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Prince Harry’s memoir: It’s fabulously bitchy, deliciously gossipy – and one long act of retribution

Spare spares no one. What save it from being an entitled whingefest are moments of genuine poignancy and insights into an irretrievably weird family

At one point in his newly published memoir, Prince Harry recounts a comment by a therapist he’d just started seeing. “I fear that part of you is trapped in 1997,” she told him.

“I didn’t like the sound of that,” he writes. “I felt a bit insulted. Calling me a child? Seems a bit rude.”

He might not agree, but it may be the most astute observation in a 416-page memoir that, for all the publisher promises of “insight, revelation, self-examination and hard-won wisdom”, is curiously lacking in self-awareness.

This has been billed as the most explosive royal memoir in history, but it feels more like the heart-rending story of a man stuck forever in the past, who never properly grieved his mother and who refused for years to believe she was actually dead. It is also the story of his lifelong subsequent search for people to either blame or rescue, and it is the collected outpourings of a man whose childish resentments have been carried into adulthood.

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Some of the memoir’s juiciest bits – the loss of his virginity in a field behind a pub to a horsey older woman who slapped his buttocks; the physical dust-up with William; the drug use; the frostbitten penis – have already been leaked after the Guardian got hold of a proof, and the Spanish version mysteriously went on sale almost a week early.

Whether the unravelling of the book’s meticulous PR strategy was a catastrophe or a cause for celebration seems a moot point when it has been dominating headlines for days. The extra few days of publicity won’t do sales any harm – although coming on the back of that Oprah interview, a six-part Netflix series, a Spotify podcast series and four prime-time interviews in 48 hours, the couple might want to consider the risk of exposure fatigue.

Because, for all that Harry comes across as sympathetic and vulnerable in parts, for all the deliciously gossipy bits – we learn he once took magic mushrooms in Courteney Cox’s house – the book mostly feels like a long act of retribution. Against the press. Against his family. Against his stepmother. Against the British people who lapped up the tabloid stories that painted him as Prince Thicko.

Camilla is portrayed as a cold, manipulative, tabloid-baiter, the ‘Other Woman’ who seems to have little interest in the lives of her stepsons

The paradox at the heart of this whole unwise enterprise is that Harry insists it is sparked by his family’s treatment of Meghan and his determination to make sure history didn’t repeat itself. And yet, when it comes to his father’s wife – and, to a lesser extent, his brother’s – he doesn’t hold back. Camilla is portrayed as a cold, manipulative, tabloid-baiter, the “Other Woman” who seems to have little interest in the lives of her stepsons beyond ensuring they don’t interfere with her “long game... campaign aimed at marriage, and eventually the crown”.

“Pa and Camilla didn’t want to get married on the same day the Pope was being laid to rest. Bad karma. Less press,” he writes.

“Pa and Camilla didn’t want Willy and Kate getting loads of publicity,” we’re told later, with the now king even suggesting that Kate change the spelling of Catherine to avoid the unthinkable fate of a third “royal cipher with a C and a crown above”.

Harry genuinely liked Kate in the beginning, we learn – they brought out one another’s silly sides. But then Meghan came on the scene and offended Kate by asking to borrow her lip gloss, and then they had a spat over the bridesmaid dresses, and there was an unanswered text, and some comment Meghan made to Kate about “baby brain” that landed badly, and Easter presents that never materialised... and the rest is history. Or it is now, more’s the pity.

The title of the book is Spare, but Harry spares no one, least of all William. Many of the sources of his resentment feel like normal sibling squabbles, except that normal sibling squabbles don’t end up forming the backbone of a bestselling memoir, locked forever into a nation’s historical record. Harry writes that William ignored him at school and was jealous of his army career, or when he did anything first. He describes William’s tantrum when Harry began taking an interest in Africa. “I let you have veterans, why can’t you let me have African elephants and rhinos?” the older brother is said to have moaned. William couldn’t bear that Harry was permitted to keep his beard for his wedding, and ordered him to shave it off.

Harry reveals how King Charles likes to perform handstands in his boxers – the only thing, he says, that offers relief to his chronic neck and back pain

Even the odious Andrew gets off relatively lightly by comparison, with just a couple of brief mentions – once when Meghan mistook him for one of Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers, and once when Harry is threatened with losing his security detail. “My uncle Andrew... was embroiled in a shameful scandal, accused of the sexual assault of a young woman, and no one had so much as suggested that he lose his security.”

What save the book from being a long, entitled whingefest are the moments of genuine emotional intensity – and the gloriously bitchy insights into a family that is deeply, irretrievably weird. Harry reveals how King Charles likes to perform handstands in his boxers – the only thing, he says, that offers relief to his chronic neck and back pain. The late queen, we learn, insisted on being woken and put to sleep by bagpipes whenever she was staying at Balmoral. Her sister, Margaret, whom Harry called aunt Margo but barely knew, once gave him a Christmas present of a biro with a tiny rubber fish wrapped around it. Hilariously, we’re told of intense family competition to see who could notch up the highest number of engagements in the Court Circular.

Dinners at Balmoral sound dreadful – “the adults would be held captive in the Dinner Dungeon... forced to remain ramrod straight before china plates and crystal goblets placed with mathematical precision by staff (who used tape measures), forced to peck at quails’ eggs and turbot, forced to make idle chitchat while stuffed into their fanciest kit”.

It is hardly surprising to read that none of them are huggers. Nonetheless, it is unsettling to learn Charles walked away from the bedroom of his 12-year-old “darling boy”, after telling him that his mother was killed in a car crash, without offering him a hug. And that Harry has no idea whether his father ever hugged his late mother.

The most significant presence in the book is not actually Meghan, who doesn’t appear until part three, but his mother. References to “mummy” are peppered throughout the book. His pain and unresolved grief are vividly portrayed in some of the most moving passages. “I missed my mother every day,” he writes.

Chelsy Davy was immune to ‘throne syndrome’; Caroline Flack is funny, sweet and cool. But then Meghan arrives, and with her comes an air of Sweet Valley High breathless excitement

He describes in detail the two occasions he cried for her, before he went to a therapist begging her for help to cry. Once was with his ex-girlfriend Cressida Bonas, sitting on the edge of the bath, after she asked him a fairly banal question about his mother and he shocked himself by bursting into tears. The only other time he had cried was at his mother’s graveside. “My body convulsed and my chin fell and I began to sob uncontrollably into my hands. I felt ashamed of violating the family ethos, but I couldn’t hold it in any longer,” he writes, and your heart breaks for a little boy of 12, so embarrassed at his grief for the only person who knew how to love him properly.

“Pa”, which is how he addresses Charles, comes across as affectionate but a bit self-absorbed and hapless. He had always “been a bit checked out”. “He’d always given an air of being not quite ready for parenthood... He had trouble communicating, trouble listening, trouble being intimate face-to-face.”

Part three is about Harry’s relationship with Meghan, and there is such a distinct change of tone that you briefly wonder whether he changed ghostwriters (or, more plausibly, whether he had input from an unofficial one). The air of fond affection with which he writes about his previous significant relationships is vanquished by a tone that wouldn’t be out of place in a teen romance. Chelsy Davy was immune to “throne syndrome”; Caroline Flack is funny, sweet and cool. But then Meghan arrives, and with her comes an air of Sweet Valley High breathless excitement. On their second date, he writes of Meghan: “She put a hand to her cheek and said: What’re we gonna doooo?”

What they did do has by now been extensively rehearsed – at least from one perspective. Harry went to the queen to ask her permission to marry Meghan, and she took a moment before replying, “Well, then, I suppose I have to say yes.” There was a brief period of peace before the relentless tabloid intrusion and the lack of support from his family sent them fleeing to Santa Barbara.

If by changing the media landscape Harry means entirely dominating it, then he can consider this a job well done

There are just a couple of nuggets of specifically Irish interest. In Paris for the 2007 World Cup, he was given a driver whom he describes as “Irish, with a kindly, open face”. Harry asks the man to drive him through the tunnel where his mother died, and it is only after this that he is finally able to accept his mother’s death. Later, stationed in Helmand province, in Afghanistan, he describes his friendship with Corporal of Horse David Baxter, who is from Antrim. “His lilting accent made me think he could be kidded. I gave him a hard time about the Irish, and he returned fire, laughing, but his blue eyes looked unsure. Crikey. I’m taking the piss out of a prince.”

One of the dominant themes is the red mist of fury that descends over Harry at any mention of the press. The former tabloid editor Rebekah Brooks, who is described only as “an anagram of Rehabber Kooks”, and her ultimate boss, Rupert Murdoch, come in for the most scathing attacks. It is, Harry said repeatedly this week, his “life’s work” to change the media landscape. If by changing the media landscape he means entirely dominating it, then he can consider this a job well done.

But while Harry insists that he wants his father and his brother – “my beloved brother, my arch-nemesis” – back, any form of reconciliation now seems more remote than ever. Harry claimed in his many interviews this week that he is happier than he has ever been and “at peace”. But the evidence of this book suggests otherwise. He may well be happy, but this is not the account of a man at peace.

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O’Connell is a feature writer and opinion columnist with The Irish Times