From the cover of Spare — perhaps the most hysterically anticipated memoir ever published — a confident and modern Prince Harry confronts his impatient readers. The furze of ginger beard is stylishly trimmed, a necklace (but presumably not that necklace) is subtly visible, he is bathed in a soft, therapeutic golden light. He looks like he should be running a tech start-up or an expensive yoga retreat. This, you sense, is Harry as he believes himself to be: grown-up, truth-telling, faintly messianic.
Open the book and you discover quite a different Harry from the cool, square-jawed metrosexual Californian on the cover. This is a weirder, more complex Harry. So who is he? Well, a big part of him is still clearly the standard-issue braying Sloane, familiar from countless scandalized tabloid headlines. The Harry who drinks, smokes weed, wears inappropriate fancy dress, watches cartoons, virtually never reads a book and dreams of becoming a ski instructor after he leaves school.
The other part is sensitive if dim (his father, Charles, once described him as not being “the family scholar”), nature-mystic Harry who believes a medium might help him contact Princess Diana and that singing to seals might predict whether his wife is pregnant. All this stuff he clearly gets from his father, a devotee of mysticism, numerology and esoteric theories of universal harmony.
This Harry is the author of many boring passages about the sublime beauty of the elephants of the Okavango Delta, which I suspect most of his readers will skip. But the most important part of Harry is the tortured little kid who lost the mother he worshipped and whose life is defined and tormented by her absence. Harry writes that as a child he dreamed of Diana regularly and lost himself in intense daydream fantasies in which she turned out not really to have died, merely to have been hiding in a log cabin in the woods or in an apartment somewhere in Paris.
And this is the reason that if Spare has a theme, it is how much he loathes the press. The press, Harry believes, killed his mother. In the best bit of writing in the book, he describes how the illumination of camera flashbulbs trapped the paparazzi’s own reflections in their photographs of the crumpled car: “Flashes. They were flashes. And within some of the flashes were ghostly visages, and half visages, paps and reflected paps and refracted paps on all the smooth metal surfaces and glass windscreens.”
The other part is sensitive if dim (his father, Charles, once described him as not being “the family scholar”).
The photographers who hunted his mother to her death, who continued to photograph her as she lay dying and who cannot ever be escaped. If the fluency and efficiency of the writing is the work of JR Moehringer, the book’s ghostwriter — who can congratulate himself on a job well done — the vivid, haunting detail must have come from Harry. He really feels it.
There is, frankly, not enough space here to detail how much Harry hates the press. They are “grotesque”. Journalists are “radicalized” like Taliban fighters by their editors who are like “mullahs”. Harry reads what’s written about him and knows individual journalists by name. He has nicknames for the ones he hates most. The sound of a camera is like a “cocked gun” or somebody flicking open the blade of a knife.
At every turn, he says, the press destroy his life. They make him look like an idiot when they publish pictures of him playing naked pool. They make him look like a racist when they publish pictures of him dressed as a Nazi (but who was it, you want to say, that was dressing up as a Nazi in the first place?). They leak his location in Afghanistan forcing him out of the army. They break up his relationships — Chelsy leaves him after a journalist fixes a tracking device on to his car. But most of all, they killed his mum.
The tragic irony is that being a royal in the 21st century is a PR exercise. Modern monarchies — indeed all monarchies that have ever existed — require public consent. And today that means they require the press. For all the palaces, the Crown Jewels and daily choice of boiled eggs, our kings and queens reign at our pleasure. If we don’t approve (as we started not to in the mid-nineties), republican rumblings grow loud.
There is, frankly, not enough space here to detail how much Harry hates the press.
The life of the royal family is defined, Harry writes, by paranoia: “Fear of the public. Fear of the future. Fear of the day the nation would say: OK shut it down.” He is contemptuous of the way minor royals obsess over publicity, gloating over getting more speaking engagements than their rivals listed in the court circular. He despises the way they all play the game, posing and snipping ribbons and appearing in public and being endlessly interviewed and photographed and probed and dissected. The whole way of life depends on the ubiquitous and terrible glare of the flashbulbs that Harry finds “traumatizing”. A royal life is a life in league with the forces that Harry believed killed his mum. Reading Spare you think — well, this was never going to work.
And, as we’ve seen, it doesn’t. It’s all made worse by the fact that although he claims to despise the intrusions of the press, Harry craves being the center of attention. Both Harry’s parents had well-developed egos. Although Harry sees himself as his mother’s son, on the evidence of Spare, there is more of Charles in him than he might like to acknowledge — especially the petulant, petty princeling in Charles who snaps when he’s provided with the wrong inkwell and moans about the “utter hell” of being Prince of Wales. Spare is loaded with trivial complaints and absurd perceived slights against his status.
He is especially touchy (as the book’s title rather forcefully implies) about his status as the spare not the heir. Harry endlessly complains that he’s forced to inhabit pokier bedrooms than his brother (“a mini room in a narrow back corridor” he sniffs of one bedroom which is after all still in an actual palace). He is still furious that William ignored him when they were schoolboys at Eton. When William jovially tells the press that Harry “snores” he is infuriated. One of the proudest moments of his life, he writes, was the time at Sandhurst when William (who started later) had to salute him. He is absurdly gleeful at his brother’s “advanced balding”. Very often he sounds like the irritating little brother from hell.
It’s probably of great credit to William and Kate that, even in this hostile account, they come across as sweet and well-meaning people. After the famous pre-wedding bust-up over bridesmaids dresses, which reduced Meghan Markle to a crying jag on the floor, Kate turns up with flowers and a sorry card. They try to understand why he’s so angry. But one wonders if they have begun to grasp the depth of Harry’s resentment and jealousy. Is William aware that decades later his brother is still fuming away over who got the nicest bedroom in which palace?
Prince Charles comes across as a sweet, dufferish, rather vain old man. He’s glimpsed early in the book padding off to the bathroom at Balmoral in his slippers so he can have a soak and listen to an audiobook on his portable CD player. He still talks about how much he hated Gordonstoun, where he was punished for his “finest” qualities.
We learn that he travels everywhere with his childhood teddy bear, “a pitiful object with broken arms and dangly thread holes patched up here and there”. He is most charming when talking about his enthusiasms — he is thrilled to discuss with Meghan what classical music they might play at her wedding. Unsurprisingly, as a parent Charles is good at delivering lectures on history and Shakespeare but not very good at hugs or talking about feelings. Rather adorably, he always calls Harry “dear boy” and leaves letters on his pillow telling him how proud he is of him — a way of delivering a message too difficult to say in person.
The nastier side of Charles, according to Harry, is insecure and competitive. In Spare he is portrayed as endlessly fretting about other royals getting better publicity or being more loved. Harry even writes that Charles and Camilla tried to persuade Kate Middleton to change her name from Catherine so that there wouldn’t be three royal ciphers based on the letter C. Harry brushes away Charles’s profoundly sane advice never to read the papers.
Is William aware that decades later his brother is still fuming away over who got the nicest bedroom in which palace?
There is a trend at the moment for memoirs about escaping cults and there are times when Spare reads like one of those. In Harry’s telling the royal family at times seems like a cult — perhaps one of those ones in backwoods of rural America that is dedicated to rejecting the modern world. His childhood is all huge freezing country houses, great stone fireplaces, bowing to statues of Queen Victoria and washing in bathwater that is brown from the Highland peat.
Adult life is worse: “surreal”, a “Truman show” experience. Harry complains that he has never been on the Tube or ordered a parcel from Amazon or carried money or a house key or owned a car. And everywhere he is followed by the press. The people who killed his mum.
It is not surprising that by his late twenties he’s washed up, hanging around Frogmore Cottage smoking weed and watching Friends. He’s stopped going out and feels “sluggish”, “hopeless” and “lost”, “toggling between bouts of debilitating lethargy and terrifying panic attacks”. Kate and William don’t invite him over for dinner as much as he thinks they should. This is the purposeless, drifting existence of an unenthused minor royal. When Hilary Mantel compares the royal family to pandas in a cage, he is struck by the justness of the metaphor. “If I had a choice I wouldn’t want this life,” he writes. You sympathize.
It seems clear that he was looking for an escape route, a way to blow up his coddled, caged panda bear life. A way, perhaps, to blow up everything. The longed-for escape route arrives of course, in the form of Meghan Markle. “If only I could join her on that journey,” Harry thinks before he meets her, stalking her through Instagram. His life is inert. A journey is what he needs.
He is profoundly in love with Meghan, he writes. More than in love, the reader thinks, he’s obsessed. “She’s perfect, she’s perfect, she’s perfect,” he writes in fervent italics. When she talks about her work with “women’s issues” he is “fascinated by her” and “hanging on her every word” — this is not perhaps the universal reaction when Meghan talks about women’s issues.
Doubtless Harry loves Meghan because she’s beautiful and, er, a (ahem) talented actress and marvelously committed to all her “women’s issues” and so on. But reading between the lines of the book, you feel that the obsessional quality of Harry’s attraction derives from the fact that Meghan is more than his wife; she is a savior.
Whereas Harry had fretted about being second best for his entire life, Meghan is unflappably certain that she’s the center of the universe — and if the British royal family disagrees, well, she’ll happily take down the British royal family. Then Meghan and Harry can be the center of the universe together. How gratifying it must have been when in the interview broadcast on Sunday, Tom Bradby told Harry that he was probably “the most famous person on the planet”, which is the thing they used to say about the Queen. Thank you, Meghan. Couldn’t have done it without you.
Oh, Meghan is perfect, perfect, perfect. After an argument over cooking a roast chicken, she tells Harry to go to therapy, where he learns how to cry. She shares his tedious enthusiasm for the elephants of the Okavango Delta. She oh-so-adorably calls her pets “fur babies” and oh-so-hilariously they nickname one of the swans living in the Royal Parks “Steve” (one suspects the quality of conversation in the Markle-Windsor household is not high). This book is the best PR Meghan will ever get and even here she’s quite annoying.
Without wishing to descend too far into armchair psychology, one wonders whether Harry’s therapist ever suggested to him that through his relationship with Meghan he may be trying to save his mother. The two women are repeatedly compared, and a constant refrain of Harry’s book and his interviews is that he doesn’t want Meghan to meet the same fate as his mum. By saving Meghan, perhaps he can do the thing he always dreamed of as a child and bring his mum back to life. And Meghan, with her propensity to lie dramatically on the floor in floods of tears, has a talent for victimhood.
In the final pages of Spare, Harry attempts an uplifting note. He recounts how he used baby Archie’s fishing net to free a hummingbird that got stuck in his kitchen. He tells it, “You’re free. Fly away,” upon which “that wonderful, magical little creature bestirred itself and did just that”. But is that wonderful, magical, little creature Prince Harry free too? One suspects not. More than he wants to be free of the press, Harry wants to be the center of attention.
James Marriott is the deputy books editor for The Times of London. He also writes editorials, opinion columns, and features