Guy Somerset is Team Sussex
I’m Team Sussex. I came to Harry’s memoir predisposed towards both him and Meghan. I believe them. They seem genuine. A bit flaky perhaps. A bit, yes, woke. But not the criminals they’ve been made out to be. Not the Machiavellian manipulators they’re portrayed as. Or, in the best-case scenario for Harry, that Meghan’s portrayed as, with him her witless dupe.
What I’ve seen and heard of the couple – in public appearances and TV interviews, including as part of their US$100 million Netflix production deal – has rung true. They seem to have an easy rapport with the public, of a kind last seen in Harry’s mum, Princess Diana. In any sane world, they’d be considered a boon for the royals and the country and welcomed into the fold by family, press and public alike.
The memoir hasn’t changed my view of Harry and Meghan, only reinforced it. Harry might not be the sharpest knife in the silver drawer. But nor is he the bluntest. His, you feel, is a heart of oak, but not a head of one. He’s no fool and no dupe of Meghan’s. In his telling, theirs is a sweet and touching courtship and marriage. She hasn’t destroyed him; she’s saved him. (“For the hundredth time [since we met], my heart cracked open.”)
Another reason I was Team Sussex is because, for me, as for many others, the way in which Harry and William, then aged 12 and 15, were compelled to walk behind their mother Princess Diana’s coffin for the long route of her funeral procession in 1997, in front of thousands of members of the public and millions more TV viewers around the world, warranted them each a Get Out of Jail Free card for the rest of their lives. That jail: the royal family or at least the level of press intrusion the boys had to endure within it.
I was one of those TV viewers in 1997. I was living in Sydney and can remember how the city’s supermarkets ran short of booze and snack food as people hosted parties or simply settled in for the night with their families to watch the funeral.
What kind of funeral is watched with chippies and champers to hand? A royal family funeral where the humanity of the family involved has long since been detached from the expectations of the public and the press that serves – and encourages – them.
Harry before Meghan reads like a man seeking meaning in a life dictated by factors beyond his control
This detachment was further evidenced in an episode of the original UK version of Russell T Davies’s Queer as Folk TV drama, where the core characters get home drunk after a night out and decide to top things off viewing their video recording of the funeral. While this speaks to the strength of Diana’s gay following, and the intrinsic campness of aspects of the funeral and indeed the royal family itself, it also speaks to something colder.
After such treatment, Harry and William could go on a rampage through Buckingham Palace, laying waste to everyone and everything in their path, and I’d still be minded to forgive them.
And that, figuratively speaking, is what Harry has done with this memoir.
Despite the sense of purpose he finds during two tours of duty in the Afghanistan war, Harry before Meghan (which is more than 260 of Spare’s 400 or so pages) reads like a man seeking, or wanting to create, meaning in a life dictated by factors beyond his control.
There’s the unresolved grief, not to say trauma, of Diana’s death and what followed. There’s being in a family that barely touches each other, let alone hugs. Not even Charles, not even when he tells Harry Diana has died. (Although “his hand did fall on my knee”.) When it comes to physical contact, the Windsors are with Seinfeld: “No hugging, no learning.”
There’s being in the hall of gilt mirrors that is royal life, where paranoia prevails as to who’s briefing for or against who. Who exactly are those royal ‘aides’, ‘insiders’ and ‘sources’ behind press stories? Could it even be, or at the behest of, family members themselves? Camilla? Charles? William? Hell, even the Queen?
The Firm, as it was once known, is like a corporation, with lots of subsidiary companies and staff (or, if you must, family members) competing against each other. They even have their own human resources department. A family with one of those.
Once you’re in that hall with Harry, it’s hard not to succumb to the sense of conspiracy and to appreciate why he’s opted to walk away, burning his bridges behind him.
Harry is doubtlessly back-interpreting his experiences from the vantage point of the therapy he’s now had, but therapy is legitimate and so is his interpretation. It’s his life and this makes sense of it for him. For me too.
However, as much as Harry has served himself well with the book, and been served well by ghost-writer JR Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer, memoirist himself (The Tender Bar) and ghost-writer for tennis star Andre Agassi’s acclaimed Open: An Autobiography, the collaborators also do themselves and each other several disservices.
One of Harry and Meghan’s principal press persecutors, along with the preposterous Piers Morgan, has been New Zealand’s ‘own’ Dan Wootton
A prerequisite for any ghost-writer ought to be to disappear into the voice of their subject or else consistently sustain an artificial one. Moehringer drifts between the two, with Harry mostly true to what feels an authentic, drily humorous, down-to-earth blokiness, but then getting all highfalutin on us, with implausible bursts of eloquence and literary references, including a “Kafkaesque nightmare” at Balmoral. This despite Harry’s insistence, not least when courting the well-read Meghan, that books aren’t his thing.
The memoir is best – and this is for the most part – when Moehringer doesn’t overreach, doesn’t stretch for profundity. When he just lets Harry be funny in his own understated way and alert to the absurdities around him.
Moehringer would have done well to have saved Harry from his endless and quickly wearisome rants about the press. They undermine his legitimate case against them: their belittling of him from schooldays onwards as the Spare, the naughty one, the thicko (although these are his paraphrases, not necessarily their words); their role in Diana’s death; their stalking of him, his old girlfriends and finally Meghan; their publishing of stories that are wrong if not premeditated lies; their amplification of veiled and not-so-veiled racism towards Meghan.
One of Harry and Meghan’s principal press persecutors, along with the preposterous Piers Morgan, has been New Zealand’s ‘own’ Dan Wootton, who broke into journalism with his ‘Dan’s Diary’ column at The Dominion Post in Wellington before a stint on TV One’s Good Morning show. After Wootton left for the UK, he rapidly climbed the greasy pole of tabloid-dom at the News of the World, The Sun on Sunday and The Sun. He now has a home at the Mail and as a broadcaster on the resolutely right-wing and anti-‘woke’ GB News channel.
Not that Harry dignifies Wootton with a name, preferring instead to call him “a sad little man” who, at the time of his “WE’RE ORF” Sun scoop about the couple leaving the UK, had “refashioned himself into some sort of quasi royal correspondent, largely on the strength of his secret relationship with one particularly close friend of Willy’s comms secretary – who fed him trivial (and mostly fake) gossip”.
Willy is, of course, Prince William. The Heir to Harry’s Spare. Not so much the hair, though, with Harry cattily calling out his “alarming baldness, more advanced than my own” and his “famous resemblance to Mummy … fading with time”. It’s telling – and endearing – that the brothers’ names for each other bear no relation to other people’s. Willy not Wills. Harry is Harold. Something for themselves.
As he bangs on and on, Harry is that bore in the pub making you roll your eyes as he starts in yet again with an all-too-familiar gripe. There’s not a circumstance when his mind doesn’t drift back to the press. Even in the army, he can’t resist a “tell me about it” when a fellow soldier complains about the lack of privacy in shared quarters or when during a brutal training session a fellow soldier is shocked how his pretend captors have mentally tortured him with what they know about his family and girlfriend from social media. “I smiled: Welcome to the party, pal.”
Moehringer might also have had Harry “jumping” into fewer Land Rovers (or any other vehicle he encounters). At one point, the Queen is said to have “jumped” into her Range Rover. That I would have liked to have seen.
Harry is besotted by Meghan and there’s a page that reads as though he’s describing Mother Theresa. The book’s credibility would have benefited too from omitting the part about encountering Diana’s ghost through a clairvoyant. Still, I suppose we must allow the couple their shared mysticism and at times self-parodic wokery. (Always with the environmental justification for Harry’s shooting and hunting!)
Where Moehringer and Harry really let themselves down is in the careless candour of the memoir’s many indiscretions.
The book is honest in not skating over recurring rumours about Harry’s paternity – Diana didn’t even meet alleged ‘real’ father James Hewitt until two years after Harry was born and, in any case, Harry’s face is like one of those optical illusion puzzles: look one way and he’s the spitting image of Hewitt, look another and he’s the spitting image of Charles.
Nor does it avoid his party-going dressed as a Nazi and being photographed in Vegas playing – and more to the point losing – strip billiards.
It's also happy to relitigate lots of the nastier mud the press has thrown at him, if only to refute it.
However, Harry tends always to find someone else ultimately to blame for any misbehaviour. And he doesn’t even begin to address the wider implications of two soldiers being killed and another 17 injured in a Taliban attack targeting him, as many warned would happen, during his military service in Afghanistan. (Other than to blame the release of “granular details of my tour, through the non-stop coverage that week in the British press”. But of course.)
Some indiscretions are at Harry’s own expense. But the most notable are at the expense of other family members (although he remains generously silent about the unnamed relative who speculated about his unborn son’s likely skin colour and steers clear of Prince Andrew. As well he might). Some of these family indiscretions are inevitable to tell his story, others less so and more gratuitous, leaving family members exposed to unnecessary embarrassment and worse.
Harry feels betrayed by the family and therefore justified in this response. But he has betrayed them in turn
Other indiscretions are at the expense of staff and bystanders who Harry of all people should know better than to expose to the glare of the press and public. It also ill behoves him to use this opportunity to settle scores with an old teacher.
The royalty–press–industrial complex, not so much a relationship as a “sordid affair”, depends on the royal family being a blank canvas the press and public can fill as they see fit. No one wants to think of royals having views of their own, still less voicing them. Their function is to be inscrutable. The Queen was the platonic ideal of this.
Harry has broken the complex’s pact, on behalf of not only himself but also the royal family as a whole. There aren’t many aspects of royal family life he doesn’t shine an unwelcome (to them) light on. It’s a lesser example, but Commonwealth countries the royals have toured now know the fate discarded in a basement of all their heartfelt and carefully chosen gifts to the family. Including William’s Buzzy Bee from his parents’ and his 1983 visit to New Zealand? A Toy Story-like bid for freedom could be in order.
Harry has succeeded in his own bid for freedom. He feels betrayed by the family and therefore justified in this response. But he has betrayed them in turn.
The press, self-entitled as they are, feel betrayed too. And they are much more powerful and dangerous than the family. You don’t say the sort of things Harry says about Rupert Murdoch without consequences. He better hope Murdoch never buys Netflix.
Spare by Prince Harry (Bantam, $65) is available at every bookstore on the planet.