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Arts and Letters

Prince Harry’s Shallows


Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex

Random House, pp. 416, $36.00


When a celebrity publishes a ghostwritten memoir, one is bound to ask how much is ghost and how much is celebrity. In this book, there is reason to think quite a lot is ghost, for there are many American locutions that the English do not use. No English person would say, “We shot a bunch [of rabbits] earlier that day.” Nor would he say, “Even my British accent was being pared away.” (He might refer to his English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern, Cockney, Scouse, Geordie, accent, etc., but never his British accent.) And no English person would say “a birthday party. . . in the countryside near Gloucestershire.” He might say in Gloucestershire or in Somerset, Wiltshire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, etc., but not near any of them.

This raises the question of how much of the book is Harry’s work, and even whether he read it carefully afterwards. The style is abominable. Sentences without verbs. Paragraphs of not more than two lines. Demotic language. It reads as a four-hundred-page article in the worst of British tabloids, but without the pictures, written in mid-Atlantic English, or alternatively like an extended post on Facebook.

Let us suppose, however, that the book is, grosso modo, an accurate rendering of Harry’s thoughts and sentiments, in spirit if not in letter, a supposition which is, after all, probable.

The first thing to say about Harry is that he has no discernible sense of humor, irony, or dignity (unlike his late grandmother). There is no wit in the book and no amusing anecdote: frostbite of his own penis does not count. If he had ever been inclined to laugh, years of so-called therapy and the search for something that he terms mental health have successfully drained him of it.

The second thing, which surprised me, is that he is a vulgarian (I will not keep adding on the supposition that the book accurately reflects his words, because he presumably gave it his imprimatur and, however cursory his inspection of it, he could hardly have failed to notice its vulgarity). I will cite just a few examples of very many. Referring to an inaccurate article in the press about him, he says:

Of all the things that surprised me about it, the truly flabbergasting thing was the absolutely shitty writing.

Quoting William Faulkner, he asks:

Who the fook is Faulkner?

Describing a matron at his first boarding school who was inclined to be cruel to the boys if she could catch them, he writes:

She was a tortoise and we were tree frogs. Still, now and then the tortoise would luck out. She’d lunge, grab a fistful of boy. Aha! That lad would then be well and truly fucked.

In Africa, he and the people with whom he was camping saw a leopard nearby:

Holy fuck. Then their eyes turned towards me. Holy fuuuuck.

This is not only vulgar, but mentally lazy and inexpressive.

Why should the Prince express himself in this way? There are two possible explanations, not mutually exclusive. The first is that put forward by Martha Gellhorn to explain why Hemingway used so few adjectives: lack of vocabulary. The second is that Harry, though he wants to be His Royal Highness, also wants to be a commoner, and he thinks that commoners are common. His Royal Highness, the prole.

The third thing to say about him is that he has a very post-modern view of the truth (in this he is nothing if not representative of his time). He writes, says, or dictates:

Whatever the cause, my memory is my memory, it does what it does, and there’s just as much truth in what I remember and how I remember it as there is in so-called objective facts.

This captures perfectly the quality of his mind. It is true that the content of his memory, or alleged content of his memory, is a fact; but it does not follow from this that the content of his memory is factual in any other sense. He is absolving himself in advance of the charge of inaccuracy.

Again, it is true that memory is imperfect and that practically all of us sometimes remember things wrongly. It is to be expected in a memoir of four hundred pages that there are mistakes: if I were asked to write as long a memoir of my life, I would make mistakes. I know, for example, that I have been to Haiti twice, the first time in 1987 and the second in 1992—but it might have been in 1986 and 1993. If documentary evidence were brought forward that the latter dates were correct, I would not say that there is just as much truth in the former dates as the latter, I would say that my memory was at fault.

In my memoir, however, factual errors would not matter much since I would not be writing what Harry is here writing, a long and vicious indictment of his father, his father’s wife, his brother, various royal hangers-on, and the press. If you accuse, you should at least be accurate about what can be easily checked, and if you are inaccurate even in this, your indictment, which consists mainly of uncorroborated conversations, cannot, or ought not to, convince. Several indubitable mistakes in his memoir have been pointed out (sometimes called lies, but let us be charitable). Here is one that has not been noticed, as far as I know.

Other than the occasional shopping, I stopped going out in 2015. Stopped entirely. . . . No more house parties. No clubs. No nothing.

This is clearly intended to indicate that he was in a morbid or distressed state of mind that prevented him from going out. A quick search on the internet reveals that he fulfilled one hundred twelve public engagements in 2015. I would not care to fulfill so many public engagements myself, but I would not subsequently imply that I had been suffering from something like agoraphobia.

Falsum in uno, falsus in omnibus? Not necessarily; but it does raise questions about the good faith of the witness, especially when he has declared his allegiance to the theory that there are no objective facts.

Fourth, there is the matter of his judgment. It is perhaps not surprising that he idolizes his mother, though at one point he says that she had periods of over-mothering and periods of absence from his life (without telling us what precisely she was doing during those absences). But when he says “People routinely compared her to icons and saints . . . but every such comparison, while lofty and loving, fell wide of the mark,” he says something that is undoubtedly true, but not in the sense that he means it.

Again, when he tells us that his mother hated “all things posh,” he is either self-deluded or lying. The last evening of her life, the one in which she was killed in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes, was spent at the Ritz in Paris. No one obliged her to spend her evening there, and if the Ritz in Paris is not posh, the word has no meaning.

Harry’s tastes are of the lowest. He thinks that P Diddy, Duran Duran, and Elton John are great musical artists; he eats pizza and takeaway food; he has no discernible aesthetic or intellectual interests; and—like his wife—he thinks that pre-torn jeans are “essential” and a sign of some kind of solidarity with, rather than an insult to, the poor, who dress in torn clothes because they have no others.

His judgment in revealing that he killed twenty-five Taliban fighters in Afghanistan (a claim disputed by his erstwhile colleagues in the army), and that to him the deceased were but chess pieces on a board, is both distasteful and inadvisable, though here the unscrupulous publishers must share some of the blame for not having expunged the passage. Moreover, Harry does not reflect on the justice or otherwise of the war, or on the Taliban’s victory. Only a man as narcissistic as Harry could experience children throwing stones at the helicopter he was flying above them without even wondering about the justification of his mission, even if he came to the conclusion that it was justified.

Finally, there is the question of his self-pity and self-absorption to the point of obsession. This seems to be the fruit of so-called therapy, though no doubt such fruit requires the right soil in which to grow. It is true, of course, that his life was in certain respects difficult. To be constantly in the public eye must be tiresome, though it cannot be said that he did all he possibly could to avoid publicity. It does not take much thought to know that circumspection is the best way to avoid such publicity. He utters a disgraceful slur on his father, that his father bred him to be useless, and that it was his fault that he is, in effect, useless. It was his (Harry’s) decision not to go to university, it was his decision to go into the army, and his decision to come out of it. If he had decided that he wanted to be an entomologist, or a boat-builder, or a pharmacologist, I do not think that his father would have stood in his way.

There is a constant tone of whining throughout the book. Milton said that the mind could make a Hell of Heaven; Harry could make a grievance of it. He complains that in Balmoral, the beautiful Scottish royal castle, he was given a smaller bedroom than his brother. In this complaint, one hears the siren song of psychotherapy, of which Harry stands not as an advertisement but as a warning. For his great privileges, there is not a word of recognition, let alone gratitude. Perhaps he thinks that everyone can jet off to the Okavango Swamps when he is feeling a little down, as he did.

Can nothing good be said of him, as depicted in this book? He seems to have felt genuine sympathy for the war-wounded and to have brought them some comfort. This suggests at least the possibility of some kind of redemption.

There remains the cultural significance of this book. Of the twenty-five thousand or so comments on Amazon by confirmed purchasers, the overwhelming majority are favorable. It is a selected sample, of course, for those who bought the book were more likely to be sympathetic to its author (if that is not too strong a word for him); but it would suggest nevertheless that Harry has, with cunning if not intelligence, tapped into the thirst for victimhood as the highest state of being. He has taken a leaf from the butler of Princess Diana who wrote a book, of which he has this to say:

Mummy’s former butler [How she hated all things posh!] had penned a tell-all, which actually told nothing. It was merely one man’s self-justifying, self-centring version of events. . . . He was milking her disappearance for money.

If a prince of the realm is a victim, who is not a victim? There is no plumbing Prince Harry’s shallows.

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