Sunday, 17 July 2011

Live - Laugh - Love (10) Sheffield Dancing Queens


In September 1992 I moved to Sheffield to start a PhD in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences. Three years and one week later I submitted a thesis with the snappy title ‘Anatomical Aspects of Sperm Competition in the Male Zebra Finch, Taeniopygia guttata guttata’. Kind of rolls off the tongue doesn’t it, as only abnormal bird sperm can?
When people ask me what I did my PhD in, I look at them and try to gauge whether they can take the truth. If I fear that it will do anything other than enhance my standing in their eyes, I answer ‘Zoology’!
For those others, on hearing ‘bird sperm’, generally the first question is unspoken, a fleeting look of ‘you got a grant to study that?’ Quickly followed by ‘Why?’ and ‘So what did you find out?’ Condensing three years of serious research into one sentence has been a challenge, but after years of fine tuning I’ve got it down to ‘more attractive males have bigger testicles and ejaculate more and better quality sperm.’ The next question will, without question be ‘so how did you get your samples?’
Here is how it works – you get a dead female zebra finch and freeze dry her, like a pot noodle in a ‘soliciting’ position - crouched, tail up, bum out, ‘come and get me boys’ smirk on her beak. You lash her to a perch and hollow out her bottom with a tiny spoon. You then make a false bottom (or cloaca) from latex tubing and fill it with saline solution. Stay with me, it gets better .......
You keep your male zebra finches in a single sex colony so by the time you need him, he is quite literally gagging for it and will shag anything. With your freeze dried female installed on her perch in the cage, acting effectively as an avian sex doll, you introduce your male who courts her and sings to her before jumping on board and giving her one. Sometimes when they were a bit reluctant to perform, I would wiggle the end of the perch to make her bob and wag her tail suggestively. Even the most disinterested male would find this impossible to resist. 

Once I had my seminal swag, I would take my sample down to the lab where I’d count it, measure it, categorise it and video it. Did it make me feel dirty? Not a bit, science justifies most things – it’s my story and I’m sticking to it (sorry, sperm joke!)
However, one of my lab mates who will remain nameless actually collected a sample from her boyfriend of the time, bought it into the lab, videoed it and then showed it to his mother, telling her it was pigeon sperm. His mother asked why most of it was either deformed or swimming backwards. Needless to say my friend and her boyfriend (Robert Rubbishsperm) are no longer together.
Conducting research into abnormal bird sperm did have its advantages however when it came to idle banter with men in pubs. Generally responses would fall into one of three categories:
  1. She’s a mentalist, run for the hills.
  2. Hmmmm – I’m a new man ‘So tell me about it .......’
  3. ‘Do you want some of mine love? – it’s top quality’!
After a year of being immersed in a world of sperm, I decided that I needed a bit more balance in my life. Sperm can be claustrophobic, so I jumped at the opportunity to attend the opening night of a ‘new dance craze that’s sweeping the nation’. French Jive, refined into a partner dance called CEROC was just what I needed. In particular I needed people where the most important thing in their lives wasn’t the size and contents of a male’s testicles!
One night of CEROC-ing and I was hooked, so when the franchise owner asked whether anyone would be interested in working front of house I was up there like a shot. Over the next three years I progressed from door person at the Sheffield class to Venue Manager as we opened more nights in Sheffield and classes in Leeds, York, Stockport, North & South Manchester and Chester. Although I stayed at my post on the door for most of the night, I did get the chance to dance and with a shortage of men, I got the reputation as being one of the best male dancers in the north of England!
Although my days of CEROC-ing are long gone, it did introduce me to my Sheffield girls and we’ve stayed friends ever since.
So the first gift, a CD of 90’s dance tunes that we used to CEROC to was from Saffron, our beautiful dance instructor. When she danced, the rest of us mere mortals took several steps back to give this dancing divinity the space and adulation she commanded. While on the stage talking us through moves, which looked like an impossible spider’s web of arms and legs, we all looked up to her. Once on the dance floor it was like releasing an incredible coiled spring. Never have I seen so much energy in a ra-ra skirt. After a year she moved into our shared student house and although we have since gone our separate ways geographically, on the 23rd Sept 1993 in a Working-Men’s club in Sheffield, to the sounds of M-People, D-Ream and the ‘Shoop-Shoop Song’ I made a friendship which I know will last forever.

The second gift in this story was a glamorous diamante clad rubber duck. This was from Jax and was the nearest thing she could find to an attractive male zebra finch - a nod to the comedy PhD I was undertaking when we met while dancing in that same Working-Men’s club in 1993.
Jax is a feisty flame haired sexy dentist. When I first knew her, I was wowed by her fabulous costume jewellery, shoulder pads, sports car, skiing holidays and remarkable chest. She was constantly pursued by a string of men and loved to host parties. A few years older than me, I was wildly impressed by both her and her lifestyle.
Over the years have seen her evolve from party ‘it-girl’ into a domestic goddess, capable of giving Nigella Lawson a run for her money (both in cookery and cleavage). Always calm in a crisis she has the incredible skill of being able to simultaneously entertain her children while cooking a gourmet dinner, planning a family holiday in a French farm house, opening a bottle of champagne, running a 10K and looking both glamorous and gorgeous – pleasing her husband Phil in many, many ways!
We’ve argued for many years over the date of the first Sheffield Girly Christmas Dinner. I say it was 1994. With its foundations firmly in friendships made through CEROC classes, in one form or another it has persisted to this day. So precious is this event that it gets put on the Christmas calendar before and at the expense of all else. Missing it is not an option and non attendance will not be tolerated. Even when I was ill, I still managed to stick on a party dress and make the journey across the Snake Pass.
For the first 10 years or so Jax was our hostess with the most-est. Dressed in gold lycra, on that first evening she competently delivered a huge bird from her oven, while the rest of us tried to out-do each other with fancy braised vegetables, several different ways with potatoes and enormous trifles. Each course was duly savoured and drunkenly toasted as people nailed their culinary colours to the mast - Delia, Gary or Keith.
Our Girly Christmas Dinners have always been great celebrations of sisterhood. ‘The boys’ made the mistake in the first year of trying to gatecrash at midnight. The mood changed instantly. Gone was the communal Abba singing in a warm sea of oestrogen to be replaced with a decidedly chilly reception. We didn’t like the intrusion and they didn’t try it again.
Over the years the numbers have ebbed and flowed, reaching at one point nearly 20. And over the years, as the faces of the celebrity chefs inspiring our dishes have changed, so have the faces of the people sitting around the table. But through thick and thin, four lazy Susans have remained at the heart of the group with no intention of going anywhere, Jax, Maggie, Diana and me (five if you count Delia).
Considering I left Sheffield in 1996, retaining my place within this group for all these years is I think one of my greatest achievements. These days it is usually just the four of us with Maggie hosting, but that is just fine and it is always, without exception one of the best evenings of the year.
I mentioned earlier about how people would try and out-do each other with their fancy sprouts and gratinised potatoes. Well once I moved from Sheffield I was given a special dispensation. I no longer needed to participate in the gourmet Olympics, because from this point onwards, I was nominated as ‘crackers’! This explains the third present, a Christmas cracker and a half bottle of champagne, a gift from Maggie and a reminder of Christmas gatherings, warmer and smoother than a bottle of Baileys.
Someone once described Maggie as ‘still waters run deep’. This description resonated with me then and still today reflects her most beautiful qualities. To spend time with Maggie is like diving into a cool, calm, tranquil, secret lake at twilight. To ask her for advice is to be wrapped in a reassuring blanket of common sense. Utterly reliable and utterly dependable, she is the absolute antithesis to a drama Queen, and for that (and her braised fruity red cabbage) I love her dearly.
And so to the last lady in our ‘Fabulous Four’ – Diana, and the CD of James Galway and The Chieftans. With this gift, it’s not so much a case of who the CD is by, rather what they are singing and on this occasion, it’s ‘The Skye Boat Song’.
In 1997 and 1998, Jax, Diana and I went on holiday together to Turkey. We shared an apartment with a minute balcony, ate feta cheese and huge tomatoes, visited ancient ruins, went on sailing trips where we lazed in hammocks and snorkelled off the side of the boat and bought carpets. If you’re Diana, you also break your foot on the first holiday and your toe on the second!
One morning on our Bodrum holiday, we decided to take the early boat across the water to the Greek island of Kos. As we sat outside on the deck, soaking up the morning sun Diana started to sing the Skye Boat Song. It’s a musical interpretation of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escape from Scotland, following a failed attempt to regain the British crown for the house of Stewart.
‘Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing’
‘Onward the sailors cry’
‘Carry the lad who’s born to be King over the sea to Skye’
When I was in junior school I sang in the choir and learned the descant to The Skye Boat Song and so I joined in with the harmonies. It was a beautiful moment and people actually stopped and turned round to listen to us singing in the sunshine.
It is a moment that I have always remembered, primarily because Diana has never allowed me to forget it – in a good way! Whenever we get together she insists that we sing it for old time sake. She’s even been known to phone me up from parties when I’m not there and badger me to sing the harmonies down the phone. I’d just like to say ‘Diana – I would only do this for you!’
So it came as no surprise that this would be her memory to me on my hen weekend. However she went one better this time, printing out song sheets for everyone. Standing there conducting us all over the top of her reading glasses, she made us into one big bonnie choir. Animated and mad as a lovely bag of frogs, she’s filled our travels both real and mythical full of magical characters, tall tales, adventures and mayhem. I would travel without hesitation to the ends of middle earth with her.
The end is in sight and this time, it’s a SMALL TOY CHICKEN. Qu'est-ce que c'est??

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