Comet 50: 'We did our best to make a paper which would be of real use to everyone in the community'

Former Comet editor John Buckledee at work

Former Comet editor John Buckledee at work - Credit: Supplied

John Buckledee, who was editor of the Comet from 1977 to 1983, and a reporter at the Stevenage Pictorial from 1961 to1963, has reflected on his experience at the paper.

Former Comet editor John Buckledee today

Former Comet editor John Buckledee today - Credit: Supplied

The Comet's main office was in a Tudor-style building at 24 Bancroft, Hitchin, when I was appointed editor in 1977.

It was an unlikely place to be a communications centre, with reporters and sub-editors working in a series of small rooms, and a set of darkrooms for the photographers downstairs. It had been the domain for many years of a genial, cigar-smoking editor named Reg Cannon who supervised the complicated production of a paper which had offices in Stevenage and Letchworth, as well as Hitchin, and was printed in Luton.

In those pre-computer days, the reporters wrote their stories on typewriters and their stories were transported between the four towns in parcels entrusted to the care of a bus conductor or a van driver.

It worked most of the time, although on one occasion a van driver dropped an envelope containing the day’s Stevenage stories and, disastrously, it fell sideways through a crack in the stairs. It is probably still there today, in what is now a solicitors’ office!

One of my tasks in those early days was to arrange to move everything one weekend to a modern building, a little further down Bancroft at number 41 (now a chemist’s shop).

John Buckledee during his days at the Comet

John Buckledee during his days at the Comet - Credit: Supplied

By this time, the paper (originally called the Pictorial) had been redesigned and relaunched with a new title, the Comet, and was pioneering the introduction of free-distribution to every home rather than paid-for sales. The idea had been tried out at Stevenage, with great success, and my job was to help introduce the same system to Hitchin and Letchworth.

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We did our best to make the Comet a paper which would be of real use to everyone in the community. One well-received innovation was a regular guide to clubs and organisations in the area, updated every week with the help of Hitchin library.

But locals still doubted that a paper which was free could be as good as a sold-for paper. We decided to prove a point in July 1982 when the Queen came to Letchworth to open the new North Herts Leisure Centre and switch on its wave-making system in the swimming pool.

The Queen and Prince Philip visiting Letchworth for the opening of North Herts Leisure Centre

The Queen and Prince Philip visiting Letchworth for the opening of North Herts Leisure Centre - Credit: Garden City Collection

We organised a team of four photographers (Alan Millard, John Shenton, Mike Kenny and Geoff Tyrell) to cover the event and featured their work in an extra edition of the Comet distributed the following day. Ian Rogerson had a moment of inspiration for the front-page headline, “Queen Rules The Waves”, which was just perfect.

As the paper grew in size, our reporters, headed by Stan Baldwin at Hitchin and John Adams at Stevenage, had the task of providing even more news stories for the free paper than when it was sold through newsagents.

They covered some memorable events. The recent death of Shirley Williams has reminded me of the occasion in 1979 when she was granted the Freedom of Stevenage, at which the editor of the Hitchin Gazette, Roy Lomas, made a fine speech on behalf of the local press.

But, strangely, the story which particularly sticks in my memory was the result of an April Fools’ Day joke when we included a warning to readers that the United States Air Force, based at Chicksands, was due to carry out military manoeuvres early on Sunday morning, April 1. This would involve loud explosions on the outskirts of Hitchin but residents, we said, should not be alarmed.

This little paragraph resulted in a furious phone call to the Comet from a USAF officer saying that this was a disgraceful piece of Fake News and further action would be forthcoming.

It emerged that he had never heard of April Fools’ Day.

I stayed at the Comet until 1983 when I was transferred to become editor of the Luton News. It was great one night to meet up again with the Comet’s sports editor, Phil Ravitz, who used our emerging technology at Luton to send a last-minute football story down the line to his printers.

This was the night that Alan Shearer came to Broadhall Way for a cup match replay. Stevenage lost 2-1.