tedious – there are two whole pages describing them shopping for food and pretending not to know each other that could have been written (and written better) by his step-great grandmother Barbara Cartland.
If there is a theme to this deluge of unsolicited information (“frostbitten penis” anyone), it’s a constant bristling against primogeniture and his love-hate relationship with his older brother William. The title of the book Spare itself means nothing without the corresponding “heir” and the heir certainly looms large – William who is his “arch-nemesis”, William who got the better room in Balmoral, William who refused to speak to him in Eton, William who once laughed at his PTSD, William who stereotyped Harry’s wife Meghan, William who knocked Harry to the ground in a princely scuffle, William who scowls every time he sees him, William whose baldness is alarming, William who no longer looks like their mother. Phew. Oh and he wasn’t really the best man at William’s wedding, he was only pretending to be. I feel like calling my therapist, and I wasn’t even there.
For those of us who have been wondering though if Prince Harry had really evolved into a more thoughtful progressive version of his young Hooray Henry self ( he recently received an award for “fighting institutional racism” and has been honoured by the NAACP), this book is a disappointment.
His awakening on race seems limited solely to its effects on his own family. He (rightly) rages against the racism of the British media’s coverage of his wife but sees nothing wrong in calling tabloid editors “Mullas” and likening tabloid journalists to “radicalised young men in Iraq”. He insists he didn’t know “Paki” was racist but mis-spells his fellow cadet’s name (it’s Khan, Harry, as in Shah Rukh not Kahn, as in Oliver) while discussing the incident.
And perhaps most disturbingly, he sees nothing racist in characterising a war which left 70,000 Afghan and Pakistani civilians dead as “vengeance” for the 9/11 attacks. He doesn’t boast of his kills in Afghanistan but he treats them with indifference.
Packaged together with a childish “goods” versus “bads” characterisation, which is being praised to the skies by his fans as “context”. Ultimately the lives he takes get less book time and reflection than the description of the room he was given in one of his granny’s castles, reflective of his lowly status within his family and that really tells us all we need to know.
Did we mention that he lives in a cottage on palace grounds (NOT the same as a palace, he’s at pains to point out), shops at discount stores, does his own chores and dries his shirts on radiators? Oh dear. Poor lad. Never mind.
His much touted fight with the British tabloids feels like one long refutation of various tabloid stories about him and his wife over the years. If you, unlike Harry, haven’t been keeping up with all his bad press, you’ll have to do some googling to make sense of it. And while the racism and misogyny that dominates the coverage of his wife, Meghan, are quite evident, Harry’s complaints with the tabloid coverage of him are a little more difficult to understand.
He did do drugs as a teenager, but insists he never went to rehab like the tabloids said. He did do cocaine, but not in the places the tabloids said. He did wear the Nazi outfit, but William thought it was funny too, which the tabloids didn’t say.
He’s had no privacy but did somehow manage to lose his virginity in a field behind a pub and no-one talked about it until he did. He also rails against his family for throwing him to the wolves but it’s unclear as to what he expects them to do.
On the one hand he acknowledges his father’s office complaining to the press about the bullying of the then teenage Harry and the press telling his father’s office to “sod off”. On the other, he seems to think his father could do more to protect them now.
The unfortunate courtiers who try to tell him that maintaining good relationships with the media are the only way they have of managing press intrusion get their heads bitten off by our angry young prince for their troubles. Harry nobly refuses to play this game, but also seems to expect the benefits of someone who does and rages at his family when they can’t provide that.
At the macro-level, it’s hard to see what Harry’s end game with the media is. The Daily Mail (with 40 odd stories about this book alone) seems to be thriving.
Viscount Rothermere may not like being name-checked by Harry, but I’m sure the clicks Harry continues to generate for his newspaper will soften the blow.
The British tabloids and their correspondents are going to be dining out on salacious tit-bits from this book for the foreseeable future . They’ve already launched a manhunt for the woman he lost his virginity to and hunted down the tailor at the heart of bridesmaid-gate (if you don’t know what that is, this book definitely isn’t for you).
In short, Harry’s hated breed of “royal correspondents” are having the time of their lives with this. In the end, you do wonder if there might perhaps be something in his doddery old dad’s media management advice: “darling boy, don’t read it”.
Featured image: The royal couple Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Photo: Reuters