Read Time: 6 minutes
Well I normally don’t read books about the British royal family nor take anything put out there about them that serious. And this is because the royal family doesn’t do books. If they do, it would be a book on gardening, and not books that tell tales that reveals anything about the family’s history.
The monarchy relies on fiction. Ceremonials such as the late Queen’s funeral are not merely decorative; they are the institution’s means of securing its continuance. The monarchy is a theatre, the monarchy is storytelling, the monarchy is illusion. There’s an old expression in the world of magic when it comes to tricks, and it goes like this: those who know don’t tell, and those who tell don’t know.
But in Prince Harry’s case, he knows and has decided to tell “his truth” as a therapy since losing his mother in that eventful month of August 1997. As if we have been fed on scraps all our lives, the Duke of Sussex has laid before us a banquet. His book, Spare, serves up course after course. And tootling on his trumpet of ongoing anguish and vendetta against the British press, this is a book that promised so much of his personal experience of being a royal, and subsequently being a “Spare”.
Since stepping back as senior working royals to seek a new life in the Hollywood’s region of California, Harry and his wife Meghan have been in the money business. As if the Oprah interview in 2020 and the furore surrounding their Netflix documentary back in December, which he raked in an eye-watering $100m, wasn’t consuming enough, this memoir has endangered the monarchy.
Thinking about how much money he will make or being paid for his book, it is arguable that this whole idea of putting such sensitive information about his family out there is being driven by money – an estimated $35 to 40m has been paid to him by the publishers. That’s an enormous book deal which put him in a category of former US Presidents, given the devouring curiosity of the public about the British royal family.
Many regard Spare, which was released simultaneously in print and digital formats on 10th January this year, as a treat for 2023. The 416 pages memoir, which is translated into sixteen languages worldwide, with reportedly 1.4 million copies of the English language edition alone already sold on day one of publication, has become the fastest selling book in history.
But having read the book myself, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for a man, who feels perpetually sinned against; whose life has been nothing less than a drama with no sign of ending. The rancour he expressed in the book sounds justifiable given how miserable he feels after the horror of being compelled to trek behind his mother’s coffin as a 12 year-old boy and being unable to cry. I couldn’t help but feel sad for him.
His book reveals decades of royal debacle that’s, to say the least, hard to negotiate: the swings between adulation and persecution, sycophancy and public scorn; the privilege offset by the total lack of privacy and freedom. This makes it sound like a bad dream of status anxiety and arbitrary rules.
All these, he claims, has led to every bad thing that has happened to him since his mum’s death; from his drug-taking to the break-up of his relationships; from a more shocking revelation of losing his virginity at 17 in a field behind a pub to an “older woman” who “treated him like a young stallion” to using his mother’s favourite cream to fix himself; from William having a well-furnished apartment at Kensington Palace to seeking the Queen’s permission to keep a beard for his wedding as a Duke of Sussex; from his fractured relationship with his brother to the negligence of his father, to the danger posed to him by his “villain” stepmother; and his account of the row in which William shoved him, breaking his necklace to killing 25 Taliban Militants in Afghanistan (which was a headline-grabbing). These revelations, I’d argue, have greatly added to the gaiety of the entire nations of Britain and caused the monarchy’s worst crisis in 3o years.
In all his ramblings, perhaps the only thing I could agree with Harry is his refusal to forgive Hilary Mantel who recently described the British royal family as pandas, caged and kept for our viewing pleasure. “Pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment,” Mantel wrote. “But aren’t they interesting? Aren’t they nice to look at?” Prince Harry was struck by her view and described her assertion as “uniquely perceptive and acutely barbarous”. He accepts that the royal family lives in “a zoo”, but objects to them being reduced to animals.
The Duke of Sussex is also right about one thing, and that is the viciousness of the British media landscape, which he bravely took on the tabloids by launching a series of lawsuits against them. The British tabloids have retaliated with a torrent of bile ever since, with no sign of backing off. He claims his family has conspired in this, and uses that to justify the spilling of his family’s secrets. To me, the opposite could be the true: leaks may come from gossipy courtiers, not individual royals.
Harry also described himself as no great reader. Reading invited reflections; reflections invited grief; emotions were best avoided. But he does himself no favours. He has been a voracious reader – of the British press all these years. He seems to have devoured every syllabus published about him, and went as far as going against his father’s most oft-quoted refrain in the book, “Don’t read it, darling boy”; his therapist, he writes, suggested he was addicted to reading them.
By publishing such a memoir, with just four months away from his father’s coronation, Harry (the Duke of Sussex) divides opinions with those who think he is a “righteous avenger” and others who think he is a “grudge-toting manbaby.” Whichever side of the argument you find yourself, the accusations directed at his family in the book, and its implications, goes far beyond the royal family and the British press. It is an old tradition we’re all guilty of – racism or (in our part of the world) tribalism. It is one of the darkest sides of human nature that we all feel powerless to overcome.
What drove Prince Harry to put out a memoir of this magnitude has been made clear. As a traumatised child, Harry was badly let down by his family, and by a rigid and unfeeling institution. The monarchy represents the triumph of birth over talent, for example, in a country that pride itself on being a meritocracy. It represents colonial rule in a Britian that feels rightly uncomfortable about that part of its history. It celebrates first-born boys and fecund women in a country that strive for sexual equality.
We could, perhaps, argue that the monarchy is being kept for a whiff of history – a sort of comforting nostalgia, drawing Britain back to the days of Tudors and Plantagenets. In which case, many Britons are delighted at Harry’s leaks: what could be more nostalgic than a fight between two “arch-nemesis” princes, or royal wives? What could be more traditional than the business of the royal bedchamber being a matter of public interest, whispered about in taverns through the world? The narrative tropes and archetypes as old as the hills have been invoked in the distortions: a wayward son.
In the age of smartphone and Instagram, Spare is about the torment of a royal; a torment of a different order from even that suffered by his mother. Spare contends that portrayals of the royals in sections of the British press – aside from having at times involved shocking criminality, outright invention, intolerable harassment and overt racism – have also often depended on a kind of a zero-sum game, in which one family member’s spokesperson will attempt to protect their client at the expense of another, trading gossip for favours. In his role as the expendable “spare”, Harry has often been the victim of this process, he argues. Spare is by turns compassion-inducing, frustrating, oddly compelling and absurd; myopic as he sits at the centre of his truth.