The Prince’s side


Prince Harry, Bantam, 2023, 416pps., £20
KEN BELL finds the Prince’s blockbuster book unexpectedly engaging

There can be few people in the English-speaking world who have not read a review of Spare, the memoir written by Prince Harry, and it is a pity that so many of those reviews seem to have been written by people who have not actually read the Prince’s book. A cynic might argue that the press is seeking revenge for what Prince Harry wrote about them in his book, or even that a section of the Royal Family really is out to get him. The press, certainly, come in for Harry’s ire, and if one of the motives for writing Spare was a desire to pay the press back with interest for their attacks on him, he has succeeded.

The most egregious example of dubious reviewing concerns Harry’s service in the most recent of Britain’s Afghan wars. Reviewers have told us that the Prince boasted about killing 25 enemy troops, when a simple reading of the text shows that he did no such thing. He was a helicopter weapons officer, charged with firing the missiles and guns at specific targets. Each operation had to be confirmed by men sitting in comfort far behind the lines, and afterwards the video of the action was played and replayed to make sure that the terms of engagement had been met. That was a judgement passed by men who also fought the war in comfort, far removed from what passed for the front lines in that country. What the Prince wrote in this section of his book reads like a fighting officer’s report of his engagements, rather than a former staff officer’s saloon bar boasting.

The first of the three parts which make up this volume is concerned with Harry’s childhood, the loss of his mother and his relationship with what is probably the most dysfunctional family in the world – all coupled with the most loathsome press who did seem to have it in for him. This section contains the supposed gloating at an alfresco sex bout in a field, which tuned out upon reading the book to be nothing of the sort. The whole matter is dealt with by the author in about 60 words, and is only referred to owing to an amusing mix-up between the Prince who thought that he was due to be hauled over the coals because of his sex romp, and a Buckingham Palace official who had been sent to confirm an unfounded tale that the Sun newspaper planned to run about drug taking.

Prince Harry did not manage to get the story killed, and his family declined even to try to defend him, so the evidence if fairly strong that memoir is in no small measure an act of revenge against the likes of the then editor of the Sun, who was, the Prince assures us, “an infected pustule on the arse of humanity, plus a shit excuse for a journalist.”

To be fair to the Prince, he does have good reason for his outrage. He went to a nightclub and chatted briefly to a pretty girl who turned out to be a topless model. The press got wind of this and began to run stories about how Harry was letting his family down by going out with such a girl, even though he wasn’t. His military service in Iraq was cut short because an Australian paper got hold of the details of his military deployment and he had to be quickly spirited out of the country before the enemy could mount an assault to capture or kill such a royal prize.

That said, the first section is in many ways the most moving part of the memoir and yet also the most unsatisfying. We are told so much about his childhood and how he came to terms with the death of his mother, and I defy anyone not to be moved by Prince Harry’s account of how he pretended that his mother had hidden herself away somewhere to avoid the attentions of the media and would return to him when the time was right.

Clearly, this was a boy who loved his mother, and was loved deeply by her. However, the area that may have been excised or at least toned down, concerns the author’s relationship with his father. For instance, we are told that Charles went to visit Diana soon after she had given birth to Harry and exclaimed: “Wonderful! Now you have given me and heir and a spare – my work is done.” He then strolled off “to meet his girlfriend”, which rather says it all about the man.

It is one thing for a Prince of Wales to have a harem of his own, as Prince Bertie, the heir to Queen Victoria had. When he was eventually crowned as King, a whole section of the Abbey had to be set aside for his mistresses. The man had three favourites and any number of others who came and went: he was truly a worshipper at the altar of Priapus. However, what he never did was personally humiliate his wife, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, in the way that Charles did Diana.

Both Bertie and Charlie made dynastic marriages with the aim of producing heirs and spares, but Bertie did seem to genuinely care for his wife and children. That did not stop him from bedding dozens of other women, but it did mean that the royal family was kept secure, and Queen Alexandra was contented enough with the situation to become friends with some of the senior mistresses.

Prince Charles seemed to have adopted a Mills & Boon attitude to life, with his wife cast as the villainess in the piece. This memoir could have provided Harry with a perfect opportunity to analyse his father’s incomprehensible behaviour and put it into some kind of context, but he missed that opportunity. So the mystery of why Charles could not maintain a decent front with Diana remains unresolved in this memoir. Instead, Harry contented himself by giving examples of Charles’ distant behaviour towards his sons which he unsatisfactorily summarises by saying that Charles had “always given an air of being not quite ready for parenthood… But single parenthood? Pa was never made for that.” This is thin analytical gruel, but it is the best that we get.

The third and final section of the memoir is mainly concerned with Meghan and his life with her. It is the gentlest and most hopeful section of the book, and it left this reader wishing the author well in his new life, as far away from the surrealism of his upbringing as it is possible to get.