The adventures of Jerry Cornelius at Derry and Tom’s famous roof gardens

1. A troll across the rooftops

I  went there with my parents when I was about 13 or 14. Kensington High Street was a serious shopping destination in those days, a little classier than Oxford Street. We took in all three of the department stores Ponting’s, Barker’s and Derry and Tom’s . We had afternoon tea on the Sun Pavilion Terrace in the Famous Roof Gardens (The word famous seemed to be part of its title). I now have only vague impressions of the Gardens – the stillness, the strange expanse of flowers and trees – and can only remember comparing it in my mind to the sort of earthbound parks I was used to. We bought this very postcard that day:

Postcard

That postcard now lives inside my battered (but signed by the author) paperback copy of Michael Moorcock’s second Jerry Cornelius novel, A Cure for Cancer. For one year I read that book continually, starting it again as soon as I finished it. I had it out from the local library until the paperback came out, a process which in those days used to take a long, long time. Phrases and sentences from the book stick in my memory like catch phrases, particularly the chapter titles.

2. Wild whirlybird in one man war.

“The time might be 31st July 1970.

London, England. Cool traffic circulates. A quiet hot day: somewhere in the distance – a bass tone.”

“Within the vine-covered walls of the Dutch garden the sultry sun beat down on colourful flowers and shrubs.”

Early in the novel Jerry finishes an encounter with a female officer of the American Occupying Forces in the Dutch garden and enters the Woodland garden locking the door behind him.

Sun Pavilion 02

Here he is shot at and shouted at by a man in a helicopter. A number of ducks come to grief from stray shots. Jerry takes shelter in the stream beneath the bridge. The helicopter lands and the shooter gets out. Jerry disposes of him with his vibragun, a useful gadget which shakes things to pieces Then he hijacks the helicopter and gets the pilot to take him to Earls Court.

quartet-cure-001

For those of you who never came across him Jerry Cornelius was an odd amalgamation of sixties characters: James Bond, Doctor Who (the Pertwee version), Big Breadwinner Hog (if you remember him), John Steed and Emma Peel (both of them maybe), Adam Adament possibly, and Alex from A Clockwork Orange. (Malcolm McDowell could easily have played him, but the Jerry Cornelius film The Final Programme featured Jon Finch as Jerry.) Moorcock created him lovingly, but you weren’t really meant to like him I think.  Creators don’t always get their way so a lot of us did.

Jerry seems to be the secret owner of Derry and Toms. He orders the lift attendant to leave and the waitresses in the restaurant to lock the doors. The middle class ladies who had to take cover during the gunfire are abandoned and left to their own devices.

Sun Pavilion

3. How a banana endangered the Lennon sisters

The roof gardens were the brainchild of the long-time chairman of the John Barker Company, Trevor Bowen. It had been intended that the new building would have seven floors but there were objections from the fire brigade whose ladders wouldn’t go up that far. So Bowen had the idea of a garden on the roof instead of the final floor.  There were layers of concrete, screed, asphalt, bricks, clinker, breeze concrete, turf and topsoil, all without the need for any major redesigns of the load bearing capacity of the floors below.

And on top of it the secluded pleasures of a secret garden.

Spanish garden

Just beyond that wall instead of more lawns and flower beds, a city street.

Garden

But stay seated in one of the many quiet corners and you could forget about the outside world. The gardens were opened in 1938 and stayed open in that form until 1973.

4. Come away Melinda

Trevor Bowen seems to have been inordinately (and justifiably) proud of his creation. He certainly showed it off to many visitors.

MS21714 Trevor Bowen, and Miss Diana Wynyard 1940s

Bowen with Miss Diana Wynyard and some other interested parties at a fund-raising event during the war.

MS21714 Trevor Bowen, General Sir Alexander Hood and Mrs Attlee 1945

Bowen with General Sir Alexander Hood and Mrs Violet Attlee in 1945. What is that woman on the right doing in the flower bed?

MS21714 Trevor Bowen, and Muriel Pavlov 1955

Bowen with Muriel Pavlov, star of Doctor in the House, 1955. “ A pleasantly warm afternoon, a green vista of wide lawns and pleasant gardens, the mingled murmurs of a string orchestra, the soothing trickle of waterfalls and a pretty girl to light it all with her fascinating smile – and all five storeys above the noisy bustle of Kensington High Street” as the Kensington Post and West London Star put it.

5. Blonde mistress of Nibelburg’s tower of terror!

The gardens were also used for company functions. In the days when the big department stores were institutions that employees joined for life the company provided social events for them. Below, some of the buyers are at a dinner dance in 1947 to celebrate Bowen’s 25 years with the company.

MS21708 Buyers at the dinner for T Bowen 1947

In 1954 Bowen was Master of the Company of Bakers. Here he is with some of his guests:

MS21734 Dinner Dance July 15 1954

Bowen died in 1964 but he might have been pleased that the Gardens have outlived Derry and Tom’s, Barker’s and Ponting’s. Closed while the building was unoccupied between 1973 and 1978, they became a nightclub for a while in the 1980s.They are now part of the Virgin empire and are used for events and functions Here is a link: . http://www.roofgardens.virgin.com/

You can still visit the gardens at certain times but although I work so close to them I’ve never attempted to see them again. Sometimes it’s better to leave places to memory and imagination.

Derry and Toms Kensington High Street Roof garden K72-437

6. Sing to me darling in our castle of agony

Jerry Cornelius roamed freely across the killing fields of the 20th century through several novels and short story collections. He always came back to Kensington though. It’s a tasty world.

69_6newwrlds250

[Jerry on the cover of New Worlds, the SF magazine edited by Morcock]

The olfactory code

The section headings are borrowed from chapter titles in A Cure for Cancer. Moorcock implies that these are  from actual publications and song titles but some of then are too good for that. Derry and Toms Roof Gardens also appear in other Moorcock novels such as Breakfast in the Ruins.

The illustrations of Jerry are by Mal Dean who collaborated with Moorcock on several projects.

The photos of visits and functions come from a set of albums and scrapbooks donated to the Library by the Trevor Bowen Estate. There is one album with a set of early pictures of the gardens which I haven’t  used this time because they went together so well as a set. You can expect to see them here in the very near future.

Copy of corneliusad

[Illustration from the dust jacket of The Final Programme]


3 responses to “The adventures of Jerry Cornelius at Derry and Tom’s famous roof gardens

  • Michael K

    Fantastic homage that, incredibly, replicates or completes something of my experience as a kid who came to London looking for Derry and Toms in the 80’s without the benefit of the web and concluded after some hanging around that it hadn’t existed only to tell this story to a new girlfriend 20 years later and she deciding we should look again, finding the then Richard Branson-owned item pretty much as intact as the postcard or these inaugural photographs. The man at the lift downstairs seemed to know we belonged and so we were admitted and I played the piano before we had to have been there and gone and done it like Jerry and the girl in the Dutch garden, a day in 2003. I’ve not been back because I was rather disappointed it wasn’t all fictional after all.

  • Mark Aherne

    My mum worked as a lift attendant in Derry and Toms in the early 1950s
    Mark

  • Jeremiah Corbelius Went there regularly with my kids. You could sit and write or read in the confident knowledge that your kids could run about freely and enjoy themselves. Pots of tea etc aloways standing by when needed.

    Went there regularly.

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