The quirky world of Jude Simpson

One critic says she might be another Victoria Wood. David Blunkett - yes, him - is a fan. Steven Russell met the Naked Civil Servant (naked only in the sense that she frequently bares her soul on stage, you understand).

One critic says she might be another Victoria Wood. David Blunkett - yes, him - is a fan. Steven Russell met the Naked Civil Servant (naked only in the sense that she frequently bares her soul on stage, you understand)

THERE'S precious little to smile about these days at the Home Office, so staff have to find light relief where they can. But combining a part-time civil service job with comic performance-poetry? You're having a laugh, surely?

Actually, no. And yes.

On two days a week Jude Simpson takes the train to London to work in the human resources section. For the rest of the week she's writing, polishing her words, and performing.


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Twice she's taken a solo show of poetry, song and comedy to the Edinburgh Fringe. One reviewer reckoned she combined the charm of Pam Ayres with the audience appeal of Victoria Wood and the polite Englishness of Joyce Grenfell.

Jude has appeared on the BBC Radio 2 show Eddie Izzard's Light Night Cabaret, alongside Jerry Hall and Pete Townsend, and her poem on former BBC political commentator Andrew Marr was featured on Radio 4's The Today Programme during last year's election campaign.

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Now she's coming to Ipswich for the Pulse Festival, with the premiere of a show called Am I Grown Up Yet? There's a good chance it will feature some well-chosen words about Tupperware, big bones and the search for Mr Right.

So how did a civil service high-flier come to be hip-hopping in Crouch End (among other places)?

It's really a story of having faith in yourself and having the guts to go for it.

Judith Simpson was born 33 years ago in Lancaster, the daughter of an engineer and a physiotherapist. When she was three, the family moved to Cambridgeshire, to where she's recently returned after a decade in London - now living 10 houses down from her parents.

She didn't know what wanted to do with life, “apart from I've always wanted to get married and have children. And that hasn't happened yet”.

At Leeds University she studied French and Portuguese, falling for the rhythmic work of Moliere. “I just knew I loved language - for the rhythm and the ability to express yourself, and communicate.”

When a friend suggested applying for the civil service, “I just laughed and said that's for funny old grey men. He said No, the fast-stream civil service is really rewarding.”

She moved to London, worked in a bookshop for nine months while doing her civil service exams, and joined the Home Office in May, 1996 - then led by Michael Howard. Domestic violence and crime statistics became her world.

After getting promoted, Jude worked on immigration for about 18 months. At the age of 27 she had about 90 people reporting to her. Then she was internally head-hunted to work in David Blunkett's office after he transferred from Education. She was there during 9/11 and worked for him when emergency terrorism legislation was put to Parliament.

Heady stuff. “But already at this stage I'd decided I wanted to leave and write.” She realised there was a powerful creative urge demanding to be satisfied. Only one problem: she didn't know where to start.

“I didn't know anybody who did anything vaguely connected to writing; no-one I could call on and say 'How do I do this?' - no Auntie Jill who works for the Independent.”

Working with immigration and asylum issues was pretty full-on; working during the day and writing at night wasn't practical. Jude opted to take a year off to discover what it was she wanted to do and if she was any good at it.

So at the start of 2002 she made a clean break: “Very freeing, although a bit scary.”

Jude experimented with genres in a fitting room-esque does-it-suit-me kind of way. “I tried serious poetry, tried short stories, tried a bit of comic poetry, tried a bit of stand-up. I did 'open mic'” - where would-be performers get a few minutes in the spotlight to try out their patter - “wrote stuff and sent it off to places.”

Looking back, she thinks she'd already penned her first comic poem while still working as a civil servant, and - if only she'd realised it - had found her metier.

“One of my housemates was a kiwi and was leaving. She'd got engaged here and they were going back to New Zealand. We had a sending-off do and I wrote a poem about the silly things they'd done, and how they'd met.

“It wasn't anything extraordinary but I read it out and people said 'That was so funny. You should do more of this. It was funny, but the way you read it was so hilarious.” And I was like 'Wow.'”

So, comic performance-poetry it has been: writing material at home and then going wherever there's a chance to air her observations before an audience; at literature festivals, cabarets clubs, comedy clubs and the like.

Some of these gatherings are called poetry slams - a term Jude admits being unfamiliar with when she started writing. Essentially, it's like a competition: poets fighting it out with their verbal dexterity until a winner is crowned.

She won the UK Allcomers Slam at Cheltenham Literature Festival in the autumn of 2003 and just a couple of weeks ago took the Swindon Festival of Literature slam trophy.

Now, there's a review by a fellow university alumni who was surprised to find the lively performer on stage was the metamorphosed “shy, conservative Judith I knew back in Leeds”.

Eh? Does not compute.

“All my school reports said two things: very mature and ought to talk more in class. At university my friends would know that I'm quite uninhibited, but actually I was not hugely confident - less confident at school and uni than I could have been. I've always been very extrovert but not had the confidence to express it, I suppose.

“I always get the impression that some people have an inbuilt confidence that they can do things, and I don't think I did. I think that's maybe why it took so long.”

Now, she realises that while some writers sit alone in their study, “I'm probably a performer first and foremost.”

On a personality test she was almost off the end of the extrovert scale - “so all my energy comes from being with people, from talking, from having people around. So I guess the stage is a natural place for you to be if you're like that. I think my favourite moments are when people come up and say 'Oh, I so know what you mean.'”

At the moment she's averaging one or two gigs a week. Unfortunately, the arts being the arts, there's no money in it, so the part-time Home Office job comes in more than handy.

It would be thrilling to be snapped up as the new Victoria Wood, able to go out on proper long tours and then have time to recharge the batteries and write new material.

Until then you just have to keep going, “and it takes a lot of self-belief, a lot of self-discipline, gritted teeth-ness.”

A performer's work is often autobiographical, or highlights his or her feelings. That's not always an easy thing to deal with - especially when you're facing an audience.

“You learn to do that really carefully. One of the poems I first performed in public was called I'm Not Desperate. It was funny, but it was too soul-baring. It was topical and self-effacing, but there was just something about it that was too raw. People still ask me to do it, but I just can't. It was the moment I went 'OK, that's slightly too far.'

“A lot of what I say is 'This is what it's like for me; like it or lump it. I'm not ashamed of it.' But I think I'm still learning to judge that line between being yourself and giving out too much.”

A strong sense of optimism is one of her recurrent themes. There is a love poem to a potato, for instance - a metaphor for the joys of being with an older man.

“Nerds was a big thing for me. It kind of half backfired, because I did this poem about how I love men with dandruff who spend all their time trainspotting, and some men didn't quite see the irony of it. They used to come and ask me for a drink afterwards. It was quite tricky . . .

“But I do generally like people who have a fascination for something; who have a real enthusiasm, even if it is for model aeroplanes or computers. I'd rather talk to someone who is really enthused about something than someone who just likes sitting down the pub drinking lager.”

Jude doesn't feel she's yet mastered her art.

“The best bit of a gig is always the last two minutes, because you go “Ah, I've remembered all my words, I've done all my stuff, they've liked it, I haven't got too much more to think about.'”

If the performance is generally fun, crafting the material can be “flipping hard work”. For every poem that gets a public outing, there are probably another 15 nobody ever sees.

“I'm not a perfectionist in any other way, but I have often spent 45 minutes on just a few words, on one line, just trying to make it right. You think 'I can't take that out. It's like taking your children out when they haven't had their faces washed.'”

(blob) Jude Simpson is at the New Wolsey Studio in Ipswich on the evening of Wednesday, June 14. Tickets £7.50. Box office 01473 295 900.

(panel, with file picture)

DAVID Blunkett might later have been publicly ridiculed, but Jude Simpson says he was great to work for.

“What really struck me about him - and this may sound ironic now - but he had a real sense of personal honour and was extremely discrete and honouring of his ex-wife. Not that she came up in conversation very much, but if she ever did he would say very small amounts but be totally honouring about her.

“And he had a real sense of valuing other people. Whatever he was doing, and whatever we were working on, he would be thinking about the man or women in the street in Sheffield. He very much kept his feet on the ground.”

Mr Blunkett is quite a fan of poetry in general, she says. “So I later sent him a cassette of my stuff and he wrote back, and I said 'Ooh, can you give me a quote?'”

He did: “Her poetry celebrates the oddities of a world we all recognise in a way that is thought-provoking, warm and hilarious.”

Jude admits: “PR-wise, that's been quite helpful. It helps make me stand out slightly from the other millions of people trying to make it!”

(panel)

Extract from Jude Simpson's poem Football Tarts

She's match-fit, and she's made-up, and she's out to get her man,

a thin strip of puff pastry with a layer of thick fake tan,

jeans so tight and skinny you couldn't fit a goalpost in,

hanging half way down her arse to show off her G-string

which is decorated with a diamante St George's flag

whilst matching painted nails clutch a fake Louis V. handbag.

She's drinking too much Smirnoff Ice, she's walking like an Egyptian.

She wants to be a footballer's wife, and she's gonna get her pitch in -

She's a football tart, a football tart,

she's feminism's nemesis, a sweeper's sweetheart.

She wouldn't know the difference between Dali and Descartes,

but the way she plays her game - man! - that's a Work of Art.

Extract from I'm a girl, OK

I'm a girl, OK, I need to be told

On a regular basis I don't look as old

As I am, that my eyes shine like jewels within,

That my dress doesn't make me look fat - or too thin.

I need to be told every day once or twice

That there isn't a girl in the world who's as nice

As I am - compared even to Hollywood stars

That my radiant beauty's superior by far...

I'm a girl OK, it's the way I've been raised:

When I ask for opinion, I'm looking for praise

And if you don't comply then I'll wonder why not

And whether your passion's no longer as hot

As it was, so if I should ask you your views

On a new dress I've bought, or some jewellery, or shoes

Then remember this maxim each day, month and year -

Don't say what you think, say what I want to hear...

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