You might feel as if you’ve already read Prince Harry’s memoir Spare by now. The virginity lost to a stallion trainer behind a pub. The dog bowl-smashing, necklace-ripping tussle with William. The constant calling out of his family briefing the press. This book doesn’t so much lift the curtain on private royal life than rip it off and shake out its contents. But it’s also richly detailed and at times beautifully written; if Harry is going to set fire to his family, he has at least done it with some style.
Spare’s ghostwriter JR Moehringer was behind tennis star Andre Agassi’s extraordinary memoir Open, and his choice as Harry’s collaborator was an early indication that the book would be no curling celebrity memoir. Even so, it is breathtakingly frank. His wife might be the natural on camera, but Harry seems to hit his stride on paper, his voice more authentic than the Californian inflections he slipped into while being interviewed with Meghan for their great soufflé of a Netflix docuseries (between the bombshells of Oprah and Spare, the streaming giant might be feeling justifiably short changed) even if at times his style is a little chaotic, written in a gallop of posh, staccato sentences that speak of “Ma”, “Pa”, “Willy”, and (yes) “todgers”.
Charles is less a father figure than a kind but emotionally distant uncle, who laughs in the wrong places when Harry performed in Much Ado About Nothing at Eton, and potters around Balmoral with his “wireless”. There is a disconnect between his words and deeds. He calls Harry “darling boy” but doesn’t ever hug him, even when delivering news of Diana’s death; he expresses joy at Harry’s birth to Diana but then goes straight off to see his “Other Woman” Camilla. “He’d always given the air of not being quite ready for parenthood – the responsibilities, the patience, the time,” Harry writes, but he is paradoxically an older Dad which “created problems, placed barriers between us”.
“Willy” is depicted as well-meaning but a little cold – and you get the distinct impression that they were never that close. Harry discovers his brother and Kate are engaged at the same time as everyone else. Their sibling rivalry is a “private olympiad” of petty grievances, from the size of their childhood bedrooms to ownership of causes: “I let you have veterans, why can’t you let me have African elephants and rhinos?” says William – who might also say that recollections vary. There is a whiff of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway in Harry’s assertion that “there’s just as much truth in what I remember and how I remember it than there is in so-called objective facts”.
As a boy, he deflects grief over Diana’s death by convincing himself that “Mummy” has simply faked her death and gone into hiding. The most affecting piece of writing in the book is when, as an adult, he asks to see photos of her body in the wreckage of the Paris tunnel, and observes a “supernatural” halo of light created by the camera flashes: “within some of [which] were ghostly visages, and half visages, paps and reflected paps and refracted paps on all the smooth metal surfaces and glass windscreens”.
A white-hot hatred of the press rages through the book – the media kills his mother, hounds him as a teen, ruins his army career, scares away girlfriends and tortures his wife. He fixates on a pair of paps nicknamed “Tweedle Dumb” and “Tweedle Dumber” and obsessively sets the record straight on decades-old stories, even one as innocuous as the claim he and William hung “Just Married” signs on Charles and Camilla’s wedding car. (Harry says he doesn’t believe this happened.)
In a row with his father and brother which bookends the memoir, Harry writes that Charles “hated [the press’s] hate, but oh how he loved their love… compulsively drawn to the elixir they offered him”. But his own fixation is compulsive too. In an online world his effort to correct every falsehood written about him looks like shouting at the sea. But there is humour in the book too, even if it’s of the squaddie variety – that account of his frostbitten penis after a trip to the North Pole culminates in an odd admission that he covered it in Elizabeth Arden and thought of his mother, who once used the cream.
Passages about army exploits and travels to Africa are worthy but a little bloated. More interesting are the rich accounts of gatherings at Balmoral, the strangely loving process of being “blooded” after stalking deer, the baths with brown running water, the Queen whipping up a salad dressing. His great aunt, Princess Margaret, giving him a Biro pen for Christmas.
Then along comes Meghan – her beauty “like a punch in the throat”. She is not just the new love of his life but his emotional life raft, one he fears the press is intent on sinking, like they did to his mother. The panic of losing her inflates between every line like a balloon. His family tells him to tough it out. You know what comes next.
So what makes him do it? Money? Revenge? A desire to emulate the Obamas – humanitarian power couple with matching Netflix and Spotify deals. But his book hardly adopts the “when they go low, we go high” ethos, and even sympathetic commentators across the pond are starting to grow weary of the Sussex confessional tour. Most likely was his desire to tell his truth (before Meghan inevitably tells hers in her own autobiography).
In his acknowledgements, Harry thanks Moehringer for persuading him that “memoir is a sacred obligation”. But for a prince raised in a golden goldfish bowl, isn’t privacy far more sacred, more precious? He has given up so much of it with Spare. I hope it’s worth it.