Linda Burgess devours the royal memoir that’s already been half-spilled across the internet to feed those of us – you know who you are – who love to lap it all up.
In recent days, in between real news, like changing prime ministers, there’ve been a few laconic locals from the Californian village the Sussexes call home who are prepared to tell the cameras that no, they haven’t read the book, and no, they’re not going to. Why would they bother – not only is climate change currently giving them something truly important to think about, but the place is crammed full with people far richer, far more talented, far more interesting than the couple that can be seen wandering on the beach with their kids and their dogs.
We’re more interested over here. On closing Spare – because if you start it, you’ll probably read it all the way through – you may well be left with a vague sense of déjà-vu. Given the interminable pre-launch extracts, the Oprah interview, the six-part Netflix series, the suing of the press, the close-up of Harry not wearing his uniform at his grandmother’s funeral, not to mention years – decades – of media obsession with that strange thing the English monarchy, not many readers will be gobsmacked with the fresh insight shown by King Charles’ younger son.
King Charles…the two words still work best when attached to spaniel. But that’s what he is thanks to primogeniture: the same mechanism by which Harry, from his first day as son number two, was the spare. The only way this situation would have changed is if William in his youth had a tumble from his polo pony, a misjudged moment in a helicopter or on a jetski, or got between Harry and a pheasant while bonding over a satisfying day of shooting enough birds to feed an entire village for a week. The birth of Prince George was the beginning of Harry’s tumbledown, and with each new birth he’s going… going… gone.
The folk from Montecito will be far more likely to buy Michelle Obama’s latest book. Some of the most honest words this summer came from her mouth. She’s been married to Barack for 30 years and admits that for ten of those she hated him. Those were the ten years when her children were young and he was absorbed by his career. Children, said Michelle Obama, are exhausting. They grizzle, moan and fight. She didn’t go on to mention the terminal tedium of standing pushing a swing in the playground. She didn’t need to, she’d already brought joy to millions of women who every time they see a photo of a cheerful good-looking nuclear family, feel as if their crabby, shrieking, flouncing, carping lot are the exception. She did add that the 20 years she’d loved him were pretty good.
Spare, the bestselling non-fiction book in its week of publication ever in the UK, and this year due to be the biggest non-fiction book ever to be donated to the charity book fair, is evidence that for all their tradition, their megabucks, their glamorous prisons, the Windsors just want the rest of us to like them. They want us to go away and love them unconditionally from a distance. The dosage of that love should be according to rank, and to find out the ones you’re meant to love most – well they’re the few who always wave from that balcony. But there are hundreds of others, many unrecognisable except in profile. Unlike those billions world-wide who spend their lives eking out the few dollars they get from the public purse, or from clambering over New Delhi’s mountains of rubbish to find something, anything to sell, these ones hide in the many apartments attached to the many properties the family owns, with only gin and tonic for company. To his horror, this is a team that Harry can see himself joining. He’s lost his place on the balcony, just when he most wanted to be waving from it.
My feeling when I closed the book, which I read straight through over two days, is that they’re actually more like the Baldwins or the Barlows from Coronation Street than the Roys from Succession. Poet Philip Larkin memorably noted that they fuck you up, your mum and dad, and the Windsors, even before they chose that new name, have obliged by doing just that. The current patriarch isn’t really that interested. Not knowing quite what to do after waking Harry to tell him the most terrible news ever, the then Prince Charles got up and left him. Harry’s description of his father’s disinclination to visit – even though he lived nearby, even though he’d been married to Camilla at that point for over two years – could be used in a masterclass on passive aggression, one of the world’s most enjoyed patterns of behaviour. (At any given second, mothers all round the world are saying, “I know you’re busy, but…” One of my most vivid memories is walking, wracked with the usual guilt, into the sitting room of the rest home where my mother spent her last years to be addressed by a unknown tiny old lady perched on a vinyl chair with “Hello, stranger.”)
Like Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, William and Harry – sorry, Willy and Harold – are brothers, and like many siblings, they can take or leave each other. There’s nothing horrific here, they’re different types, but they’re competitive. Willy is by birth the top dog. By nature or by nurture, boss-to-be William is empowered by a clear, narrow sense of what’s right. Like his father when it comes to the environment, he gets really annoyed when people don’t respect that duty is what he’s really good at. Harry is allowed more innocence; he can afford to be a fool. He makes mistakes, the world learns about them and reacts with the usual enraged response of the easily offended. Being guileless is what Harry’s good at. William doesn’t have this privilege – he can be no more rebellious than his father, snapped at 15 in a pub, cherry brandy in hand. Less rebellious in fact – there’s no chance that William has an old girlfriend tucked away dreaming of someday being Queen Consort.
The most interesting thing about this book is that although it’s only moments since it was published, there’s nothing to say about it that hasn’t already been said. All responses to it were made with that useful thing, the immediacy of the internet. Early critics had the chance to take anything even the slightest bit interesting out of context. Perhaps the only thing of real interest is Harry’s affirmation that his family members are a bunch of bean spillers who’ll say anything about anyone close to them just to make themselves look better.
Harry gets a long way on implication, on making us quite sure we know what he thinks without putting it in words. Other than calling his stepmother a witch, Harry’s is the tap on the side of the nose approach. Jealousy is a family trait: the older ones are extremely competitive with the younger when it comes to getting attention. Harry tells us he’s the only one who’s laidback about that sort of thing. He’s too busy being either the one who’s inherited his mother’s way with those in need, or a lad with a carload of bodyguards. His constant mentioning of these people is a not particularly subtle way of reminding us that his callous father has cut off all those gun toting tough guys who, unlike his brother, really did have his back. I guess it’s something you get used to, like the song says, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
Yep, they all want attention and on their terms. They want it to be like the olden days, just the odd shot of them trudging gamely through the bombed East End. Charles wants recognition for understanding decades ago that the world’s time was limited if we didn’t change our ways. Camilla wanted desperately to be Queen. Why? Why? She’s never presented as being that stupid. Harry wants … well, Harry wants approval. After being cloth-eared enough to dress up (once – for a party) as a Nazi, he wants everyone to praise him for being modern and socially aware enough to choose someone different as his life partner. And by the way, he wants everyone to know that his mistakes were mostly suggested by that Machiavellian lowlife, Prince William.
We’re all part of this; you’re meant to take sides. Go on – the Cambridges or the Sussexes? Di or Camilla? The late Queen or God? I guess we need the royal family of Britain like we need the Kardashians, like we used to need television soap operas. We’re small-minded nitwits who just like being appalled. We just like other people behaving badly – divorcing, fighting, storming off, being hurt, sulking, reconciling, displaying casual racism, giving each other biros for Christmas, gifting lowlier family members cottages with such low-slung ceilings that tall people bang their heads. Playing dirty.
It’s just so odd that the more we read about them, the less we can pretend to know them. Or need to know them. I’m disgusted at how keenly I devoured this book. I’ll admit that I’m being totally two faced when I piously declare that I just want to say, “Darling boy. For heaven’s sake put a sock in it”.