Sunday, February 5, 2023

Spare, by Prince Harry

Random House, January 2023

This is not really an easy book to review. It's controversial for obvious reasons; there's been much public controversy around Harry and Meghan, and those who aren't for them, are sometimes quite vitriolic. Even those who aren't vitriolic tend to treat all criticisms and condemnations of the pair as being true because after all, it's Harry and Meghan, and obviously it's them, not Will & Kate, the officially charming heir and wife, now officially Prince and Princess of Wales. And anything that's bad for Harry, well, he should be used to it because royalty, Will's the heir, Harry's the spare, so obviously if he's unhappy he's just resenting his place in the family. Or Meghan is pushing him to, despite the fact that he was obviously unhappy with both the public role and extreme limitations on what he could do. Not a desire to go out clubbing more; a desire to do things he was actually good at--like being a soldier.

Reading about Harry's school years, I wondered whether he'd ever been tested for neurodivergence or other things that might be called "learning disorders." Stupid people don't become very good military pilots. People who have developmental issues that make learning from books and lectures difficult potentially can. But of course the answer is that he wouldn't have been tested. In the rigid and outdated worldview of the Royal Family and those who surround them, a diagnosed neurodivergence or learning disability would have been viewed as far worse than merely being "not the smart one." Particularly since he was not the heir, but just the spare.

Some stories that have been cited as clear evidence of Will and Harry being treated differently have been dismissed as "William's going to be king someday; Harry isn't." In many cases that's valid. The chances of the second son ever being king were always low, and they dropped lower, not just when William actually got married, but when he was nearing adulthood, alive and healthy. They were being prepared for different lives. Some differences were not just appropriate, but necessary.

But some of them were just differences that said to two young children that one of them didn't matter.

Yet the real problem may have been the way they were treated "the same," when that was for looks rather than what was good for the two of them. Eton wasn't academically a good fit for Harry, and William was at the age where you don't want to be embarrassed by your younger sibling. Yet it was judged essential for both boys to go to Eton--where William told Harry they officially didn't know each other, Harry struggled academically, and Harry acted out in, actually fairly normal, rule-breaking and pranks, that the son of the Prince of Wales couldn't get caught in.

Harry doesn't so much talk about his mother's death, but his blocking out the grief he's afraid to experience by convincing himself it's all an elaborate trick, his Mummy disappearing to escape the way the media treated her. He held on to this idea, and didn't confront and process his grief, until a visit to Paris as an adult, when he went to the tunnel where she had her fatal accident.

It's after Eton that we start to see the nearly adult Harry, as he takes a gap year, originally on a cattle ranch (station?) in Australia. It's a good experience for him, doing hard, physical work every day, regular chores, eating with the family, and not being in the public eye.

Until the paparazzi find him, and create not just distraction, but potential danger for the ranch and the cattle with their happy disregard for anything except getting the pictures they wanted. Harry has to leave, and instead goes to Africa--where he makes connections that became very important to him in the years to come.

In the following years, he enlists in the army, starts training as a pilot, has his first serious girlfriends--relationships that end, when the women find they, and their families, can't endure the paparazzi whose constant pursuit that Harry already hates. And no, it's not okay because he's a royal. It's utterly nonsensical to say on the one hand that he has no reason to complain about anything because he's so privileged, and on the other hand he's so low in the line of succession that he's a nobody who shouldn't expect anything at all, including being able to serve in a combat zone as a regular soldier, without becoming an additional threat to his fellow soldiers because of the mindless pursuit of the media. 

He becomes a very good pilot, and is deployed to Afghanistan, where he does very well as an FAC--a Forward Air Commander--until, of course, the media catch up with him.

He gets pulled out, of course, and it takes him quite a long time to jump through all the hoops needed to get back there (while not being able to do anything else worthwhile in the meantime). He manages it eventually, and is again doing very well there, when a media party comes through, and he's ordered to cooperate with them. They promise to keep his location secret, and they of course don't, and he's pulled out again, and it's the end of his military career.

It's late in the book that he meets Meghan Markle, and this of course is wildly controversial the moment it becomes public knowledge.

No, Meghan wasn't treated just like Kate, or Camilla, or even Diana. There's too much to say, so I'll limit myself to just pointing out that none of the others were featured in a photoshopped picture, walking with William or Charles, holding hands with a toddler chimpanzee. That was vile, that was inexcusable, and anyone who claims not to believe that Meghan was at one point suicidal in the face of the viciousness and malevolence of the coverage she was subjected to, was, to be charitable, not paying attention.

But also, anyone who thinks Harry was ever happy as part of the Royal Family "firm," wasn't paying attention, either. Nor was the reason for his unhappiness that he was "lazy." It's one thing to say he was born into the job, but you're allowed to quit jobs, even the family business.

Harry has a great deal to say about his own mistakes, his sometimes questionable behavior (which, depending on your views, may include his use of marijuana and sometimes hallucinogenic mushrooms), and his mental health struggles. 

There's also a fair amount about what look like very odd family dynamics. For me, this includes the fact that William and Charles call Harry--whose given name is Henry--"Harold." Why? Harry never says or says anything to suggest he thinks it's odd. Which suggests there might be a reason he got that nickname, and I went to Google...

All I found was a suggestion that it's because William the Conqueror was the first King William of England, and he became King of England by defeating and killing Harold Godwinson (Harold II of England).

If that's true, it's beyond odd. It's downright unhealthy. But it's only a story on the internet, without great sourcing. I wouldn't even consider it, if I had found anything else at all. Yet the sourcing remains so vague that still I can only roll my eyes at it.

If anyone reading this has a better explanation, I want to hear it. Really. Please give me something more plausible if you can.

We do follow Harry and Meghan through their courtship and marriage, with all the weirdness of what's okay for them to do and what isn't, and the media's vicious descent on Meghan. The book ends with them living in the US, and the birth of their second child, Lilibet. Harry certainly doesn't make it sound as if they will ever move back to the UK, which will outrage all the same people who hate them.

This is an insightful and moving book. Harry has given a lot of thought to things, and is open and vulnerable, and well worth reading.

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