8 December 2022
Under the Bus
Lady Susan Hussey
By Robert Kilconner
Lady Susan Hussey was guilty of a number of things at the Sistah Space reception. Bad manners for one thing. It is never all right to touch people without their permission or to press them about their racial origins without good reason. Insensitivity, for another. The charity worker she was talking to, a Ms Fulani, was clearly uncomfortable with the personal questions she was being asked and Lady Susan should have desisted. A political error, too; her conduct was an embarrassment to the Royal family who she served as a lady in waiting. So what should be done with this 83 year old grandmother? Why, under a bus with her, of course; that is what the public expect and that is where she duly went.
Looking at the cold facts one can understand that. I do not know exactly what a lady in waiting does but when at a Royal reception she must to some extent be representing the Crown and if she can no longer do that to the required standard then it is right that she step down. Still, there is something which jars at a more human level and it can be found in a remarkable statement by Ms Fulani to the BBC:
“Let us be clear what this is. I’ve heard so many suggestions it’s about her age and stuff like that. And I think that’s a kind of a disrespect about ageism. Are we saying that because of your age you can’t be racist or you can’t be inappropriate?”
Well, no. That isn’t really the point. We all know that people often get weaker once they are past the three score years and 10 mark and in many cases that goes for the mind as well as the body. I don’t suppose that Lady Susan would have behaved so oddly had she been 10 years younger so the answer to Ms Fulani is that her age did not stop her behaviour being inappropriate but supplies us with a possible reason why she said what she did.
After all, what reasons could there be for a Lady in Waiting to be rude to a guest at a Buckingham Palace party. That she didn’t like black people and wanted to be rude to one, for example? There is no hint of that in the exchange. That she thought she was being charming and interesting? Possible that. People often get odd ideas about when they are being amusing. That she couldn’t think of anything else to say? Unlikely with such an experienced courtier. That she had rather got the idea that she was beyond normal rules and was showing off either to herself or Ms Fulani? Much more likely in such a grand environment. I can’t really think of any others but if it was a cloth-eared attempt to amuse or a foolish attempt to demonstrate grandeur, these are very human faults. Have you never embarrassed yourself with an inappropriate joke? Have you never gone grand? If you have done neither you would no doubt be just right for a job in the charitable sector. The rest of us, however, should murmur “there but for the grace of God go I” and the older we are the more profoundly should we murmur it.
The Victorians often referred to civilisation as a veneer and that is true for each of us individually. Genetically we probably all contain the seeds of many forms of antisocial emotion, racism being one of them. We teach ourselves, or are taught, to bury these in the same way as we bury the urges to steal, to hurt or to kill; it is a good thing that we do so but as we get older the discipline supporting the veneer grows weaker and ugly or insensitive things sometimes push their way through it. In an ageing society this will become more common rather than less, which does not mean the elderly should be forgiven more; rather that we should be more realistic about them. To let our fear of being regarded as ageist push us into keeping people in positions for which they are no longer appropriate is merely silly, but when we do so we need to be a little forgiving when we review the results.