Archive for helen perkins

Your final meater reading: the end of my vegan July

Posted in News with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2011 by helenperkins

Tomorrow we enter August. That means I am no longer bound by my month-long resolution to avoid consumption of animal products of any sort.

Bring out the fattened calf!

Only joking.

Now I must confess: during July, I slipped up and ate animal stuff on two occasions. I will now come clean to prevent guilt from crushing me in my bed.

Last weekend, when my lovely parents came to help me move house they took me out for a meal. Nothing on the menu was vegan. Now, these are my traditionalist folks and they had come over a hundred miles to see me, I wasn’t going to snub their evening out to make a point. So that was a fish soul dedicated to yours truly.

Also, when I first met the woman who leases out my Kendal house she asked me if I wanted a cup of tea. I said yes before even consulting my meat-free brain. Tea = milk, duh, but I was too keen to appear normal and kept quiet. I mean, would you rent your property to a girl who screams ‘Oh, good God no, I can’t drink this! This has been near a living creature.”

As you can see, it is social convention that bends my vegan resolve more than the food stuffs themselves.

So, should we all be taking up veganism, did it make a difference to me, and did my skin fall off?

Firstly, let’s get the negatives out of the way. Be honest, vegan people, being vegan is a pain and a half when if comes to finding an evening meal that isn’t some rubbishy salad or a potato. You pretty much always have to cook something from scratch and that uses up time that most people, e.g. me, want to spend on other things.

After a couple of weeks of high-volume whining, and a diet consisting mostly of beans on toast, I hit the cookery books. I found one in the library called The Vegan Bible. While I can’t say I was stunned by the recipes I tried I did have some nice meals – ones perhaps even my carnivorous Dad might appreciate.

There was a big sense of satisfaction in cooking, as there always is with acts of creation. Plus, the study of it did give me a few original conversation starters.

“So, how much do you know about seaweed?”

“Can you pick me up some cilantro? I need it for my vegan parmiagiana.”

Overall though, a massive pain. The first supermarket to create a set of vegan ready meals is going to rake in the money.

 The next thing that frustrated me is all the self righteousness, hypochondria, arrogance, and confusion, which surrounds and sometimes emanates from Planet Vegan.

You get smart-arsed drunks, leaning back on the bar and talking at you with a smug tone suggesting you are a small bug and they will soon squash you with their omnipotence.

Their question arrives, dripping with self-satisfaction.

“So then, why have we got canine teeth? Eh? Eh? We’ve been given them to eat meat.”

Oh. Come on now bar bloke. Canine teeth are not divine instruction to chomp pig, just as they don’t necessarily mean you’re an actual dog.

It’s not just the vegan-haters who came across to me as slightly bonkers. I signed up for a newsletter from the Vegan Society and was sent a magazine with guidelines on ‘How to talk to carnists’ (meat eaters) on the front cover.

I don’t know why but both vegans and run of the mill Brits feel the need to draw strange battlelines. It’s us and them – weedy vegan versus snout-nosed butcher.

Okay, onto the good bits of being feat free.

New food. Vegan ice cream is amazing – in my opinion it is better than the dairy sort. Also, because you’re cooking, you end up taking more time thinking about meals, and so, inevitably your meals get better and less repetitive. This was rewarding, even if it was a pain.

Skin. I have noticed a bit of a skin improvement. Not just a lack of break outs on my face, which I have been known to call ‘my margarita pizza’ but my whole birthday suit has stepped up a bit. It’s difficult to put this all down to veganism, as I’m sure sleep and alcohol and all kinds of crazy women’s stuff plays a part. But, yeah, just maybe a bit better skin.

Energy. Don’t believe all the rubbishy celebrity health gurus, veganism is not the absolute answer to endless energy. For a start, I found I had to spend half my day munching to prevent starving – if I hadn’t I’m pretty sure I’d only have made it to the first Wednesday.

However, at work, I often get bad 3pm crashes – the sort that makes you feel your very soul is being sucked out by the reaper. Contrastingly, this month I got less of a rollercoaster afternoon surge and slump. For me, that is a big deal and a thumbs up to vegan life.

It’s for the reasons above, more than the ethics, that I’ve ended up warming a little to this vegan malarkey. I intend to try to keep it up a couple of days each week.

All the same, I miss fish and I miss scrambled eggs and I’m sure I’ll be tucking in to both. There’s only so much I’m willing to compromise for clear skin.

Tomorrow I’m starting a quit that is an oldie, but a goodie: no swearing. In a newsroom on deadline day it should be a good one to watch, this month I’m interested to see where people swear most and to try to work out why.

Your meating has been cancelled: my July as a vegan

Posted in Diary with tags , , , , , , on July 6, 2011 by helenperkins

So this month, as a test of willpower and an insight into the sorry, meat-free lives of others, I have become a vegan. Pardon my enthusiasm.

The rules of this lifestyle choice mean I can’t eat meat, and I can’t eat fish, eggs, dairy products of any sort, or honey.

“What about chocolate?” you might ask.

Well, it has dairy. So no.

“How about chicken?”

No.

“What about wine gums?”

They contain gelatine, so no.

The vegan diet is one I have successfully avoided for two decades. It is not something you could stumble into by chance. It is hard work, as I have discovered.

I’m a week into this diet and it’s forced my back into cooking again. I’ve so far made up a very nice tagine, a vegetable curry, a thick sweet potato soup and some strange lemon chargrilled pepper dish with quinoa (which is a bit like chewy cous cous).

But my dad thinks I’m nuts, I’m already clueless as to what to eat tomorrow and I am starting to dream about barbecued salmon.

I’ve begun to crave things I’m not normally even that bothered about. Hot chocolate, mussels, tabasco sauce. Last night I decided what I really wanted was stroganoff – a cream based dish I haven’t eaten in about ten years. So either I’m pregnant or this is my body telling me that something fundamental is missing from my culinary vocabulary.

Main courses are difficult to construct if you are used to the meat-and-three-veg paradigm. Desserts are even more difficult.

I asked the kind looking lady in Marks and Spencers if they sold dairy-free yoghurts and she looked completely thrown by the question. At one point I wondered if she was going to fall into the refrigerator section.

Convenience meals that don’t have eggs or cheese in them are almost impossible to find and, worse still, eating out does not work. Every single dish you will find on a standard restaurant menu fails the vegan test. Waiters and waitresses, almost without exception, will eye you up with anything from mild confusion to fire and brimstone derision.

So why bother? Well, I’ve been reading up. Most vegans argue that by buying and eating animal products you support, even if indirectly, animal suffering and dodgy mass farming for the sake of business.

Another reason they stick to the chick peas is that animal-related food production requires more energy and land than arable farming. Thirty cows in a field can sustain fewer Cumbrians than that same field filled with barley and, on a larger scale, meat-eating is considered less efficient and therefore less helpful in feeding the world population.

That’s all well and good but it does not solve my yoghurt deficiency and my newfound obsession with Russian stews, and while you can get vegan things from vegan shops in vegan towns, they are hard to come by, more expensive and they vary wildly on the taste scale.

One exception to this is vegan ice cream, which I do solemnly testify is amazing and should be eaten everywhere, by everyone, everyday. Pass me a spoon please.

This month is going to go one of two ways:

1) My body will get over its craving for rum and raisin ice cream and I will grow to like this purer diet. My energy levels will soar and my skin will glow like that of a flawless Blake-inspired newborn baby.

2) I will become absolutely sick of pasta, my vitamin D levels will deplete, my skin will fall off and I’ll sack the whole thing off and never want to hear the dreaded V word every again.

Wish me luck.

The Year of the Quit: my March away from Facebook

Posted in Diary, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 20, 2011 by helenperkins

In January I quit coca cola for the month, a resolution that tested my self control to a previously unknown degree.

I’ve since returned to my caffeinated beverage of choice like a fat kid to cake – oh the disgrace – although in fairness I have managed to curb the ratio of coke to blood pulsing through my veins.

For my February experiment I quit alcohol, which left friends suspecting I had become a secret Mormon and, even more annoying, confused my immune system enough to spark a three-week cold. I never get colds!

This month I have axed Facebook.

Less than 24 hours into the challenge, my news editor wanted me to find out what had happened to a man involved in an industrial accident.

“What’s his number?”

“I don’t know, we haven’t got his contact details, you’ll have to find him.”

“Do we know where he’s ended up?”

“No. He’s supposed to be in intensive care though.”

“How do we know that?”

“Some man told one of the typists.”

“Some man?”

With a name but no address, phone number, workplace, hospital, even town, it is very difficult to chase someone down.

The phone book offered no help. The Health and Safety Executive couldn’t help. Councils thought my position was very funny. Certain members of other relevant organisations couldn’t find their arse with both hands. You know who you are.

I needed Facebook.

So there I was, breaking my Quit rules before I’d even got started.

Found the guy within ten minutes.

Make no mistake; Facebook is an amazing tool for journalists. Regardless of the ethics involved, it’s become a first point of call if someone dies and the paper needs a tribute photo, or comments from friends or relatives.

Unfortunately, it’s also the virtual procrastination capital of the world – and a distraction that haunts this generation’s global population.

Even at the top of the Eiffel town, one starry evening, I heard an American teenager telling her friend that Sammy’s Facebook profile picture was ‘totally just a way of getting at me’.

Oh brother, get a life.

So I have, and I haven’t missed Facey B as much as I thought I would.

It’s frustrating to have to converse in email again – there’s no pictures and everything is all texty. I feel like I’m working with vinyl. It’s even more annoying not to see photos from my friend’s party. I was there, and it’d be nice to relive the experience.

My generation work hard to regulate and cultivate a healthy online identity. I’m sure this obsession with watching life replayed on the web is warped 21 century vanity.

We try to maintain our online personas, like a growing web garden of the self that needs constant pruning, tending and watering everyday, lest it become unkempt and overgrown – ugly – unpopular.

Maybe online blogging is just another extension of this drive – mankind’s latest weird quest to prove we are alive.

Next month I’m giving up supermarkets. Please feel free to send food parcels…

Book of the Week – Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 11, 2010 by helenperkins

IT is one of those texts I’d heard spoken of in hushed tones – one of the Great Ones, lauded from the heights of the literary world, in columns of high-brow literary reviews and pretentious politics essays across the globe.

Also, by Boukalas and Rusty, in various pubs.

It’s also a book I’d avoided for the first 23 years of my life because of its size and heft, and the stern tone of its title.

The low down, for those who have never read the blurb or the spark notes version of the novel, is this:

Written around 1865, Crime and Punishment tells the story of an ex-student called Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov who has fallen on hard times and murders a pawnbroker in St Petersburg.

The killing is self-justified by the protagonist – whose academic theory assumes that there are individuals who have the right to make, and break, laws which ordinary mortals live by without dispute.

The action-drama sequence which sees him bludgeon his neighbour to death is just the first chapter of the novel’s 450 pages. During the rest we follow Doestevsky’s troubled character as he struggles to live within his own philosophy – and as he slowly realises he is not the ruthless Napoleon he imagined.

As a reader you follow this fraying consciousness around St Petersburg, meeting his family, his friends, and the drunks and peasants he hangs around with – as he tries to work out the meaning of what he’s done and what he should do.

The huge irony in this text, for me, was that the more you read of this tortured character and his everyday life, and the more worried, distracted and guilt-ridden his outbursts became, the more you were made aware that the author behind the charade was a writer in full control of his senses.

Dostoevsky – a similarly impoverished Russian thinker to Rodion – found it in him to set down and write a text that makes most other characters in most other texts look comfy – sort of lazy – a bit fat. His protagonist seems worryingly alive.

It intimidates me that the characters of a man writing well over a century ago can put modern devices to shame. Rodion is involved – he doesn’t stop. He is curious, worried, loyal, hot and cold.

Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1863

I will stop praising him now, lest I come across as a complete simpleton but, still, I think I am in love with Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Book review of the week: A prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2010 by helenperkins

There are some memories that return to you again and again throughout your whole life. Here are a few of mine.

I remember being told in class assembly – by a teacher whose name I’ve forgotten – that she had seen pictures of the Jewish Holocaust when she was about my age and she still had a reoccurring nightmare about the tiny corpses of people who had starved to death on cold camps in mid winter.  

I remember the last day of Year Six, lying on the field next to Joanne, my best friend, and thinking “When I leave today I will never have another lesson here.” We put our navy jumpers on the ground so our hair wouldn’t get full of grass. I remember closing my eyes and facing the sun, then staring at the ground so everything around me looked like it was washed with pale blue.

I remember Nick Miller saying he would never go out with me because I was too ugly.

I remember sitting at the Jehovah’s Witnesses hall on a Sunday and writing down the scriptures in a notebook, copying them out from my little maroon Bible, which had a pony sticker on the front of it.

I remember sitting behind the sofa with sad music playing on my Dad’s hi-fi, and realising that first my grandparents would die, then it would be my aunty, then probably dad, then my mum and then the next one to go would be me.

I remember walking back from Fay’s, as a young teenager, and watching the sparrows wash themselves by rubbing their feathers against the sand that had collected at the side of the road.

All these weird little snippets of memory surface from time to time. They don’t seem to need any provocation, they just rise quietly out of the past like bubbles.

Reading an Irving novel creates so many of these little bubbles that a week after you have read one of his stories your mind is still popping with all the weird little instances he describes, the odd histories, the strange eccentricities of his characters. An armadillo with no claws, the missing baseball, fate and what it means to be a part of society, granite grey, guilt, the red dress…these are a handful of the things you find popping up again and again in Irving’s novel.

A Prayer for Owen Meany is about a boy that is small and has a voice that is very high pitched. He kills John the narrator’s mother and then leads him to believe in God. Events in the book are foreshadowed and remembered and play out backwards and forwards as the lives of Owen and John progress.

The pair grow up in America during the Vietnam War, which lasted from 1959 – 1975. John, who writes about his past with Owen, is haunted by the news and reporting of the time – what America as a nation was doing and how this affected those around him. The novel, like his earlier story The World According to Garp, is a long, but pacey, first person coming of age narrative which suggests that everyone believes in something and, even if it’s not God, even if it’s just the stories we tell ourselves to get us out of bed, it’s a powerful force. ‘Faith and prayer work,’ says Owen Meany, ‘ they really do.’

A paper mache Angela Merkel? It must be Deutsch Karneval time!

Posted in News with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2010 by helenperkins

Here comes the beginning of German Karneval, dedicated to eating, drinking, skiving work and making abusive floats to criticise the cretins that run the country. What a thoroughly brilliant idea.

This Monday 15 February is Rosenmontag (Rosey Monday if you’re not feeling very international), when our German brothers from other mothers will be kicking off the major Karneval festivities. They’re biggest around Germany’s cities – Dusseldorf, Mainz and Cologne and the parades will be trooping through the towns.

In true Blue Peter style, here’s the four steps to a truly Deutsch Karneval.

Step one: tie bells to your ankles and produce a terrifying mask to frighten away the winter spirits, the irritating tweeny brats in Asda and, possibly, all your friends.

Kids in Dusseldorf in traditional Karneval costume. It's like watching Rosie and Jim while on a trolley full of drugs.

Step two: make a massive meal and invite all those that didn’t flee from your hideous mask. Obviously there’s a recession on, so this could be the last of your spicy bean burgers/Yazoo milkshake/coco pops. It will be worth it.

Step three: Make a pimp-my-politician style effigy of your least favourite ruling personality – personally I’m opting for the rather Greasy Pete Mandleson because, as he already looks like something you would find lurking under a bridge, he should give me a head start.

Step four: Declare winter over. Horah! Here comes the spring.

My favourite German Frau – the ever patient, although slightly terrifying, Dorothea – explained to my class that this year the German populace would be flaunting floats particularly dedicated to (or should I say ‘aimed at’) the unpopular German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Naturally, they will also feature Obama – or Oh-blah-ma as he is now known.

One of the 2009 Cologne floats showed a naked Merkel with the 'problem areas' of her body marked out for surgery, including the plunging economy and government debt.

The current German pope, Pope Benedict XVI can also expect to be criticised through the art of paper mache after making several faux pas with the German public for saying, in 2009, that condoms increase the problem of Aids, for criticising gay rights and equal rights as being ‘against the natural order of things’ and for inviting Richard Williamson, a Holocaust-denying bishop, back into the Catholic church. Nice.

The word Karneval is though to come from a mixture of Italian and Latin origins and basically means ‘the end of the meat’. It is thought to be a celebration developed as a way of allowing the repressed peasantry of Europe to vent their frustration with the bourgeoisie in order to avoid a riot. So for a week the lower classes were allowed to wear fancy clothes, speak out of turn to their rulers, dance, be noisy and generally carnivourous.

Catholicism has always remained wary of the celebration, because of its unseemly merry nature and its pagan Middleage origins. However the church was unable to stamp out the tradition, which takes place in varying forms across France, Switzerland, Denmark, Cyprus, parts of India, Greece and Russia. The English celebrate a watered down version with Shrove Tuesday – where we make pancakes. We also have carnivals like Notting Hill in July – but it’s the equivalent of a funeral party compared to the street stomping, pub-parties that are going on out there.

For those woman who remain unconvinced by Valentines Day and all that ridiculous card shop frippery, take note: in Germany there is Weiberfastnacht (women’s carnival night) on the Thursday before Rosenmontag – that’s this Thursday 12 February. To uphold this tradition women are allowed to cut off the tie of any man within reach, and to kiss any man they want to. Women going out to pubs take scissors with them.

I’m not sure what the Home Office would make of thousands of British women taking to the streets with scissors, but it would make for an interesting night down at Zanzibar!

Want to read more about the traditions involved in German Karneval? Try here.

Check out some of the images Google has to offer.

And have a Guten Karneval!

Book review of the week: Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2010 by helenperkins

Kafka’s ominous short story Metamorphosis is one of those weird semi-fables that keeps cropping up in your mind for the week after you’ve read it. 

It also contains what is considered to be the best first line ever written for a short story: 

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” 

Metamorphosis is probably Kafka's most famous short story

 

Gregor, another of Kafka’s literary victims, loses his travelling sales job after turning into some sort of cockroach or beetle – we’re never told specifically. His family neglect him and he is forced to live under the sofa in the spare room, partly through shame but also for fear of being assaulted. We track him through the year as he eventually meets his sad demise. The reader never finds out why he turned into a giant bug, and this change is never reconciled. 

This theme of becoming something other than yourself – and unrecognisable to your peers, your family and society at large – has been played out in other stories to suggest a whole range of human fears. 

There are several films that focus on the fear of aging. These films don’t just suggest the human dread of mortality, they also play out a fear of a loss of innocence or a loss of young feminine sexuality – because there’s no way you can be sexy once you’re 30, right? The 1988 hit film Big, sees Tom Hanks play an American 13-year-old who wishes he was older and then wakes up to find he’s suddenly a fully grown adult, quickly beginning to wish he was younger. 13 Going on 30 has a similar theme of suddenly realising you’ve become, literally, your parent and desperately wanting to roll back the clock. 

Added to these examples there’s a great superhero tradition (Superman, Incredible Hulk, Spiderman, Batman) of characters gaining superhuman powers – making them different – and preventing them from ever fitting in with the society they grew up in. 

These films, comics and books all share the idea that once you have transgressed – not necessarily by committing a conscious crime, but often simply by wandering into a different demographic, species or social group – you will be rejected by the loving people you thought you were close to. Metamorphosis paints a bleak picture of the human race and the family as a disloyal group of unsympathetic creatures. 

The weird thing about Kafka’s stories, I find, is that as a reader you’re very tempted, when you first read about the flawed main character, to assume he’s done something wrong to end up in the sorry predicament he finds himself in. In this particular story Gregor is a bit of a wet sop. He’s gone into a tiresome and uninspiring job for a boss he can’t stand, he’s too much of a coward to tell his manager what he thinks of him and he’s prone to self-pity. However, just as in Kafka’s novel The Trial, there’s no suggestion in this story that Gregor has earned the persecution he faces. You can’t help thinking that the lead character has just been terribly unlucky and wondering why the author has inflicted his terrible situation upon him. 

While Gregor’s family are at first very concerned for his wellbeing, by the end of the story and Gregor’s short life they have already moved on to consider their own futures. So has the narrator – who is busy talking about a bright future for Gregor’s young sister Grete. Even I was bored of Gregor by the time I had read 60 pages of his bug’s life.  He was a bug…there’s a limited novelty to that plot. 

Metamorphosis…to change form…to move on…