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About A Week: Feasts And Fairs

Peter Hinchliffe recalls happy fairground days - and an encounter with the world's champion eater.

The imperious clang of a handbell brought males hurrying and scurrying to Bosco's boxing booth in Dewsbury feast ground

Leathery-faced fighters were lined up on the stage outside the booth, waiting to take on all comers. A fiver for anyone foolhardy enough to try to go three rounds with these battle-hardened fighters.

Spectators pressed their way into a tent which stank of sweat and old leather, there to see professional fists draw blood from clumsy amateur flesh.

Outside in the fairground a steam organ blazed away with a vigorous rendition of a Sousa march as the giant cages of Shamrock and Columbia swung riders into involuntary squeals of delirium.

There were matching squeals from drivers and riders in the bumper cars which waltzed in an electric shower of sparks across a metal floor. Galloping horses circled for a whole week without once losing breath. And a thousand Dewsbury men tested their strength by smashing down a giant wooden hammer to send a pointer zipping up a scale. If the pointer reached the top and caused a bell to ring, a smug male grin would appear and stay for fully 10 minutes.

For those with stomachs hard enough to withstand the violent movements of twisting-spinning-looping rides, there were fried potatoes and fluffy swirls of candyfloss to present each consumer with a sticky-sweet moustache.

Then there were the sideshows. A bearded lady. A hen with three legs. (You could see the cotton thread used to stitch on the third leg.) And one of the greatest fairground stars of them all the world's champion eater.

Actually Joe Steele never displayed his talent at Dewsbury Feast. He made a show of his vast appetite at The Hoppings on Newcastle's Town Moor, one of the biggest annual fairs in the land.

While working as a journalist in Northumberland, infatuated with the glitz and glitter of fairs and fairgrounds, I made sure I was the one who got to interview Joe.

The pint-sized Bedlington miner had a formidable appetite. He once wolfed his way through a 52-course meal. In a sensational crunching session he gulped down 35 packets of crisps in under an hour without taking a drink.

That won him an entry in the record books, along with such great names as Georges Grogmet, a Belgian who gobbled up 44 boiled eggs in 30 minutes, and Philip Yazdzik of the United States who ate 77 hamburgers at a sitting.

Joe Steele went to Paris to match his eating capacity against the French champion. French chefs served up a 52-course gourmet's delight.

"I don't know what it all was," Joe told me. "The menu was in French. I think there was a boar's head, caviar, all kinds of fish. All I know is I ate it."

The French champion conceded defeat long before the final course was served. "He said he thought I was a glutton," Joe grinned.

Joe, then a miner at Choppington Colliery, began his lusty eating career at the age of 18 by downing a record number of black puddings. During his annual holidays he was a special attraction at the Hoppings fair. There he devoured 121bs of raw sausages and 2 lbs of raw tripe every day for a week. In his long career he never once had indigestion.

I interviewed Joe on a sad day in his life. He was setting down knife, fork and spoon to retire from competitive eating. "I think I could still hold it all in my stomach," he said proudly. Then added with profound regret "My teeth have gone. I've only got six left."

When Joe's wife made a cup of tea he refused a biscuit.

How did a man who never weighed much over 11 stone manage to cope with such fantastic quantities of food?

"The way I'm made," said Joe. "That's all there is to it."

The site where those glittering Dewsbury Feasts were held when I was a boy is now occupied by a supermarket, a shopping centre, a petrol station. They can't bury memories under concrete though. The sights, sounds and smells of the fair live on, sharp and vivid in the mind.

Every town deserves a good Feast. Though in these weight-watching days we're probably never going to see another feasting giant to match Joe Steele.


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