Spare is a good book. It was ghostwritten by JR Moehringer, someone who is very good at what he does, who boiled down was what apparently an eight hundred page manuscript to the essence of who Prince Harry is. It is well-paced, engaging, and highly one-sided. I feel confident that whatever the historicity of the conversations described, it is an accurate representation of the story that Prince Harry wanted to tell and a genuine characterisation of his personality on which we can rely.
So, having said that:
1. Prince Harry is deeply traumatised by the death of his mother and the extent to which this has influenced nearly everything he has done in the last thirty years cannot be underestimated.
I cannot *believe* that a twelve year old boy was told that his mother had died, was made to perform public duties at her funeral, and was then sent off back to school two weeks later as if nothing had happened. He didn’t speak of it to anyone for thirteen years. He talks of believing she is alive and expecting her to appear any moment until he is well into his twenties.
Having said that, this guy doesn’t know anything about his mother. He seems to regard her as some kind of angel. Not metaphorically, but as an actual angel watching over him and intervening in his life. Her human life seems to be mostly reduced to what he has consumed of her public image. Some of this is due to some kind of memory block he had until starting therapy in the late 2010s, and maybe discussing his memories of his mother is actually still too painful for him. It was nonetheless jarring that the main adjective he uses to describe his mother throughout the book is “beautiful”.
I’ve never had much time for Diana but I do want to acknowledge the heart-wrenching detail in Harry’s story that he obtained a secret government file on the car crash that took her life. While looking through it, he realises that the photos of her last moments exist because the paparazzi never stopped taking photos as she lay dying in the back seat. The last thing Princess Diana ever saw were flashing lightbulbs. If that disgusted me, I can well understand why her son would spend the rest of his days regarding paparazzi as pond life, terrified they would take his wife as well.
2. Harry spends many words raging against his media depiction as “Prince Thicko”. That’s unfortunate given it’s seemingly the only thing about him that the papers ever got right first time. Prince Harry is thick, by which I mean deeply, totally, unfathomably incurious about the world around him. He does not appear to have ever read a book for pleasure. He writes of a despairing Prince Charles spontaneously showing up at his school and taking him to the RSC to see whatever is on to try and inculcate an interest in Shakespeare. When Meghan visits his flat for the first time, it is heavily implied that Harry lived in a mancave of beanbags and secondhand furniture it never occurred to him to replace. When he is demobbed from Afghanistan, he spends his days binge-watching Friends. His excuse for the notorious video in which he referred to one of his fellow soldiers as a “p-ki” is, incredibly, that he just didn’t know at the time that it was an offensive term. After reading this book, I am prepared to believe it.
3. There’s a particular breed of aristocratic gentleman who never feels truly alive unless they’re trying to kill something, and Harry seems to have inherited those braying genes in full. He shoots fireworks at his cousins. He shoots pheasants on the Sandringham estate. He goes fishing at Balmoral. He gives more words to describing his first “blooding” killing a stag than he does to the birth of his son.
Harry seems to be aware of how this looks and always makes a pointed statement after describing how he shot this pheasant or murdered this deer that they will be used to feed the peasants, I mean, the staff of the estate. Sure, Harry, but is there some reason you didn’t mention all the times you went fox-hunting during this period? The book does not record what Megan thought of all of this. The internet says he gave up murdering animals for fun shortly after his wedding.
4. It seemingly only occurs to Harry that his own family are placing stories about him in the press when he is in his early thirties. Yeah, I bet I’d be super angry to discover that I was living through Game of Thrones that late, but Harry seems to consider that his lifelong failure to improve his public and private standing is due to being regarded as the Spare and not due to his own outstandingly unobservant nature.
There are serious consequences to this obliviousness. Meghan’s public travails with her father appear to have happened because he had a mental breakdown caused by being endlessly harrassed by the British media. Harry does not appear to consider or reflect on his role in causing this by failing to warn anyone about the consequences of dating him. I have great sympathy with his plight of being of such public interest that anyone he meets, be they friend or lover, is immediately stalked everywhere they go by paparazzi, but I do think that means that you have an obligation to disclose what is likely to happen so they can make their own choices. Harry never appears to do this and repeatedly recounts how people have a nice evening out with him and then ring him up shortly afterwards to say they are trapped in their house with an army of photographers outside and everyone they’ve ever known are being offered cash for information about them. I don’t think you should live as a pariah but I do think Harry bears some responsibility for warning people what they are letting themselves in for by associating with him.
5. Much has been made of Harry’s offhand statement that his kill count in Afghanistan is 25 Taliban. What’s interesting about this is that this reference is to how many people he directly murdered as an Apache helicopter pilot. Harry’s role during his first stint in Afghanistan was as a Forward Air Controller, a job on the ground that also regularly required him to respond to attacks on the station by local Taliban – such a response traditionally involves calling in air strikes on enemy positions. Harry doesn’t go into too much detail about these, presumably for security reasons, but does mention at the end of one passage that an air strike he called in killed at least ten people and he wished they’d dropped a bigger bomb so they could’ve gotten the other seven. Whatever you make of this ethically, Harry’s total killing spree during this period is way bloodier than will ever be publicly known.
6. The drugs. Prince Harry appears to have taken every drug under the sun and seems to smoke cannabis every day in every country to which he travels. It is genuinely fascinating from a drug law reform perspective that this seems to have caused zero fuss. From a narrative perspective, it does highlight that possibly Harry’s take on “how the media lies about me constantly” might be generously framed, given the number of times he denounces media stories about him taking drugs as false and maliciously motivated and then gets on with telling another story about all the drugs he *was* using.
7. Throughout the reading of Spare, I continued to be astonished that it was ever written. Harry claims that he is telling his side of a story that has been written about him since he was born without any regard to the truth or his privacy, which is I think fair when you consider all of the lies he rebuts (or claims to) in the book.
A weird example of this which I choose out of personal interest (as a Jew) and because it is one of the conflicting claims on which Harry can be fairly described as the definitive authority. It is widely believed to be a tradition of the British royal family to circumcise their boys, starting with Queen Victoria who believed her royal line descended from the House of David and so circumcised all of her sons (in fact-checking this post, it seems that this actually isn’t true and the King and his brothers were circumcised for the same reasons as Richard Dawkins – it was fashionable for the upper classes at that time due to a belief that it was more hygienic. See: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2158244013508960). It was also equally widely reported as journalistic colour (including in the peer-reviewed article to which I just linked!) that Princess Diana did not approve of this tradition and so Prince William and Harry were not circumcised. In the bizarre passage devoted to the time he got frostbite in his penis just before his wedding, Harry recounts the latter story as being categorically untrue because he is, in fact, circumcised. When such basic factual information like this can be made from whole cloth, I understand why Harry might feel the need to correct the record.
However, he’s not just telling his story but the story of his family, who also happen to be the ruling family of the United Kingdom. It’s an incredible window into the lives of our masters, but a deeply unflattering one.
I regard Charles Windsor as petty, vain and useless, and it is extraordinary that his son gave us an exclusive peek into what he’s actually like as a person and it turned out The Crown was spot on. But did I really need to know that Charles does headstands in his boxers every day to manage pain caused by historical polo injuries? Was it really necessary to detail Prince William’s efforts to force Harry to shave off his beard for his wedding, a story which has never previously come up in public? There is more than a little petty score-settling going on here.
I was surprised by how badly Prince William, or “Willy”, comes off in this book. Sure, sibling rivalry goes to another level when you’re this in the public eye, but Prince William also lost his mother at the age of fifteen in a tragic car accident and was presumably left to deal with it by the adults around him in the same insouciant manner. He’s your brother. Is it really telling your side of the story to detail to the entire world Prince William’s private communications with you about the death of his mother? I wasn’t very comfortable reading that.
However, this indiscretion does mean we have the only public statement that has ever been made by a member of the Royal Family on Prince Andrew, in the context of the argument over maintaining security for his family after Megxit: “My Uncle Andrew. He was embroiled in a shameful scandal, accused of the sexual assault of a young woman, and no-one had so much as suggested he should lose his security. Whatever grievances, people had against us, sex crimes weren’t on the list.” It is a shame that this is all Harry has to tell us on a subject of genuine public interest.
Without reading the original 800 page draft, it is difficult to know whether the sudden vagueness and absence of context in some parts was intentional or for want of space, given the general overabundance in detail in others. I did wonder whether was due to the heavy editing but I don’t think it was, for two reasons:
* Teej and Mike are two African Botswana documentary makers who were holding a party that Harry gatecrashed while crashing through the undergrowth in the area in the mid-2000s. He stays with them for a while and then just keeps visiting their bush camp annually to drink, hunt and party. It is unclear whether his stays with them were paid for or he would just show up at their door whenever he needed a break, but it all sounds very gap yah. One visit, Mike suggests that Harry might like to return the favour by using some of his fame and stature to promote international development and investment in Africa after he’s spent seven years making use of their hospitality. Only then does it occur to Harry that Botswana is not some magical playground but a poor country suffering the consequences of historical colonialism, and he commits to doing charitable work to support that need.
* Meghan’s intelligence does not feature in Spare. I came away from this book under the impression that Meghan is, frankly, stupid. I had to read her Wikipedia article to discover that actually, she’s got a touch of Hollywood celebrity woo about her but she’s thoughtful, cultured, and has a degree in politics from one of the world’s best universities. Told from Harry’s perspective, Meghan is hot, nice, and likes dogs.
All told, Spare was a good read on its own merits, as celebrity biographies go. It is an unflattering portrait but a seemingly accurate one. But it is also clearly a weapon. Harry recalls in the foreword that part of his motivation for writing is a comment that Prince William made in the presence of their father that he just didn’t understand why Harry had decided to leave the royal family. Harry concludes the foreword “And so: Pa? Willy? World? Here you go.”
While promoting the book, however, Harry told several interviewers that now the book is out, he hoped that he would have a relationship with his family again. It is simply not clear how he expects this to be achieved given what he has now told the world about them, and what he thinks of them. Possibly the most generous interpretation was a comment I saw that suggested that Harry’s actions in the last five years are what happens when one member of a dysfunctional family goes to therapy and, reborn, tries to force everyone else to go before they are ready. Perhaps Harry feels confronting his family with their own behaviour will cause a similar lightbulb moment. Given Harry does not appear to have any intention of going quietly into private retirement, I guess we will find out in the sequel.