As a chartered psychologist, I decided to read Spare to learn more about a topic that deeply interests me; the adverse childhood experiences of children from materially privileged homes. This topic is thoroughly addressed within the text. However, I didn’t predict that I would be left with such an aching sadness for Harry, his brother and his mother and to some extent his father; normal, flawed human beings trapped and tormented within a crumbling, cruelly dysfunctional gilded cage.
There are many descriptions of Harry’s family life in Spare that ordinary people will understand and relate to. As a parent, grandparent and retired schoolteacher, I elicited elements of many children, young people and families I have known over the years within the book’s narrative.
For example, the child with divorced parents who clearly love(d) him dearly, but who veered between over-parenting (in the case of his mother), being too absorbed in work (in the case of his father) and, as the marriage crumbled, becoming too caught up with their own problems to pay sufficient attention to their children’s unhappiness.
Post-divorce, when the surviving parent becomes increasingly wrapped up in his new partner, Harry reiterates a jealousy that eventually mellows into a feeling of relief that, as he pulls away towards his own independent life, “at least Pa will be happy”. This, too, I have heard described many times.
Harry’s experience as a child whose parent has died tragically early is also sadly familiar – there are typically one or two of these in every school year group.
He also captures another narrative with which I am very familiar: the child/ young person temperamentally unsuited to a desk-bound education, whose yearning for a more practical approach is channelled into mischief to assuage boredom and excess energy, infuriating authoritarians whilst challenging and inspiring progressive teachers and carers (of whom he writes affectionately).
…And ordinary siblings
Those of us like myself who are younger siblings will also recognise much of our own experience in Harry’s interactions with his older brother (William: “don’t try and hang around with me and my mates while we’re at the same school”). He also evocatively narrates many of the subtle familial reminders that you, as the youngest, were there last, and will be allotted a place in the family that is inevitably defined in the context of the place your sibling already occupies.
But then, there are the battles that the youngest usually wins. It was William who was thrown out of Pa’s car and told to ride with the bodyguards when the boys fought constantly on the back seat. Pa brooks no argument, because William is older, and therefore ought to know better. How many times did I hear my parents say this to my older brother during my childhood?
And then, there is the gladiatorial relationship between close-age brothers. Harry reports that he and William fought constantly. A male friend with a twin brother once told me “We put bruises on each other that we would never have dared put on another boy. But if anyone picked on either of us outside the family, we both pitched in together”. Harry echoes this in his comment on William: “my beloved brother and my arch nemesis.”
Finally, there are the issues that emerge in early adulthood when your sibling settles down with their life partner; transitions that are not always smooth. Their choice of mate may be very different to the one that you thought or even wished that they would make.
The norms of your brother/sister-in-law’s family may be very different to your own. Hugging or not hugging; commenting frankly on a situation as one perceives it or smiling politely and keeping one’s feelings to oneself. Harry describes a range of typical misunderstandings and spats that arose from such incompatibilities in his own family, but sadly the tone in which he does so frequently comes across as petty and vexatious.
…And not so ordinary at all
Spare amusingly depicts many characters in Harry’s family that will remind readers of their own; an embarrassing grandfather who laughs too loudly in the wrong places and makes a stream of tactless remarks (“you call that a beard?”), a dotty great-grandmother who likes a tipple, a grandmother who ignores an enormous amount of sniping and bad behaviour to keep the peace, and a fearsome great-aunt who can “kill a houseplant with one scowl”.
Most of us experience sibling rivalry, and many younger siblings feel overshadowed by their older siblings at some point in their childhood. However, very few of us will have heard adults explicitly referring to younger children as ‘spares’ or been conditioned to the brutal unfairness of an archaic primogeniture that dictates ‘the oldest takes all’.
What is most abnormal and dysfunctional about the Windsors, however, is the malevolent fishbowl in which they exist, created by the overwhelming and frankly terrifying ways in which they, and those who marry into the family, are pursued by the tabloid press.
The key revelation in Spare is Harry’s claim that different factions of the core Windsor dynasty relentlessly brief against one another to redirect the tabloid ‘heat’. He focuses most particularly upon his “dangerous” stepmother in this respect, who (arguably) wins the prize for the most negative tabloid exposure following his parents’ divorce, ramping up further after his mother’s death.
As Harry painstakingly returns to this process many times in Spare, I was increasingly reminded of the chapter in Orwell’s 1984 in which Winston is slowly broken down by his interrogator, incrementally being further and further exposed to his deepest fears.
“Sometimes… they threaten you with something – something you can’t stand up to… And then you say, ‘Don’t do it to me, do it to somebody else, do it to so-and-so.’… And after that, you don’t feel the same towards the other person any longer.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder
I was relieved to read that at least one of the therapists that Harry consulted told him that many of his mental health problems were likely to be rooted in post-traumatic stress disorder, triggered by his mother’s death and then exacerbated by events that occurred over the months and years following, consequently recommending that he seek treatment.
Whilst, sadly, it is not that unusual for a parent of a child under 18 to die through illness or accident, it is unique and wildly dysfunctional for that child to be expected to walk behind the parent’s cortege, filmed by the world’s media, live broadcast to a multi-million worldwide television audience.
It is also unique and potentially hugely psychologically damaging for the parent’s death to have been at the least exacerbated, and at the most directly (albeit unwittingly) caused by a swarm of paparazzi. Further adding insult to that injury is the fact that a similar swarm rise again during your early adulthood, fixated upon personally tormenting you, and anyone with whom you become romantically involved. Added to which, the advent of smartphone cameras and social media in the meantime has turned every person you pass in the street into a potential paparazzi.
It is also highly disturbing to be given reason to believe that your parents’ marriage was elaborately arranged around the relationship your father was already having with the woman who eventually becomes your stepmother, evoking dark thoughts that the chain of events that led to your mother’s tragic early death would not have unfolded had she not been enticed into that marriage.
Incrementally, this would create an imposing set of adverse childhood experiences for children living through such dysfunctionality, however materially privileged the family might be.
Calling time on the Windsor Truman Show
Harry describes his life up to the point of leaving the UK as “a cross between the Truman show and a zoo”. While “recollections may [certainly] vary” on fine details, there is surely more than enough evidence documented elsewhere to justify this comment.
I finished the book with the thought that Harry and his brother, despite – or sometimes even because of – their incredible material privilege, were born and raised within a web of dysfunctionality that would have utterly broken many. While they have emerged as ‘walking wounded’ in some ways, they have both forged thriving young families and initiatives to engage with the less fortunate, which gives evidence of a resilience of which I am sure their mother would be proud.
We can trace the decline of royalty over centuries from the bloody curtailment of the divine right of kings in the execution of Charles I, to the rise of parliament in the Glorious Revolution, to the constitutional monarchy inherited by Elizabeth II, confirming on her 21st birthday that her reign would not be about ruling, but serving.
Fast forward to the present, a voracious, internationally networked mass media and social media have made the lives of those in the royal fishbowl unbearable, and infantilised those on the outside who amplify the tabloid game through clicks, purchases and social media posts, salivating over every sensational headline.
The core message that comes over loud and clear from Spare, although it is never explicitly stated, is that our current constitution creates a deeply undesirable future for the next generation of royals, for those who will seek to profit by turning them into tabloid heroes and villains, and for those who will passively consume and amplify such nonsense.
It sounds an alarm to all Britons, whether royalty, aristocracy or commoner: enough is enough. The time has passed for this archaic and class-blighted society; we need a constitution fit for the 21st century.