The Thing Is with Steve Canavan - March 31, 2016

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One of the marvellous things about doing this column (in fact the only marvellous thing) is that it gives me the opportunity to waffle on about things I – and probably only I – find interesting.

I’m a bit of a history geek and subscribe to a list which magically appears on a daily basis on my computer, telling me interesting events from the past.

This week, I learned, marks 156 years since the start of the Pony Express.

Now I remember this from high school. I used to have a history teacher – Mr Kennal – who was memorable for two reasons. One, he had the most marvellously extravagant eyebrows I have ever seen on a human being. Such was their size and breadth, it was as though he had two gerbils strapped above his eyes. They were so breathtakingly large I’m pretty sure he had to shampoo and condition them nightly.

Secondly, Mr Kennal was a bit of a thespian, and his lessons consisted of him doing impressions of Churchill and Hitler and re-enacting the Battle of Britain by running around the classroom with arms outstretched, pretending to be a Spitfire dropping bombs on Munich. It was hugely disappointing – though perhaps not surprising – when he disappeared halfway through term to be taken to a psychiatric hospital. History lessons were never the same again.

It was Mr Kennal who, taking a break from hovering over Europe, taught me about the Pony Express, and I found it – and still do – a fascinating thing.

Launched in 1860 in America, it was, to all intent and purposes, the first proper and (relatively) speedy long-distance postal service.

The idea was that letters, newspapers and small packages could be delivered from Missouri to California (a distance of 2,000 miles, across the Great Plains of Colorado and Kansas, and over the Rocky Mountains) within 10 days.

This was a time, remember, long before the motor car and before the rail service had got going in the US, so the letters were delivered by a team of men on horseback (hence the Pony Express).

Picture this: a young man with a huge mailbag swung over his shoulder, cantering across impossibly barren and secluded landscapes for 100 miles, before handing the load on to the next rider, who would complete the same distance then hand it on to the next chap – like a relay team. How wonderful.

The whole thing was a big deal, for prior to this it had taken a month to deliver mail any distance of note – the previous service involving stagecoaches so big and cumbersome they had to go around mountains and rivers rather than over or through them.

The Pony Express used 400 horses, employed 120 riders, and called at 184 mail stations located about 10 miles apart (roughly the distance a horse can gallop before tiring). At each station, the rider would change to a fresh horse.

The riders worked day and night and had to be incredibly fit. They were expected do two 100-mile stages back-to-back in emergencies – which meant riding 20 hours at a time.

The job advertisement for the post famously read: “Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”

Call me picky, but I’m not sure I’d have applied.

It sped up mail delivery and linked rapidly-growing California to the rest of the country. Indeed, when Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election, California’s newspapers received word only seven days and 17 hours after the East Coast papers – unheard of at the time; previously they’d have had to wait weeks for the news. Alas, the Pony Express racked up huge losses and collapsed within 19 months of coming into operation, mainly due to the start of the American Civil War. Less than 250 examples of mail from the period survive, all of which are housed in museums.

So there you go. I found all that very interesting when Mr Kennal told us about it 20-odd years ago.

Mind you, he was galloping around the classroom at the time, pretending to be a horse. For his sake, and ours, thank god Ofsted didn’t exist back then.

Tupperware... a flexible friend

I think I may be going insane.

At the weekend I found myself crying at James Martin crying while hosting his final Saturday Morning Kitchen Live.

I’m aware at this point that any street cred I previously had (not much) has vanished altogether, but, hey, honesty is the best policy.

For those who’ve not watched the show, James – a jolly, smiley chef from Yorkshire – basically talks a lot and cooks the odd meal for various guests.

It’s not award-winning television, but it is the kind of gentle, harmless fodder one appreciates early on a Saturday while nursing a sore head from the three or four pints of ale consumed the previous evening.

I owe James a lot, not just 10 years of rather good telly (for that’s how long he hosted the show) but for introducing me to the Tupperware box.

Such is my love for Tupperware (though it has to be the air-tight, klip-lock variety), I asked for it for my recent 40th birthday.

My mother did a double-take, presumably thinking she had gone wrong as a parent at some juncture, but bought me a marvellous selection anyway, in which I keep my plain and self-raising flour, my tea bags, coffee, sugar, and a variety of leftover foods (they’re freezer-friendly as well you see).

Some people say I need to get out more, but I disagree. What grown man hasn’t gently fondled a good quality piece of Tupperware and been happy?

Don’t answer that.