On a drizzly winter’s day in Edinburgh, Prince Harry and his fiance Meghan Markle were beaming. Laughing. Hand-holding. Giggling. Posing. Charming all and sundry, even a horse.
It was February 2018 and the recently engaged couple was the hottest ticket in town – or pretty much anywhere on the planet.
It blows my mind that that was only five years ago and that today Harry confirming he will be travelling back to London warrants a flurry of breaking news alerts.
On Tuesday, Buckingham Palace announced that King Charles has begun treatment for an unspecified type of cancer followed by a Sussex source confirming to the Times that the Duke will be jetting to the UK “in the coming days”.
Let’s take stock here for a minute with those four words. The fact that Harry has willingly gotten out his obsidian Amex to pay for a flight and is willing to endure 10 hours supine in first class says a hell of a lot. The speed with which the Duke appears to be moving here is alarming stuff given that previously he seemed about as keen on travelling back to the UK as booking a beach break in Yemen.
The events of recent years cast Harry’s readiness to jump on a plane a bit of a grim light. Consider – in February 2021 when Prince Philip was hospitalised for a month, and clearly not long for the world, Harry did not make the trip back to London. (Yes, it was Covid times and there were restrictions in place but he could have done it if he wanted to.)
Ditto the northern summer of 2022. We now know that Her late Majesty was battling a form of bone marrow cancer at that time, having become a noticeably and concerningly frailer figure. Again, did Harry fly to Scotland for some quality time with his ailing Granny? Exactly.
In the light of this past form, that the Duke of Sussex is dashing back – and in a matter of days – will hardly quell fears about the exact nature of the King’s diagnosis.
The Times has reported that King’s condition is “much more serious” than the enlarged prostate he underwent surgery for last month and that “protocols were in place to inform a range of the world leaders”.
Also, whatever treatment His Majesty is receiving is “very specialist”.
When Harry does arrive to see his father, it will be their first actual face-to-face meeting since the death of the late Queen in September 2022, despite the fact that the duke was in the UK on four occasions in the last year alone.
During Harry’s trips in March and June, 2023 for his various court cases, the King was, you see, “too busy”. Harry’s visit in May was for the coronation, so Charles’ calendar was just chockers with more important things than seeing his child, like feeding Governors-General from the Commonwealth vol-au-vents at Palace reception.
In September when the Duke of Sussex was back on home soil for the WellChild Awards, Charles was in Scotland staying at the family’s Balmoral estate. Harry turned down the offer to spend his one night in Britain there, on what was the first anniversary of the late Queen’s death.
When the Duke called his father for his 75th birthday in November, it was reportedly the first time they had actually spoken in months.
In the absence of any details about what form of cancer the King is facing or what his prognosis might be, it will be worth keeping an eye on how long Harry remains back in Blighty. If he does a 36-hour turnaround quickie, as with the coronation, we can probably all enjoy long sighs of relief. If not, it might be time to get out the worry beads.
It may be a massive cliche but that doesn’t mean it does not also hold true – that moments like a cancer diagnosis can dramatically and instantaneously put things, like the choices the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have made in recent years, into perspective.
Consider that the last time that they were seen in public it was in Kingston, Jamaica to do the red carpet thing for the premiere of Bob Marley: One Love, their travel expenses reportedly having been picked up by a Hollywood studio.
I still don’t entirely understand how we got from that man in Edinburgh in 2018, who was sent off on diplomatic State trips at the request of the British government, and to where Harry is today – working out his home office in rain-sodden California, adding sticky tabs to his copy of a romance novel as he tries to work out how to get it onto the screen.
How did the duke manage to go from professional prince and official representative of the crown to P-plate producer?
I wonder, if Harry, having booked that London flight, should stand back and look at his life today. Is he happy with what he sees? Is he content with his choices and where the cards have fallen? Does the 16-loo mansion and the private jets to Las Vegas and having his own serenity yurt or whatever make up for having given up so much?
Does Harry ever look out over his lawn in Montecito, cold-pressed kale mocktail in hand, and remember what it was like to do something meaningful? (And what tequila tastes like?)
The Sussexes, after all, never wanted to completely give up their royal duties. They wanted to still be a part of Crown Inc, only part-time.
In another universe, one in which Harry and Meghan had never left the UK and had achieved platinum Waitrose loyalty status, then today they would be the absolute and utter stahhhhhhs of the royal game.
This week, the Palace would be shunting them out all over the shop to fly the flag and I have not a skerrick of a doubt that the Sussexes would be shining so brightly they would create their own gravitational pull.
Even before Charles’ cancer diagnosis, with this His Majesty laid up and Kate the Princess of Wales convalescing at home after abdominal surgery, if the Sussexes were still “in”, and not “out” and waiting for a lesser Kardashian to return their calls, they would be owning this moment.
Day-to-day the Duke and Duchess would be everywhere, an all-smiling, all-dazzling package carrying the collective weight of the monarchy and shouldering the load with such aplomb I need to sit down just thinking about it.
In that other universe, today I’m writing a story about how fundamental the brilliant Duke and Duchess of Sussex are to the continued success of Crown Inc. and how lucky it was that a younger Harry spied a certain Suits actress on Insta that one time and changed the course of history.
Instead, this week Harry will be returning to a country where fewer than one in four (23 per cent) of people have a favourable view of him and will be returning to a family where things have fractured so badly that the BBC has probably rostered journalists on 24/7 to specifically to cover the first time the Windsors are all in a room together.
The only silver lining here is that maybe all of this might actually help Charles and Harry (and perhaps even Prince William) begin the long road to patching things up. Just so long as no one suggests any trust falls.
Daniela Elser is a writer, editor and a royal commentator with more than 15 years’ experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.
Read related topics:King Charles IIIPrince Harry