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Harried #4: Monsters Under Review
'Spare' is a showcase of Prince Harry as media critic. The reviewers can't tell you that.
This is the final part of this mini-series on the coverage of Spare. It is not a review but a review of reviews and an essay on what the memoir really is. I use the phrases such as “Harry writes…” throughout because while he worked with a ghostwriter — who I reference — the book is under his name and presented as his thoughts.
1. Soldiering on | The response to Prince Harry's leaked reflections on his deployments in Afghanistan is symptomatic of a broken media and a diseased society.
2. Close Protection Racket | The response to Prince Harry's memoir so far has been mob tactics from press and palace alike.
3. Pulling dead rabbits from the hat | An argument for why the Prince Harry stories matter to the bigger picture.
Early in Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare, there is the kind of disclaimer that all autobiographical writing should contain:
Landscape, geography, architecture, that’s how my memory rolls. Dates? Sorry, I’ll need to look them up. Dialogue? I’ll try my best but I make no verbatim claims, especially when it comes to the nineties. But ask me about any space I’ve occupied — castle, cockpit, classroom, stateroom, bedroom, palace, garden, pub — and I’ll recreate it down to the carpet tacks.
It’s a section of the book that isn’t quoted in the news stories, columns and reviews about it. That’s because, in most cases, the principal aim is to find the flaws and inconsistencies, to combine ‘fact-checking’ with every possible bad-faith reading. An industry that has told its version of Harry’s story since before he was born is engaged in a collective tantrum; the ‘character’ isn’t expected to talk back.
Fleet Street has worn the first line of Anna Karenina thin since the leaks began and the interviews aired — “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — but the deliberate mistake is to pretend that Harry’s book is really about a family at all; it’s about two institutions: the British Monarchy and the British Media.
The ‘family’ in Spare almost has the shape of a normal collection of closely-related human beings but their interactions can’t be mapped to our common understanding of what family is or does; their dysfunction is on a completely different level. This isn’t a nuclear family but a thermonuclear one.
The media’s response to what Harry says (with the help of his American ghostwriter JR Moehringer), or rather what they say he’s said, tries to sell two diametrically opposed deceptions at once: Royals are magically different and exactly like us. The focus on interpersonal relationships is understandable — gossip sells papers and drives clicks — but the key reason for their strangeness is tossed away and minimised.
What Harry has called “the invisible contract”, the combination of protection racket and suicide pact between the monarchy and the media, is at the heart of his memoir. Several newspaper front pages this morning focused on ‘Camilla as the villain’, but she is at best a side character; the antagonist in a b-plot. The big bad is the British media and, more specifically, the British press.
Expecting fair reviews of Spare from British newspapers is like asking Scar to write a reference for Simba1. The Times and The Sun are unlikely to acknowledge the passages where Harry writes that Rupert Murdoch is evil or when he declares:
Marrying your cousin is far less dicey than becoming a profit centre for Murdoch Inc.
Dennis Potter named one of the tumours that killed him “Rupert”, but his ice-cold denunciation has a rival in the white-hot anger of Harry’s summation of Murdoch:
I couldn’t think of a single human being in the 300,000-year history of the species who’d done more damage to our collective sense of reality.
News UK’s CEO, Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of The Sun and News of the World, is introduced as “a loathsome toad” and referred to by the anagrammatic moniker Rehabber Kooks. Harry writes:
Everyone who knew her was in full agreement that she was an infected pustule on the arse of humanity, plus a shit excuse for a journalist.
The proprietor of the Mail titles is “the Dickensian-sounding Jonathan Harmsworth, 4th Viscount Rothermere”. The greatest indignity for Piers Morgan is that his name does not appear in the index at all.
Perhaps the most bruising line for the British press’ public school casualties and those who have inflicted the same cruelty on their own kids comes when Harry refers to himself and his fellow pupils at Ludgrove as “abandoned children”
The book doesn’t just insult media monsters, it also includes plenty of astute media criticism. For example, on The Mirror's 1998 editorial claiming that the Royal Family was preventing the paper from reporting on an injury he’d sustained, Harry writes:
… [a] newspaper put me on the front page again. HARRY’S HAD AN ACCIDENT. I’d broken a bone in my thumb playing rugby, no big deal, but the paper decided to make out I was on life support… I read the article several times. Despite the sombre subtext — something’s very wrong with Prince Harry — I marvelled at its tone: larky. My existence was just fun and games to these people. I wasn’t a human being to them.
He was 14 years old. He continues:
Of all the things that surprised me about [the article], the truly flabbergasting thing was the absolutely shitty writing. I was a poor student, a dreadful writer, and yet I had enough education to recognise that this right here was a masterclass in illiteracy. To take one example: After explaining that I’d been grievously injured, that I was nearly at death’s door, the article went on to caution breathlessly that the exact nature of my injury couldn’t be revealed because the Royal Family had forbidden the editors to do so. (As if my family had any control over these ghouls.) “To reassure you, we can say that Harry’s injuries are NOT serious. But the accident was considered grave enough for him to be taken to hospital. But we believe you are entitled to know if an heir to the throne is involved in any accident, however small, if it results in injury.” The two “buts” in a row, the smug self-regard, the lack of coherence and the absence of any real point, the hysterical nothingness of it all. ~This dog’s dinner of a paragraph was said to be edited — or, more likely, written — by a young journalist whose name I scanned and then quickly forgot. I didn’t think I’d ever run across it, or him again. The way he wrote? I couldn’t imagine he’d be a working journalist much longer.
That editor, Piers Morgan, is currently being unwatched on Talk TV as I write.
By his own telling the three defining moments of Harry’s life are: his mother’s death, his military service, and meeting his wife. The first was caused in large part by paparazzi pursuit; the second was curtailed by the media; the third has been dogged and degraded by the press coverage.
The book’s most powerful passage comes when Harry asks to see the government file on Diana’s death and realises the source of the “auras, almost halos” around her:
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 while she lay between the seats, unconscious or semiconscious, and in their frenzy, they’d sometimes accidentally photographed each other.
The frenzy that has surrounded the promotion and launch of Spare has often felt like the newspapers photographing each other; replicating the same arguments, the same distortions and denials. A paragraph from one of the few reasonable pieces by a British outlet, the Financial Times review by Henry Mance, neatly dispatches one of the most common criticisms:
Critics call Harry and Meghan hypocrites for demanding privacy while confessing their secrets. This attack is wrong. Someone can demand you don’t set fire to their garden, even when they are having a bonfire. Warren Buffett has pledged to give away his fortune, but you’re not entitled to take his car without asking.
An irritation that someone whose privacy has been picked apart since he was a baby should tell his own stories is part of the British press’ anger, but its main complaint is that such a high-profile victim of its tactics is detailing and decrying them.
This edition would be extremely long if I picked apart every paper’s review of Spare — and most carry several — so I’m going to use one from The Times by James Marriott (author of the 13th worst column of 2022) as the placeholder for them all.
Marriott appeared on Times Radio this morning and said:
I think this is the fastest I’ve ever read a book. I was under very strict instructions and people kept coming by me at work to check that I was reading fast enough. I read it in two hours… I mean, not the most thorough reading of any book but I was kind of surprised at how much I managed to read it properly actually. I thought I’d have to skim it.
That’s worth taking into account as I dissect his ‘review’. I am a fast reader; it took me about 12 hours to finish the book (including several breaks to do life stuff). But then I wasn’t under pressure from editors to get my ‘take’ out in time for an embargo lifting.
From the cover of Spare — perhaps the most hysterically anticipated memoir ever published — a confident and modern Prince Harry confronts his impatient readers. The furze of ginger beard is stylishly trimmed, a necklace (but presumably not that necklace) is subtly visible, he is bathed in a soft, therapeutic golden light. He looks like he should be running a tech startup or an expensive yoga retreat. This, you sense, is Harry as he believes himself to be: grown-up, truth-telling, faintly messianic. Open the book and you discover quite a different Harry from the cool, square-jawed metrosexual Californian on the cover. This is a weirder, more complex Harry. So who is he? Well, a big part of him is still clearly the standard-issue braying Sloane, familiar from countless scandalised tabloid headlines. The Harry who drinks, smokes weed, wears inappropriate fancy dress, watches cartoons, virtually never reads a book and dreams of becoming a ski instructor after he leaves school.
“You sense…” I don’t. I read Spare carefully. Harry jokes about himself, doubts himself, and is willing to show himself making mistakes and in many lights other than the “therapeutic [and] golden” kind. He talks like someone who has had therapy and lives in California because he’s someone who has had therapy and lives in California.
The premise of Marriott’s next paragraph is broken; everything in that list comes from the early part of Harry’s life and Spare’s narrative. As a columnist and former Deputy Books Editor at The Times, Marriott treats the fact that Harry doesn’t read much as a mortal kind of moral failing. But Harry himself writes:
Study, concentration, requires an alliance with the mind, and, in my teen years, I was waging all-out war with mine. I was forever fending off its darkest thoughts, its basest fears — its fondest memories… I’d found strategies for doing this, some healthy, some not, but all quite effective, and whenever they were unavailable — for instance when I was forced to sit quietly with a book — I freaked out. Naturally, I avoided such situations. At all costs, I avoided sitting quietly with a book.
But that would complicate Marriott’s terribly clever argument — that Harry’s thick — just as talking about where those “scandalised tabloid headlines” appeared and who directed them. But, of course, it’s not in the interests of his career advancement to acknowledge the Murdoch behind the curtain or the Rebekah Brooks in the office upstairs. Especially as the rumour is Brooks will soon be in News Corp’s biggest office.
The twisting and simplifying continue:
The other part is sensitive if dim (his father, Charles, once described him as not being “the family scholar”), nature-mystic Harry who believes a medium might help him contact Princess Diana and that singing to seals might predict whether his wife is pregnant. All this stuff he clearly gets from his father, a devotee of mysticism, numerology and esoteric theories of universal harmony.
If Harry is not “the family scholar”, neither is Charles; parachuted into Cambridge, he got a 2:2 in History under rather suspicious circumstances. And as for Harry and the medium, Marriott — like the many news reports about that section of the book — omits the part where he says:
I recognised the high-percentage chance of humbuggery.
And while Harry did conclude that there was “something there”, he’s hardly alone in believing in spirits. People who have suffered great pain often look for answers from somewhere beyond understanding.
Though Marriott notes the list of “esoteric theories” that King Charles believes in, he incorrectly says that it was Harry who believed “seals might predict whether his wife [was] pregnant”. That notion came from Charles and Harry writes:
Silly superstition, maybe, but I didn’t care. I counted it as a good omen.
In his appearance on Times Radio this morning, Marriott said:
… the stuff about Meghan singing to seals, we learn, it was actually King Charles who brought up that idea of singing to seals. So, you know, it’s not totally Meghan being bananas.
His review has not been corrected and does not seem likely to be; it’s just another misrepresentation stated as a fact.
When Marriott gets to Harry’s feelings about the press, more elisions, omissions, and distortions occur:
There is, frankly, not enough space here to detail how much Harry hates the press. They are “grotesque”. Journalists are “radicalised” like Taliban fighters by their editors who are like “mullahs”. Harry reads what’s written about him and knows individual journalists by name. He has nicknames for the ones he hates most. The sound of a camera is like a “cocked gun” or somebody flicking open the blade of a knife.
The trick of quoting only individual words or small phrases field strips those points of all their context. The effect here is to make Harry seem unreasonable and unhinged; wouldn’t you know the names of people who lied about you? Marriott gets affronted on Twitter when people criticise his columns — and has been known to DM them to get tweets deleted or explained2 — but acts as though Harry should absorb the lies.
Take the point about the sound of camera shutters; it’s not a cheap metaphor but an explanation of Harry’s trauma and how it was enhanced by military training:
That click… after Sandhurst it sounded like a gun cocking or a blade being notched open… Great, I thought. The Army had made me more able to recognise threats, to feel threats, to become adrenalised in the face of those threats, and now its casting me aside.
This is a sentiment I have heard from many veterans who were born far from Royal Palaces and privilege.
Marriott’s speed reading has brought sloppiness; “cocked gun” is in quote marks but does not appear in the text and Harry does not simply compare all “journalists” to the Taliban but paparazzi specifically:
The paps had always been grotesque people, but as I reached maturity they were worse. You could see it in their eyes, their body language. They were emboldened, more radicalised, just as young men in Iraq had been radicalised. Their mullahs were editors, the same ones who’d vowed to do better after Mummy died... The editors were still inciting and handsomely rewarding thugs and losers to stalk the Royal Family, or anyone else unlucky enough to be deemed famous or newsworthy.
As one of those “profit centres for Murdoch Inc,” Marriott must sever Harry’s claims from the evidence he provides for them:
At every turn, he says, the press destroy his life. They make him look like an idiot when they publish pictures of him playing naked pool. They make him look like a racist when they publish pictures of him dressed as a Nazi (but who was it, you want to say, that was dressing up as a Nazi in the first place?). They leak his location in Afghanistan forcing him out of the army. They break up his relationships — Chelsy leaves him after a journalist fixes a tracking device on to his car. But most of all, they killed his mum.
Harry blames himself for the events that led to the strip pool pictures being published (“How had I let it happen? How had I been so stupid?”). Marriott doesn’t mention who published the Nazi uniform pictures (it was The Sun) or that Harry writes:
… that photo of me in a Nazi uniform had been the result of various failures — failure of thinking, failure of character. But it had also been a failure of education. Not just school education, but self-education.
An Australian magazine and the Drudge Report did leak details of his deployment in Afghanistan. He and Chelsy Davy broke up after a lot of press intrusion and pressure, but again Marriott’s job is to stick to a simple explanation: Harry’s obsessed with the press not the other way around.
There is a trend at the moment for memoirs about escaping cults and there are times when Spare reads like one of those. In Harry’s telling the royal family at times seems like a cult — perhaps one of those ones in backwoods of rural America that is dedicated to rejecting the modern world. His childhood is all huge freezing country houses, great stone fireplaces, bowing to statues of Queen Victoria and washing in bathwater that is brown from the Highland peat. Adult life is worse: “surreal”, a “Truman show” experience. Harry complains that he has never been on the Tube or ordered a parcel from Amazon or carried money or a house key or owned a car. And everywhere he is followed by the press. The people who killed his mum.
Once again, Marriott slightly distorts what Harry says (he has been on the Tube “once at Eton, on a theatre trip”) and deliberately ignores the point he is making with The Truman Show analogy: He was “prohibited from learning independence” and Charles was not just “his father [but his] boss, banker, comptroller, keeper of the purse strings through [his] adult life”.
Marriott repeats variants of “the press. The people who killed his mum” three times in his review. It’s mocking. It’s there to imply to the reader that the press did no such thing, that it was just the combination of a drunk driver and a tunnel, as if no photographers were in hot pursuit. It’s the company line and Marriott’s a company man.
Inevitably, the review also becomes a predictable attack on Meghan via Harry’s love for her. There are snide asides…
Doubtless Harry loves Meghan because she’s beautiful and, er, an (ahem) talented actress and marvellously committed to all her “women’s issues” and so on.
… and grand accusations:
Whereas Harry had fretted about being second best for his entire life, Meghan is unflappably certain that she’s the centre of the universe — and if the British royal family disagrees, well, she’ll happily take down the British royal family.
If the Royal Family could be taken down by one woman — if only — perhaps it deserved to be. “Without wishing to descend too far into armchair psychology,” Marriott writes before descending into armchair psychology…
… one wonders whether Harry’s therapist ever suggested to him that through his relationship with Meghan he may be trying to save his mother. The two women are repeatedly compared, and a constant refrain of Harry’s book and his interviews is that he doesn’t want Meghan to meet the same fate as his mum. By saving Meghan, perhaps he can do the thing he always dreamt of as a child and bring his mum back to life. And Meghan, with her propensity to lie dramatically on the floor in floods of tears, has a talent for victimhood.
That’s a grotesque paragraph. Marriott jokingly used the analogy of Harry escaping a cult but the press of which he’s part and especially the company for which he works have their own cult-like tendencies. If Harry names names — and, on the whole, he doesn’t — Marriott studiously avoids doing so. He ‘read’ 416 pages of a memoir and reached the only conclusion his pay cheque could buy.
I chose this particular Times review to focus on but I could as easily have turned to today’s Independent, with its newly installed editor-in-chief, Camilla pal Geordie Greig, and front page headline Prince Harry ‘kidnapped by cult of psychotherapy’. Or The Guardian’s review with its implication that Harry simply couldn’t understand Hilary Mantel’s ‘pandas’ essay properly. Or the BBC’s review which calls the book “weird” and quickly glosses over his criticism of the press in a single paragraph. Or Dan Wootton, British media’s saddest, littlest man, wailing for MailOnline about Harry calling him “a sad little man” in the book (but most gallingly not naming him).
There is so much bait in Spare and the British press have taken every bite. With every word, they’re proving Harry right.
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Unlike Harry who understandably says he slammed shut Hamlet when he tried to read it, I’m familiar with the bard’s version; I just think the Lion King has better songs.
No doubt if he reads this newsletter he’ll bleat about deadlines and word counts.