Sitting in your favourite chair with nobody to bother you is a rather grand thing to do on the eve of your 80th birthday.
Unhindered by anything, you can reach for a pouch of Condor Blended and pull out some golden tobacco at your convenience.
Next, stuff the sweet-smelling strands into one of several pipes nearby, light up, sit back, relax and... inhale.
Breathe in. Breath out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Relax. And inhale.
Repeat three or four times daily for half an hour at a time.
And, don’t forget to nip out to your local for a pint. Preferably at 10pm.
Bert Hackett might be six years out of the newspaper game and a 10-year resident in sheltered accommodation, but some old habits die hard.
Still going out for a drink at the very end of the day is one.
And lighting up is another, regardless of the unmissable “Smoking Kills” warning on his packet.
“I don’t think packing it in would make much difference at my age,” he says.
“Not when I’m ready to ‘go’.
“I was smoking 35 cigarettes a day and I thought: ‘This is not right’.
“I did stop it. It took me a little while.
“And then I started to smoke a pipe, which I could control, whereas I couldn’t control my cigarette smoking.
“If I was on a plane, it used to drive me mad not being able to have a cigarette.
“Today, I can’t argue a good case for smoking. And I won’t.
“But I should be allowed to do it in my own space.”
Bert certainly looks like he’s enjoying it – and those moments of quiet reflection are one reason why he doesn’t miss the cauldron of fire he used to inhabit: the cartoonist’s desk in a daily newspaper office.
It was a world he was born into and made for.
Yet he only entered it through serendipity and wholesale apprehension.
Once inside the bubble in 1966, he lived there for 42 years and was consumed by fear.
Fear of the unknown. Fear of failure. Fear of everything.
Today, arthritis is calling. Bert’s eyes are beginning to suffer macular degeneration. And his hands shake too much to allow him to draw.
But, no matter. With a pipe – instead of a pencil – in his hand, Bert Hackett is at peace with himself and the world.
He apologises for never having spoken to me before, despite working in the same office for the same company for more than two decades.
Back then, I was mostly in early on the Birmingham Mail and Bert would arrive late afternoon on the Birmingham Post.
Even during my own early-career, late shifts on the Post, I never heard a peep from him.
Always serious faced, he’d be sitting there, head down, trying to get his head round the stories of the day.
Even if only one cartoon was to appear in the paper the next day, he’d still draw three to offer a selection for the editor.
Subjects ranged from local council issues to prime ministers (Mrs Thatcher with a sheep-like Geoffrey Howe behind her: ‘My old doormat suddenly got up and bit me’).
Featured US presidents included a bed-ridden Richard Nixon having to say ‘1-2-3 testing’ into a microphone.
When Ronald Reagan was shot, a boy in cowboy gear says to his mother: ‘But mum, I want to stay up and see him go after the bad guy’.
With only a word or single line to capture the crux of an issue, Bert had to be quick, succinct, inventive, controversial and different.
He would spend hours trying to perfect a look for the politician of the day so that his subject was both instantly recognisable and in the thematic style of his own hand, not somebody else’s.
Harold Wilson was a hard nut to crack – “he was a devious bugger and paranoid” – but today he reckons there’s someone even harder: deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.
“I don’t know of any cartoonist who has ‘got’ him,” says Bert. “I don’t think I could get near him, either. I’m glad I’ve retired!”
Margaret Thatcher was one of the few women he enjoyed drawing.
But like the Mail’s own Colin Whittock, he thinks women are generally to be avoided wherever possible.
The man who used to while away school hours drawing his teachers says: “I’ve always refused commissions to draw caricatures of women.”
Bert repeats the most important word of that sentence: “Always”.
“Women try to look like a stereotype,” he continues.
“They wear make-up and try to have hairstyles like other women yet want to look different to how they are.
“If you can get the actual likeness, they don’t look like that at all!”
Before he explains his fears, I wonder who Bert the younger was...
“I was an only child,” he says. “My, dad, Fred, was a driver for the long gone Despatch.
“He used to come home with all of the papers, including all of the nationals. I didn’t know the difference between left wing and right wing, but I would notice the strip cartoons and he was very supportive of me.
“Mum, Hilda, used to love taking me to the pictures.
“I still love photography – I used to develop my own prints.
“And film. It’s my 80th birthday tomorrow and I’m looking forward to seeing the FW Murnau film Sunrise
(U) at the mac, where they still care
how films are projected.”
Bert’s first school was on Vincent Street in Balsall Heath.
“It was hit during the bombing (of the Second World War),” he says.
“I then went to school on Dennis Road, where I never had a problem with caricatures.
“I had a natural feel for likenesses and that served me well when I had to draw cartoons quickly.”
Bert produces a long lost sketch of some drapes he drew on November 24, 1948, when he was 15.
Even today, he’s still impressed with his efforts completed before he went to the Birmingham College of Art, followed by National Service in the Navy (‘‘not very distinguished’’) and his original career in exhibition design.
After that he worked on the Manchester Evening News for 10 years from 1954, drawing everything from maps to dotted lines... “showing how someone had leapt to their death”.
He returned to Birmingham to start his own business and began to draw graphics for the Post on a freelance basis.
Together with business partner Graham Gavin, they were invited to draw cartoons for the Post.
They agreed to share the job every other day, both under the name Gemini.
“They were long days. We’d start at 10am with our jobs and finish on the Post at 10pm, when I’d go for a drink.
“Graham dropped out after eight years and I took it on full time.”
Did he get better, year by year with experience?
“I thought I was getting worse, but I can’t say when I was at my best.
“Sometimes I would see things five or six years before and really like it.
“Like a (modern, older) snooker player, I was playing a lot of games. The paper gave me the chance to draw online, but it was too late for me to adapt.
“Younger people could do it now, just like I could have done if I was younger.”
Bert has two daughters, Rosie – a costume designer for films and TV – and Zoe, who “is very good with special needs children”.
His marriage to their mother Polly, a nurse, ended in divorce after 20-odd years.
Were his late hours on the Post to blame?
“It would be a good excuse, wouldn’t it?” he says, cryptically.
Despite the initial worry about whether he could be a daily newspaper cartoonist and the daily fear he learned to manage, the job was also empowering, too.
“Graham and I approached a TV company saying we could do things with clay models. This was before Spitting Image but they said it would be just too expensive.
“But, on the paper, we did take risks and editors like Dave Hopkinson and assistant editor Jack Reedy were very supportive.
“Instead of them saying: ‘That’s a barmy idea’, they’d say: ‘What about that. Let’s see if we could do it and it was always like that.
“I had the idea for a Harold Wilson coin that was the same on both sides and that it would be printed in exactly the same place on both sides of the paper. They worked out how to do it and it worked.”
Does he miss drawing – the thing he was not only best at, but one of the best at?
“No,” he says, enjoying his pipe.
He gives me the same answer when I ask if there’s any advice he’d like to have been able to give to his younger self.
“Originally I wanted to go into films doing what today they would call ‘production design’. But you had to be an architect to do that.
“I knew I couldn’t get in, but I still love cinema. I just love the look of it.
“When I was younger I was always drawing and I’m very privileged to have had the opportunity to have done what I’ve done.
“Now that I don’t have that need to go in every night, I don’t have the need to draw.
“So I enjoy the cinema and reading, though I can’t do that like I used to.”
Bert’s big regret is that neither he, nor the company, has managed to properly archive all of his work.
It’s a feeling I know only too well and his explanation is all too familiar.
“Companies tend to know the price of everything and the value of nothing,” says Bert, updating Oscar Wilde.
“Working on the cartoons was such a day-to-day thing.You’d be so concerned with what was happening that day.
“I used to go into the office in a bit of a daze. I must have been a miserable looking guy, coming in with a frown on my face thinking: ‘What am I going to do?’
“If ‘they’ (the editors) knew you were reliable, they would forget about you almost. Then you could get away with quite a lot more than you might normally.
“But I think I got through each day through fear. The overriding fear of not producing something.
“I don’t want to get precious... but that blank space did scare me.”
* Bert Hackett: The Gemini Years – begins on Saturday at the mac, Birmingham, and runs until September 1. Admission free.
For more information ring 0121 446 3232 or go to www.macarts.co.uk