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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
News
David Ryall in Harry Potter
people
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
Wayne Rooney warms up ahead of the English Premier League football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at White Hart Lane
football
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have previous experience...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015