Jaice Titus reviews Spare, and finds Harry trying to repackage himself from prince to global media influencer – but without the self-awareness to make it work.
Photo: Duncan Cumming, flickr, Creative Commons
Prince Harry in February 2021 gave up his royal duties and escaped to the US with his wife and child. Now, in his new autobiography, Harry has laid bare both the dysfunction and the tedium of the royal family. The book’s title, Spare, is a play on the phrase ‘an heir and a spare’ – that is, what an aristocratic family requires to pass on its bloodline, titles and estates. Harry says that after he was born, his father, now King Charles, said to Diana, ‘Wonderful. Now you’ve given me an heir and a spare, my work is done.’ He is deeply burdened by this joke, which he takes as his life’s work to correct. Harry suggests that his ‘family had declared me a nullity. The Spare.’ Throughout the book, he argues he is the victim of the royal family and doesn’t understand his place within such an entangled web of lies, deceit and torment. The other side of Spare is the remaking of Harry’s identity, without the monarchy but as part of a new establishment – a globalised, media-savvy influencer bourgeoisie, who are simultaneously vendor and product, capital and commodity.
The book centres around the tragic loss of Harry’s mother, Princess Diana, and his dealing with the loss as child in the public eye and with hardly any support from the royal family. From an early age he develops a major hostility to the press, who he sees as responsible for Diana’s death – ‘stalkers and liars’, ‘thugs and losers’. The death of his mother, that has haunted and traumatised him all through his life, haunts him again now that the press and the royals have taken antagonistic and racist positions towards Meghan, hounding her and her family.
The book is both a way for Harry to set the story straight and a means of establishing his own origin myth. It reads like an unedited stream of consciousness, as if it was written from a series of interviews. The quest for some kind of truth about the royal family is unfulfilled because Harry seemingly doesn’t understand his unique status. He is tormented by his position as the spare. In his denials of privilege and wealth, and his desperation for sympathy, his account is drawn out and rather boring. While he can be self-deprecating when he wants to be, he seems to not get how ridiculous he can sound – he’s a savvy customer, just one of the people, who shops for discounted clothes in TK Maxx and has Ikea furniture – it is really grating.
As I read the book, I was reminded of a line from Jean-Luc Godard’s and Jean-Henri Roger’s film British Sounds, ‘the bourgeoisie have destroyed all human relationships except those of naked self-interest and the callousness of cash on the line on the never-never’. The book is both an account of the destruction of family relationships and a reflection of Harry’s need to monetise himself. In his telling of the dysfunctionality of his family – the firm, the institution, the monarchy – his own self-interest gets mixed up in the story as he tries to distance himself from them.
The first part of the book is an attempt to piece together his history from his muddied, unclear memory against what has been printed about him and his family over the years. As would be expected, he comes across as an unreliable narrator of his own history. He admits he is not able to recall much of his childhood. It was through therapy that he was able to remember the details of his past. It’s unclear what he remembers and what he is piecing together through the stories written about him by the press, what is told to him by his absent father and his ghoulish family. It’s only through his therapy much later, with hindsight, that he is able to remember the past.
In order to please his father, Harry tried to amend his disinterest in the works of Shakespeare. He opened Hamlet, thought a ‘lonely prince, obsessed with dead parent, watches remaining parent fall in love with dead parent’s usurper’. He slammed it shut and said ‘no thank you’. For Harry looking at himself is too disturbing; the uncanniness of his life, his history, is something to slam shut. What is interesting is that like Hamlet, Harry feels plagued by inaction. The second part of the book however is when Harry does take action, to fight in a war, and kill. He finds some purpose and strength through the male figures he meets through training or his bodyguards. His family, however, is still unimpressed with him and he is still unable to get them to take him and his life seriously.
His greater enemy is the British press – he recalls their involvement in the death of his mother, Princess Diana:
Flashes. They were flashes. And within some of the flashes were ghostly visages, and half visages, paps and reflected paps and refracted paps on all the smooth metal surfaces and glass windscreens. Those men who’d chased her… they’d never stopped shooting her while she lay between the seats, unconscious, or semiconscious, and in their frenzy they’d sometimes accidentally photographed each other. Not one of them was checking on her, offering her help, not even comforting her. They were just shooting, shooting, shooting.
The passages on the press – harassing him, his family, his dead mother – do evoke a hatred of the likes of Murdoch, how their empires permeate the lives of people in order to sell salacious stories and package the truth to fit the ruling ideology. However, Harry is still a central part of the ruling ideology – which he tries to negate, as he tries to be relatable and likeable. If in the past he represented inherited privilege and wealth, he now becomes an icon of how simple it is to reinvent oneself, to tell a new story of where you came from and where you’re going. Of course, inherited wealth and privilege are rather helpful in doing that. Indeed, it gets to the point where Harry feels it is improper for the press to report anything about him whatsoever. He thinks it’s unfair that he has he’s been mischaracterized as a killer in a war (‘Apparently I’d caused quite a stir by admitting that I’d killed people. In a war.’)
For all his discussion of himself, Harry seems perpetually unable to really look at himself and his history with a real sense of reflection. He says he didn’t know growing up that ‘P*ki’ was a racist slur, he thought it was harmless like Aussie. Similarly, he didn’t know the Nazi uniform was racist – he blamed the failure of his education for that. Now, I could understand if Eton failed to include the effects of the British Empire in the Global South in its curriculum, but to not to learn about World War Two as a royal seems like something of an oversight. For Harry, these are merely unconscious biases he holds, which can be corrected through becoming more self-aware. He doesn’t see himself as part of a racist system.
Whilst he makes some connection to colonialism when he talks about the Anglo-Zulu war, he’s unable to see his role in reproducing imperialism. He talks of his argument with William, about whose ‘thing’ Africa was. For Harry, Africa, particularly Botswana, is his sanctuary, where he can be himself. Through the war in Afghanistan and his time in Africa, he is attempting to package himself as a modern, relatable and worldly prince, but it comes across as romanticising and playing into the white saviour trope.
For Harry, people lower down the pecking order are either invisible or are purely doing him a service; the ‘regular’ people in his world are the middle classes and the nouveau riche. When Harry goes to Paris, he asks a taxi driver to drive down the tunnel where his mother died, which he does and after this meaningful moment for Harry, he demands secrecy of the driver or ‘there would be hell to pay.’ Or, when Harry and Meghan were getting to know each other at Soho House, he remembers the waitress, who embraced and filled the role of a buffer for them. He patronisingly suggests that the waitress would forever be part of their ‘personal mythology’. How lucky for them!
Harry’s gripe is that he was left out of the monarchy. So, while he sees that the institution rests ‘upon lands obtained and secured when the system was unjust and wealth was generated by exploited workers and thuggery, annexation and enslaved people’, he also thinks that the monarchy costs the average taxpayer the price of pint each year and sees it as a good investment. You read that right: when the system was unjust. For billions of people at the sharp end of rising inflation, precarity and climate chaos, it will come as some surprise to hear we now live under a just system. I’m sure many of them would prefer to have that pint for themselves.
Ultimately, Harry’s main concern is how to repackage and control the narrative of who he is, but the book is devoid of any contextualisation of his historical, geopolitical and ideological position vis-à-vis the old, lonely, archaic and objectionable institution he comes from. It’s hard to buy the story of Harry as victim when his family grew rich and powerful off the British Empire, brutalised the Global South, stole its wealth and murdered millions of its people in order to sustain itself. It’s actually quite sad to think that Harry has no idea how the history of his family is embedded in the very racism that Meghan experiences or that for them, the preservation of the monarchy comes before the feelings of someone so distant from the throne, the spare. But, somehow, with estimated wealth of around $30 million, I suspect he’ll manage.