‘You can disagree with my opinion,
but not with my experience’.
Krista Tippett, On Being
Two weeks ago, late on Sunday, I finished listening to the audio of Prince Harry read his memoir Spare. As the pace quickened towards the end I felt I couldn’t not listen to the final hour, even though it was time for dinner and my son had just come home hungry.
An hour later, as the credits rolled, I felt sad. The spell was broken and I knew it would be a while before another book caught me up in it to the same degree. I also felt that it was too soon for me to write about it, and make sense of it that way. If I did, as countless journalists had already done, I knew that I’d be writing about my personal reactions to Spare, my own emotional backwash, and that any reader who didn’t know the book would be left wondering why I was making such a fuss.
Most of us think, somewhere deep inside, that every memoir is unreliable. It just has to be. How can, or why would, anyone go to the trouble of stringing their life into sentences unless they were unconsciously motivated to make themselves come out on top? Surely, our skeptical thought goes, this is doubly the case if the narrator is a Windsor who is keen to amass enough sales to cover the cost of security into the future to safeguard his American wife and young family.
I started listening to Spare on the day that Audible released it because I was curious to find out my reaction to it, having read reviews by a clutch of journalists and opinion columnists. Besides, I enjoy a good story when it’s read by the author, especially when it’s backed by great production.
The first thing that struck me about listening to Spare was that 17 hours of audio takes place in real time. Even listening to it on dog walks and while cooking and driving and folding laundry and weeding, it took just over a week for me to hear it all the way through. This led me to suspect that even if the journalists whose reviews I read had got their copy of the book prior to its publication, unless they took three days off work it seems unlikely they’d have read the book through before filing their review. More likely, they’d have used the index at the back of the book to orient their reading and skew their responses. They’d also have had to make a careful psychological move to exempt themselves from the packs of journalists that the book is a critique of – in particular, those writers who’ve earned a sizeable income from creating a version of Harry’s experience that disagrees with his own.
Spare is an attack on the kind of journalism that was tawdry when Princess Diana died in a car crash 1997, and seems to have gotten worse, spawning the kind of stories that make readers feel grubby to read and that, even when we claim not to read them, percolate through.
Spare is a rant against modern media. But even moreit’s a love letter from Harry to his royal family. Clearly William did punch Harry in the kitchen towards the end of the story; however, by this point in a downspiral of events, this scuffle in the kitchen comes across as a sign of William’s humanity rather than of anything sinister. For an heir to the throne to be under that much pressure, in that shiny a fishbowl, and not to throw a punch at his younger brother – this seems more incomprehensible.
Spare reads like an adult version of the Harry Potter novels – and not just because of the protagonist’s name. The story gathers steam as the set scenes change and lead characters come and go. It opens in grand houses (mainly Clarence House and Balmoral, the details of which are stunning), and moves on to schools (Ludgrove and Eton – where Harry exceled in corridor cricket and, later, smoking hash out the bathroom window), game parks (Botswana and South Africa – where Harry is fairly free to roam and discovers that he’s not the centre of the universe), multiple British Army and Air Force training barracks (where Harry’s training starts with being forced to drink diluted urine from a black plastic bottle before early morning runs, and ends with learning how to fly Apache helicopters), various war settings (Iraq and Afghanistan – where every time Harry gets the hang of his job some journalist blows his cover and forces his return home), and on to Frogmore Cottage (Harry and Meghan’s shortlived home after their wedding), Vancouver and, finally, a run of gated houses in California.
Apart from Princess Diana, who doesn’t leave Harry’s thoughts for long yet isn’t fully remembered by him until he enters therapy in his late 20s, King Charles comes across, somewhat surprisingly, as a good guy. Not quite Dumbledore, but not far from it either. Charles calls Harry ‘darling boy’, advises his son not to read the papers (Harry does), embarrasses Harry at the right developmental moments (Charles claps at the wrong places during Harry’s play at Eton), sends his teenage son off to Africa where Harry finds himself and falls in love with the landscape, animals and people in a way that was never possible for him in Britain (bar nights of abandonment that he spent with friends in the underground party room at Clarence House).
The role of Voldemort, the baddie in Harry Potter, is shared between Rupert Murdoch and Rebecca Brooks. They are the people who pay the ‘paps’ who hound Harry and any girl that he happens to date. Things get so bad that for a while Harry resorts to leaving nightclubs in the boot of his security man’s car, arms crossed over his chest – just as, apparently, Diana once did. Eventually he stops going to nightclubs and stays home – which by this point doesn’t feel like home. The other baddies in the story are in the pay of the court. These people form the publicity machines which organise the window displays for each of the royal houses. Only, of course, it’s the press that calls the shots. If one of the royal press offices offers the tabloids a story about little Johnny’s first day at school, in exchange for suppressing a story about Prince Andrew’s most recent transgression, and the tabloids go ahead with the story about Prince Andrew, the royal press office can do nothing. If Harry’s word is to be believed, the sense of fear and vulnerability inside the Royal Family is now so keen that its senior members would rather be in the hands of their two-faced press officers than go naked into the world.
I have no doubt that the Royal Family – who are served up the papers on silver platters with their breakfast – hate the publication of Spare. They must have breathed a collective sigh of relief when the ghost writer cut 400 pages from the 800-page draft that Harry handed over to him in 2021. Even so, each portrait is lovingly detailed. Characters are described in the round – at moments breathtakingly unflinchingly. For a buttoned-up royal family who prefer not to hug or to kiss, to have this much honesty and revelation in print must be tough. Also, if Netflix does go through with its proposed serialisation of Spare, there will be no escape for them. Thanks to Harry’s pen, and The Crown, this generation of Windsor’s will go down in history more indelibly than in any royal biography gathering dust in second-hand bookshops. A televised serialisation ofHarry’s memoir will be riveting on every level. Because whatever else it is, Spare is a work of culture which leaves the reader richer for having been immersed in it. Who’d have thought, after being fed all that pap from the tabloids, that the royal family could be so interesting? Harry and his ghost writer JR Meohringer are to be thanked for this captivating, one-off life story (not over yet). It deserves to be widely shared.
But for all its successes, I ended up feeling that, on an emotional level, Spare fails. Harry’s mission to be understood seems naïve. The people who he cares about most (Charles, William and, from heaven, Queen Elizabeth) will struggle to read between the lines of the text to see the love with which it is written. Journalists, meanwhile, will get their own back by taking Harry down for naming how many soldiers he killed in combat (27), for being open about his drug taking (oh the shame), and for naming a friend of his who later suicided. Meanwhile the public will read a few reviews, now already in the past, use them to bolster their own opinions about The Royal Family, and breathe a collective sigh of relief that Netflix’s planned serialisation absolves them from reading the book for themselves.
Besides, perhaps a bit skepticism for Prince Harry is valid. Even after reading, listening or watching Spare, none of us will really know what it’s like to be him. However successful we happen to be, we’re unlikely to stumble on a death threat as we open our morning emails. We’ll never have to disguise ourselves before shopping at Waitrose or Coles. We’ll never know what it’s like to never to be without security – and to continue to need it into the future for fear of ‘the crazies’. Because, even if we have watched The Truman Show, we’ll never know how it feels to actually live in a goldfish bowl. Except that now, thanks to Harry’s efforts – his persistent and admirable wish to be heard – we know a whole lot more.
Two weeks have passed since I finished listening to Spare. During that time, Prince Harry has taken on some of the characteristics of Shakespeare’s King Lear in my mind. Why so? I think it’s because Prince Harry made a similar mistake to the one that King Lear made, in assuming that his family loved him unconditionally when, as it turned out, they loved him contractually (in his youngest daughter’s words, ‘according to my bonds’). When King Lear divides his kingdom between his three daughters, and lets his army go, he isn’t being reckless. He does it to oblige his eldest daughters who then turn on him and refuse his entry into their castles, where he’d planned to stay. Meanwhile Lear drives his youngest daughter to distraction by pleading for her love (as his daughter) and loyalty (as his subject). As a result, a stripped-down Lear finds himself alone on a heath, railing against fate and going spare. This is not unlike Prince Harry’s panicked scrabble, at the end of his memoir, for security to protect him and his family from the paps who come after them when they flee with a few suitcases to Vancouver.
Hopefully, Prince Harry will realise the impossibility of pleading with his family for what they can’t give him – love and loyalty – before it’s too late and the press machines shut him out of the castle forever. Which would be a pity, because Harry’s love for his family, and for the symbolism of royalty, is genuine. Also, he has red blood in his veins and doesn’t come across as entitled. Like Princess Diana, he loves and is interested in people. This makes him a fabulous observer – surely something the Windsor’s need right now.