Spare Us

In his unsparing memoir, Prince Harry reveals, among many things, that he is circumcised. Do we really need to know this much from the horse’s mouth?

As it turns out, while Prince Harry hates the media for disrespecting his privacy, he has no qualms betraying his own—privates. In his much anticipated memoir Spare, the damaged Duke is so cocksure that he writes about his genitalia. And is keen that you know he is circumcised. “My penis was a matter of public record,” he tells his dear readers, “and indeed some public curiosity.” And, as with almost everything else, the British mass media is to be blamed. “The press had written about it extensively. There were countless stories in books, and papers (even The New York Times) about Willy and me not being circumcised.” And talking about his own willy is not enough, he has to expose his brother’s, too? (There is also the bit about a stag: after it was hunted down, and his entrails removed—“gralloching”, they “snipped his penis.) “Mummy had forbidden it, they all said, and while it’s absolutely true that the chance of getting penile frostbite is much greater if you’re not circumcised, all the stories were false. I was snipped as a baby.” Were the two snips the same? And you’d know, too, that there’s such a thing as penile frostbite. Prince Harry is no stranger to it. He recounts his “tender penis”, even when he says “it was an effort not to overshare” during a family evening when his father became “very interested and sympathetic about my frostnipped ears and cheeks (caught while on an expedition to the North Pole)” after he “regaled the company with the tales of the (South) pole.” If that was not clever enough, he told the doctor, when he finally saw one, “I went to the North Pole and now my South Pole is on the fritz.” So much for removing the foreskin.

The first mention of circumcision is when he writes of going back to Ludgrove School after his mother’s funeral. The boarding school was “where more than a hundred boys lived in close proximity. Everyone knew everyone’s business, down to who was circumcised, who was not. (We called it Roundheads versus Cavaliers.)” But why is knowing that he is a Roundhead crucial to the understanding of his problems with his family and the British press? Was this to inform his American readers, for whom male circumcision is taken seriously and preferred by both men and women? Or is a circumcised male a better man, and lover? We are relieved he stopped there at the manly tenderness, and did not go on to say what endowment—when finally apparent—was revealed years after his prepuce was “snipped”. Or if his girlfriends, or that older woman, to whom he lost his virginity to in “a grassy field behind a busy pub (a milestone he calls “inglorious”), and who “treated (him) like a young stallion”, liked him, cut. Or if Meghan Markle prefers her prince with a royal manhood—“the todger”—not whole. The book was, even prior to its completion, reported to be boldly contentious and highly revealing. We didn’t think that this much would be divulged, even the state of personal appendages. And, if you are burning with curiosity, “penis” is brought up eight times throughout the book.

Other bodily parts mentioned include his facial hair. It appears right on the second page—“to beard or not to beard”. As Prince Harry recounts, “a mate, trying to make conversation, asked Grandpa what he thought of my new beard.” Prince Philip said, “THAT’S no beard!” But by the time his grandson was to get married in 2018, the beard was beard enough to be a problem. We are told that the duke had to ask permission from the late Queen to keep his beard for the nuptial day. She did not object to it, but Prince William, his younger brother recounts, was not pleased: “You put her in an uncomfortable position, Harold (the name used at home)! She had no choice but to say yes.” And there, too, is mention of the lack of hair. When he first describes his brother, the Prince of Wales, he does not draw a flattering picture: “his alarming baldness, more advanced than my own”. Then there was the shaving of his own hair by his schoolmates that left him horrified, and in an attempt to gain sympathy from his brother (futile), the “fingering the nubs on my newly bare scalp”. From the top to the bottom: He also writes about his bum (he doesn’t say if that is hairless). On wearing kilts, an article of clothing his father is fond of donning, but he dislikes—mainly because of “that breeze up your arse.” And his exposed derrière during an infamous trip to Las Vegas in 2012, which was splashed across newspapers of the globe. He now ponders: “Is my bare arse that memorable?”

Why have we highlighted these asinine, X-rated details? Because everything else brought up in the book, you would have already read or heard, in the leaks that were published last week and in the interviews the prince gave, with relish, to Anderson Cooper and, with dismay, to Tom Bradby (there were, of course, others since). Whatever is juicy—or the preferred “explosive”—is already out there. From his “arch-nemesis” brother’s indifference to his plight (and that scuffle) to the outrage with the British press to the alleged villainy of his step-mother to the perceived public and press hatred—and disapproval—of his wife, little requires repeating here. Not even his inability to accept his fate as the royal “spare”. Without plunging into the book, you would have gathered that this memoirist is deeply aggrieved. The Chinese has a better phrase for it: 愤愤不平 (fen fen bu ping) or extreme anger that can’t be calmed. Prince Harry did not only begrudge scores of people for his misfortunes, he unloaded a staggering backlog of injustice—a one-man grievance committee. He has waited this long. It is time to settles old scores. No one escapes his wrath. This is a British prince doing what American celebrities do with remarkable flair: the unsparing spill all.

Is this then a career option? Prince Harry was a military man. Although going back to the uniform was not considered, it is now impossible when he inexplicably reveals in the book that he killed 25 members of the Taliban—who were, to him, “chess pieces taken off the board”—during his deployment in Afghanistan in 2012/13. Why did he not spare the British army? He knew—as stated in the book—that even military “exercises were always kept secret from the press”. But this was his memoir and it was not about secrets. The disclosure does make one wonder: How smart is he, really? Is he by nature just flippant? He does confirm in Spare that he is not academically inclined. For one, he did not like history, even English history. At Ludgrove, you’d never find him in the library; “better check the woods. Or the playing fields.” Later, at Eton, “heaven for brilliant boys, it could thus only be purgatory for one very unbrilliant boy”, he chose self-pity and then sports—it would be “my thing”, he writes, and rugby, which “let me indulge my rage”. He does not fail to let you know how angry he was (and still is). Could it be this fury that came between him and his studies? The hurdle to appreciating Shakespeare, which his father adored? But he did try, picking up a copy of Hamlet, and then quickly abandoning it. “I slammed it shut. No, thank you.” One book—only one—he did enjoy: American author John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, “a story about friendship, about brotherhood, about loyalty, it was filled with themes I found relatable.”

By now, the world knows that, back in England, Prince William and he was in a physical altercation (that broke a dog’s bowl) which the younger brother would not call a fight because he did not hit back. He allowed himself to hurt. But being hit was not new to Prince Harry. He could take a sock. He writes of visits, when he was an early teenager, to a Norfolk country estate of friends of his father’s, where, among the children, “hair-pulling, eye-gouging, arm-twisting, sleep holds” were normal play. And he “always took the brunt”, adding, “black eye, violet welt, puffed lip, I didn’t mind… Whatever my motivation, my simple philosophy when it came to scrapping was: more, please.” As Oliver Twist asked for more gruel? Is there a masochistic streak in the prince, even in the presence of his brother? Was he unable to retaliate unless he was on a real battlefield-chessboard? Surely he was not trained at Sandhurst to be a punching bag. Or was it because no matter how hard he took, he was always cushioned—he could call his therapist. And even when he was not beaten, he saw that others would get even with him someday. When, once, Prince William was asked to leave the car their father was driving, after the two brothers, seated in the rear, were squabbling, the heir went to and boarded the rear vehicle occupied by their bodyguards. Prince Harry recounts: “Now and then I peered out the back window. Behind us, I could just make out the future King of England, plotting his revenge.”

Spare opens with a scene in Frogmore gardens, with Prince Harry writing that “the trees were bare, but the air was soft. The sky was grey, but the tulips were popping. The light was pale, but the indigo lake, threading through the gardens, glowed”. Would a former military man, a rugby player pay attention to such details? The air was soft! It is hard to commensurate the description with the severe face on the cover. For someone who does not read, who has no affinity with history, he has the unexpected talent to describe a termite mound as “baroque architecture (he does not even describe the royal residences he enjoyed)”. We have to remind ourselves that although, on the cover, the book is credited to Prince Harry, it is, in fact, ghost-written by the American author J.R. Moehringer (Open, the memoir of Andre Agassi). That a stand-in was required (not even a co-writer) corroborates with the Duke’s own admission in the book that he “was a poor student, a dreadful writer.” It is unlikely that he is better now, poised for the Booker Prize. If you want entertainment for a lonely night, Spare is moderately pacey, with parts that, for some, might be charming, and naughty—consistent with the reputation he acquired back in the day. Also befitting a former soldier, who does not give or receive orders in compound sentences, the writing is simple, conversational even (and sentences-in-italics galore). But a “dreadful writer” need not be free of some semblance of erudition. So he writes, “how can you really describe light? Even Einstein had a problem with that one.”

Many would have a problem with that one. The attempt to make him sound smart, however, does not equal the effort to make him appear pitiful. At every turn, at every juncture, sympathy is milked out of the reader. In school, in his early teens, when he was punished for being naughty, for going against school rules, he was already so emotionally fractured that “there was no torture Ludgrove could dish out that surpassed what was going on inside me.” There is also a palpable defeatist attitude. In the army, when he was training to fly, his reaction to a flight instructor telling him, “don’t let one mistake destroy this flight”—“but I let one mistake ruin many a flight”. Jumping out of nearly every page, except those describing his military training, is the trauma that he was left with following his mother Princess Diana’s death in August 1997. She is within many pages of the book. Even during a safari in Botswana, when a leopard appeared before the campers. The wild cat, according to the motherless royal, “was clearly a sign, a messenger she’d sent to say: All is well. And all will be well.”

But Prince Harry does not show that all is that well. He is funny sometimes, but more often than not, he is angry, seething, unforgiving. When he mentions his mother, he is tender, reflective; when he talks of others he is (still) enraged with, the language is brutal. One person who crossed him intensely was an editor he did not name, who wanted to expose his drug-taking while he was still at Eton. She was seriously attacked, even when what she wanted to run in her paper did happen. He said of her: “loathsome toad, I gather (he isn’t sure?). Everyone who knew her was in full agreement that she was an infected pustule on the arse of humanity… (second-hand information?).” It is hard to ignore the hypocrisy. When Jeremy Clarkson wrote in The Sun last month those uncalled for words about the repugnant punishment that the Duchess of Sussex deserved, he and his wife were outraged. He later told Tom Bradby in an interview for ITV that what Mr Clarkson penned “is hurtful and cruel towards my wife.” Was his description of that editor a delineation of Mini Mouse? Perhaps the reader is expected to overlook the uneven tone that vacillates between “naughty Harry” and motherless boy, killer-pilot and his philosophical self. The prince is not the simple fellow or a marionette with the strings in the hands of his wife?

The 410-pager would have been a fairly dull read—if not for the small details, such as noting that there was a psychiatric hospital Broadmoor, down the road from his school and that before he was a student, a “patient had escaped and killed a child in one of the nearby villages.” Or, the bleak sandiness of the military outpost Dwyer: “Everyone and everything at Dwyer was either caked with sand or sprinkled with sand or painted the colour of sand.” Or, the rituals of hunting, such as being pushed into a stag after it was shot and its stomach slit opened (we did say some parts of the book are charming!). A book from a prince, who admitted, “when I was forced to sit quietly with a book, I freaked out”, could be considered with suspicion. “At all costs, I avoided sitting quietly with a book,” he wants you to believe. Yet, in weighing his options to make money, he chose to offer a book. Spare was projected to be one of the biggest best-sellers of the start of the new year. In the UK, it was just reported that it is their fastest-selling non-fiction, ever. We purchased it, hoping to hear from the man himself, but somehow, we aren’t sure it is his voice that is discernible. In one of his numerous trips to Botswana, he came face to face with an elephant, and caught the eye of the beast. He writes, “I thought of the all-seeing eye of the Apache, and I thought of the Koh-i-Noor diamond…” How was he able to go from the night vision system of a helicopter to a rock in the Crown of Elizabeth The Queen Mother, in the presence of a huge animal that might crush him? Believe him, we did try.

Spare is one of the most expensive memoirs available at Kinokuniya. It is priced at S$60.48 (for comparison, Haruki Murakami’s immensely enjoyable Novelist as a Vocation, also in hardback, is S$37.45). But in the UK, booksellers are offering it at half the recommended retail price. Even Suzy Menkes was surprised by the markdown just days after the book was published, sharing on Instagram a photo of a shop in City Airport, London, with the comment, “half price already?” When we expressed our surprise at and disapproval of the pricing to the cashier at the Bugis Junction store, he told us that the proceeds would go to charity. Are we then performing a charitable act when we buy the book we were not certain we would enjoy? After we made the payment, the book was passed to us, accompanied by a flyer (third photo from the top), presumably distributed last week to announce the arrival of Spare, as well as a similar bookmark, both with the face used on the cover. We were not sure if this was to allay our astoundment with the high price of the book, that, as it turns out, is not packed with information that is compelling or previously unknown.

Prince Harry’s telling of his life’s story up to now, since his mother’s death, could be a sad read. Even his aversion to schooling—when he was offered the chance to be a helicopter pilot and learned that the training would stretch for two years, he does not hide his disappointment: “Bloody help. At every turn, life was determined to drag me back to a classroom.” After marrying an older woman who is able to give him what he has hitherto lacked and craved, you’d think that he would be able to put the past behind him. Yet, he does not seem to be able to come to terms with maternal loss. And in his frustration, compounded by the fact that he is not the heir, but the spare, he has a go at anyone who has not coddled him or supported him or protected him. In the inside of the book’s back jacket, the description of the author reads: “Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, is a husband, humanitarian, military veteran, mental wellness advocate and environmentalist.” Achievements. Yet? Within the pages, he who is now man of a Montecito mansion recalls his Grandpa telling him, “you have to know when it’s time to go, Harry.” Perhaps, the old man said “let go”, and the young, troubled prince did not hear him. Or remember, correctly.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Photos: Jim Sim