Pempe Aitken

Beauty who became the wife and mother of MPs

It is a tribute to Pempe Aitken's ability to inspire affection that during her last illness her children had to post a notice discouraging visitors to her flat from coming too often and staying too long. Although she died at the age of 94, and had outlived almost all her contemporaries, her circle of friends had been constantly refreshed and remained devoted. She was lively, curious, beautiful and affectionate to the last.

Penelope Loader ("Pempe") Maffey: born Peshawar, India 2 December 1910; MBE 1955; married 1938 William Aitken (KBE 1963, died 1964; one son, one daughter); died London 7 February 2005.

It is a tribute to Pempe Aitken's ability to inspire affection that during her last illness her children had to post a notice discouraging visitors to her flat from coming too often and staying too long. Although she died at the age of 94, and had outlived almost all her contemporaries, her circle of friends had been constantly refreshed and remained devoted. She was lively, curious, beautiful and affectionate to the last.

She was a daughter of the Raj, born in 1910 on the North-West Frontier; her much-admired father, John Maffey, one of the Heaven Born (the Indian Civil Service) and later the first Lord Rugby, was then Political Agent for Khyber. She spent much of her early life in India, where her childhood memories included riding out at dawn astride a fat pony accompanied by two grooms. Later, when her father became Governor General of the Sudan, she lived for a time in his palace in Khartoum, wreaking havoc amongst a succession of ardent ADCs.

Pempe was sent off to boarding school in England; most holidays were spent with her moustachioed Aunt Marion. Parentless in the cause of Empire, she and her brother Simon became very close as a result. She hated Sherborne, running away to join Ben Greet's touring Shakespeare company. (Nevertheless, she sent her daughter there; and, when Maria asked why, said dreamily, "I'll never forget the sun striking Diana Reader Harris's face in Assembly.")

One autumn, while her parents were renting a house on the Sandringham estate, Pempe ran over a pheasant, and, as she got out to throw it in the boot, the King's car drew up behind her. "Mine, I think," said George V, taking it from her - an invitation to dinner arrived that night, and she became a firm favourite.

In spite of her conventional background, she was the least conventional of women. A great beauty, with high cheekbones, slanting blue-grey eyes and an elegant figure, she attracted a series of dashing lovers - Simon Elwes, who painted her portrait, Esmond Harmsworth and Prince Bernhard. She accompanied the latter on his honeymoon with Queen Juliana, who became her friend and her son's godmother. She received her last proposal, or possibly proposition, in the Ritz from one of her father's former ADCs whom she first met as a golden-haired youth greeting her off the plane in Khartoum - but hopes of romance ended when his Zimmer frame got inextricably tangled up in the hotel's revolving door.

She served in the Women's Voluntary Service during the Second World War, one of the few women who could make that uniform look sexy - although in Pempe's case it had been specially tailored. As a result, her photographs featured heavily in the WRVS (as it became) section of the RAF Museum at Hendon.

When she finally acquired "the deep, deep peace of the double bed after the hurly-burly of the chaise-longue" it was through marrying a shy, quietly spoken Canadian Spitfire pilot, Bill Aitken, who was the first Lord Beaverbrook's nephew, MP for Bury St Edmunds from 1950 until he died in 1964, and the father of her two children, Jonathan and Maria. He was badly injured when his plane crashed in 1944 and spent two years in hospital, with Pempe spending much of her time nursing him back to health.

The success of her two children gave her great pleasure, Jonathan's as a journalist, MP and member of John Major's Cabinet, Maria's as a successful actress and director. And throughout the misery of Jonathan's subsequent conviction and imprisonment for perjury she remained steadfastly supportive and loyal. She had been determined to attend the first night of Maria's production of Rattigan's Man and Boy, which opened to excellent reviews the night she died.

She was appointed MBE for her efforts during the Suffolk floods and as a children's officer, taking in herself many of those she was supposed to place for adoption. They called her Mamma, stayed for several years and became part of her extended family.

Pempe Aitken was the most glamorous of grandmothers; she would arrive to collect her grandson (the future actor) Jack Davenport from the Dragon School, driving her car rather too fast, dressed in black leather and with a rock band loud on the car radio; tweedy twin-set mothers, 40 years her junior, would pretend not to notice and fiddle with the picnics in the boots of their Volvos.

She was a great gardener, at Playford, her beautiful moated house in Suffolk, and at her finca in Ibiza, smuggling proper English earth and cuttings through the Customs. She spent thousands of wasted hours trying to learn Spanish through tapes, without success. When one of her guests had a heart attack in her pool, she was heard to exclaim to Eulalia, the lady farmer next door, "Eulalia - morto - morto terribile - cardio - in me piskina!"

All her long life she had a huge circle of lovers, ex-lovers and friends, a circle extended by her children and grandchildren. In her last years she had a weekly salon at the Chimes pub in Tachbrook Street, a salon which included several of Jonathan's friends from prison as well as from the Alpha Course.

She was not in the least snobbish. Mr Ray from the nearby gypsy encampment was a regular lunch guest at Playford, partly because Pempe rather sympathised with his view of the proper way to die: "I wanna be lying in a ditch with the beer running outta me mouth." Nevertheless, she could, if required, be extremely grand. On one occasion a tycoon, her last live-in attachment, was speaking at unnecessary length about the red carpet treatment he had received from British Airways on a recent trip to New York. Pempe, with a faraway look, ended the discussion with the remark, "In the Sudan, we were used to private trains."

Despite some heroic efforts by Jonathan, she was less than convinced about the after-life. But she cheered up at the thought, prompted by Maria, that her old friend Noel Picarda and her brother Simon, both serious drinkers in their day, would be waiting for her at the bar - the saloon bar, that is, rather than Alfred Lord Tennyson's.

Christopher Bland and Jennie Bland

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