Bertie has no hands to measure. He wolfs down a slice of chocolate cake and lets out a "Let's Go!" enthusiast that makes us immediately get up wherever it takes us.
We walked to his car and saw how, out of nowhere, he was once again attracting the attention of passers-by with his Panama hat, black and yellow striped suit, bicolor Spectator shoes and poses and expressions charleston e swing which it enhances using an ornamental cane.
After a new photo shoot, he sits behind the wheel of the disconnected yellow-green vintage, it kicks off, and greets those left behind with lush honking horns.
It was becoming more and more difficult for us to believe that we were dealing with an ex-accountant, an impression similar to that which John Cocking, the man behind the character, retains of himself.
Now 66 years old, this disaffected Brit started working at 16. At 22, he had earned the CPA diploma (Certified Public Accountant) and was preparing to make a fortune when he realized he had no interest in that project. His life went round and round and ended up taking him to faraway New Zealand and Napier, a city that was also unique.
Napier's Seismic Collapse
On February 3, 1931, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 devastated Napier. The catastrophe forced the authorities to review the city's urban code, inadequate to the seismic risk of the area. The streets were widened and the new buildings erected, as a rule, with only two floors.
Until then, Art Deco had been the popular building style but the recovery coincided with the Great Depression when, after the Empire State Building phenomenon, little or no significant city development was undertaken.
The responsible architects took advantage of the void and designed Napier with simplified influences from the lines of Frank Lloyd Wright and the buildings of the Spanish missions. The result turned out to be unique.
From Ruin to Irreverent Art Deco Splendor
During the 60s and 80s, some of the Art Deco buildings were replaced by contemporary ones but most remained intact long enough to stand out. From 1990 onwards, the center was restored and protected and in 2007 UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site, the first cultural place in New Zealand to achieve this status.
As an added value, since then, only another city on the face of the Earth, Miami Beach – which was erected in an Art Deco Streamline Moderne style – rivals Napier.
In the mid-80s, some residents founded Napier's Art Deco Trust. A mere leaflet created by them managed to get a thousand and such people to participate in a guided walk through the streets of the center and the regional authorities insisted on joining the effort.
Gradually, many more thousands of obsessed fans of architecture began to want to discover the city.
Thanks to the initiatives of the trust, Napier currently earns 1.14 million euros from his buildings but continues to try to increase the spectrum of admirers. John “Bertie” Cocking became his main asset.
The Promotional Prominence and Host of John Cooking, or Bertie
Already living in New Zealand, Cocking was more fed up with accounting than ever, and fell in with David Dale – a friend – that there must be something he was perfect at that could save him. To which Dale replied “well, I think you would make a great Manoel” (Barcelonian employee of the British series "Fawlty Towers").
John Cocking followed the advice. He studied the role and began performing in New Zealand restaurants. Shortly thereafter, a restaurant owner in Auckland hired him full-time and Cocking left the balance sheets for good. However, he created and adapted new roles.
It was with one of them, Bertie, that, in 1995, he proposed to Napier his acting services, suggesting that it become a kind of walking tourism delegation.
The idea immediately appealed to the city councilor who felt the character embodied the historic soul of the city.
Without further hesitation, the mayor named Bertie ambassador to Napier and awarded Cocking a decent wage.
The relationship of the local Art Deco Trust with Bertie has evolved into a strong dependency and, although Cocking is no longer paid today (probably because it benefits from other, more profitable forms of income) it is their alter-ego who introduces, mobilizes, animates and promotes Napier's Art Deco eccentricities.
Napier's Total Conversion to Thirties Glamor
Throughout the year, hosts dressed in the fashion of that time lead guided tours through the key points of the city's architecture and past. Extras, musicians, singers and other actors re-enact it in their bars, squares and gardens.
Small business owners took advantage of the packaging and opened stores specializing in contemporary clothing, furniture, music, painting and photography.
They too wear matching clothes and make their contribution. As we explore the city's most emblematic streets and buildings, we also come across drivers behind the wheel of vintage cars that receive subsidies to get around Napier.
The heyday of this already organic show is the Geon Art Deco Weekend. Held on a weekend in February, the festival concentrates more than 200 events, hundreds of jalopy twenties and thirties, aerial acrobatics, jazz concerts, dances, picnics etc.
It generates a veritable Great Gatsby fever because guests from the four corners of the world are infected.
There are thousands of fatal femmes under cloche hats, plush furs and charming dresses that smoke through large mouthpieces, and so many other festive incarnations of Jay, the blinding character in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel.
A Caravan from the Thirties, at the Service of Napier's Promotion
Many of them exhibit trustworthy looks and behaviors but John Cocking does nothing else in life. Bertie and his occasional female partner quickly claim the spotlight.
We follow him to the lift in an Austin Seven maroon driven by a lady in a fancy mink, and every now and then we hear the ambassador's unmistakable honking again.
Behind us, seven other historic cars complete the procession, all guided by immaculate figures from the XNUMXs.
At the end of a winding route, the entourage parks in line in front of a large cruise ship moored in the port of Napier. Moments of waiting and dialogue follow. Crew members of different nationalities and ethnicities disembark and start inspecting the cars and questioning the owners.
The Irresistible Appeal of Napier's Jalobs
Gradually, hundreds of passengers arrive by bus from the center of Napier, enrich the interaction and take countless photos of themselves with the jalopy and their owners.
Mechanical laypersons ask trivial questions and comments about years of manufacture and aesthetics.
But others are knowledgeable in the matter. They question the positioning of valves, cylinders and pistons and the owners unceremoniously open their hoods, encouraging thorough inspections.
We followed and photographed that curious Automobile Fair with renewed interest and, at intervals, we talked to some of the participants.
Barry Price is one of the most demure but assumes his positions bluntly:
“I live 60 km away and the money they pay me is barely enough for the fuel that this boy wastes … but I'm not old enough to be bothered with these things anymore. I come because I like it and we have fun”.
Twin City Stompers' Thirty Years Sound Band
Meanwhile, the Twin City Stompers install themselves against a container and add more meaning to their words.
Equipped with a trombone, a double bass, a mandolin and a megaphone that amplifies and box the vocalist's voice, the musicians play “When you'e smilin","All of me” and other famous themes from the time of Napier's reconstruction as passengers return to the cruise and fill their balconies.
Prolonged waves are exchanged.
And as the big boat pulls away from the dock towards today's Australia, it leaves Napier in the grip of the glamorous past that his hosts continue to renew.