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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Marina Hyde

It’s Prince Harry in One Flew Over The Windsors’ Nest. Just pity those he left behind

A window display promoting Prince Harry's book, Spare, in the shadow of Windsor Castle.
‘And don’t forget the gazillions of readers who either love it, or love to hate it.’ A window display promoting Prince Harry's book, Spare, in the shadow of Windsor Castle. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Day 127 of J.Crew Hamlet and Prince Harry’s memoir has finally dropped. It needed to. I feel like I’ve had babies I’ve been less organised for than this particular arrival. There have, it is fair to say, been one or two thousand pre-publication spoilers for Spare, each of which a lot of people have consumed without really meaning to. There’s something about it having all taken place over the turn of the year that reminds you of eating nothing but Christmas food for days and days and days. After about a week of it, you do find yourself screaming: “I never want to see this stuff again! Can we please, PLEASE have a Chinese or a curry?” That said, I do still have one box of mince pies and one royal tell-all left, and I think we both know I’m going to get through them. It’s called duty – look it up.

Anyway, on to the reaction. As I type this, Harry’s entire home of Montecito is under evacuation amid floods some will no doubt choose to see as biblical. We can only guess how the book has gone down in Windsor Elsinore. Some judge that Harry has opened a hail of literary gunfire on a royal family whose courtiers constantly emphasise are limited in the ways they can fight back. Maybe this is a metaphor. As one of the more eye-catching passages of Prince Harry’s book reveals, during the conflict in Afghanistan he killed 25 Taliban fighters out of his $50m helicopter, a form of warfare which even the most committed Taliban-loathers among us always had to admit was a bit asymmetric. Then again, the Taliban won in the end, so we should certainly consider the possibility that the monarchy will be the last ones standing in the rubble when Harry’s barrage ends.

But will it ever end? Hard to say. Marvel franchise-wise, we could be in only Phase Two of Harry and Meghan. The banter option would obviously be for all four Windsors ahead of the Duke of Sussex in the line of succession to now abdicate en masse, leaving a note for King Harry and Queen Meghan reading: “Fine – you two do it. ENJOY!” Failing that, perhaps Prince Edward could lighten the national mood by staging It’s A Royal Knockout 2, the hotly anticipated sequel to his own accidental attempt to kill the franchise in 1987.

As for Harry’s book itself, it’s something of a prince’s egg. The genuine, heart-rending pain and isolation of this bereaved child is mixed in with bonkbuster scenery chewing, hammy woo-woo and palace quarters one-downmanship – so much so that it starts to feel like Harry and his ghostwriter have invented an entirely new genre: tragic camp. One minute you’re reading some more unspeakably sad evidence of the needless damage done to a troubled child; the next you’re doing an ironic deep-dive into the circumcision/frostbitten penis status of princes that might as well have been subheaded It’s A Royal Cockout.

Fair play to the ghostwriter, though, who’s done the best job of tarting up the prince’s output since the art teacher who said she did his written A-level coursework for him. I think he got a B, which feels about right here too. The general vibe is Succession, but during a writers’ strike. It must be said there are top notes of Paul Burrell at times, however the comparison might anger Harry, who uses one bit of Spare to recall how appalled he was by Burrell’s own memoir of life with the royals. Just assume that only princes are allowed to write books when they’ve been through a big experience, not servants.

In terms of the vast retinue of interested parties that form the royal money-making ecosystem, spare a cackle for Netflix, who somehow paid a reported $100m to the Sussexes and ended up with a rather boring documentary series, while CBS and Oprah scooped the landmark interview in 2021, and Penguin Random House have taken the motherlode with this book.

Elsewhere, a huge number of bandwagon jumpers have used the opportunity to chime splashily in, ranging from Caroline Flack’s publicist to so-called pet dick Pen Farthing, who says he had to evacuate from Kabul after Harry’s Taliban-killing revelations dropped. (How many times can this guy evacuate from Kabul? I hope he gets air miles.) Or consider instead the BBC royal veteran Nicholas Witchell. Witchell is arguably the second most damaged creature of all. Openly detested by the family whose lives he so obsequiously covers, even now he seemingly regards it as his duty to tour various studios and grimace about the disservice done to a king who is literally on camera saying of him: “I can’t bear that man … He’s so awful, he really is.”

And don’t forget the gazillions of readers in all of this, who either love it, or love to hate it. Above all, they do read it. The Harry stories have topped the ratings on the Guardian website all week, to say nothing of the rest of the press, which has taken both a kicking and countless millions from the past week’s Spare-fest. “I didn’t care for Rupert Murdoch’s politics,” Harry writes at one point in Spare, “which were just to the right of the Taliban.” I think Murdoch owns a lot more helicopters than the Taliban, both real and metaphorical, so that particular chess piece is likely to stay on the board.

In the end, though, people have decided what Harry’s book says about him, one way or another. But the bigger, unanswered question after this latest tide of revelations is surely: what does it say about us? What does it say about Britain that this fractured and pain-ridden lot are our first family? On an immediate level, the past week has presented as yet another way for the UK to look mad, weird and chaotic on the world stage.

The Princess of Wales, the Prince of Wales and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex Windsor Castle following the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
The Princess of Wales, the Prince of Wales and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex meet the public at Windsor Castle following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

Yet discounting the minority of republicans, British public opinion appears to have divided the king and queen consort and his sons and their wives into two categories: “obviously tortured and damaged and miserable but enduring it for their whole lives out of duty” (good) and “obviously tortured and damaged and miserable but saying so out loud and at length” (bad). What a sad state of affairs that all seems, though it’s always amusing to read frothing online comments from people whose personal understanding of duty extends to the tax on booze.

Above all, this epochal saga reminds us that there is more than one way to look at that chilling term for the monarchy, “the institution”. We might pity the institution’s inmates and escapees, or be horrified by them, or turn a blind eye to the inherent coldnesses and cruelties of their existence. But we are, at the dawn of 2023, part of the society where the majority thinks that it’s probably the best place for them.

  • Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist

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