Joker – Remember…That’s Life – Review by Jude Yawson

Rating: 4.5/5 

Runtime: 2H 2M

Director: Todd Phillips

Production Company: Warner Bros, DC Films, Village Roadshow Pictures

A stark contrast of surroundings illuminates Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) as he sits in front of a mirror applying his infamous face mask. A zooming camera shot hints toward surrounding activity, a working days score of everyday noises ambience in chatter, card games and radio play, and the odd man himself, Arthur, who is not engaged with anything except his own face. He looks a lonely and pitiful figure. A clown, literally and by curse, who aspires to be a comedian while remaining the brunt of everyone’s jokes. The visceral camera focus and sullen tone of Gotham only enthuse the perception of this man’s loneliness and glaring weirdness from the moment the film begins. But most importantly it keeps you fixated on this individual’s story and asks you to watch. For me, the Joker is a film that asks you to take a look at yourself and how you reflect and impact other people’s lives. From the beginning, it is prompting you to consider “what is wrong with this guy?” by the end of the film you may be thinking “what is wrong with people?” and more importantly, questioning how you treat them. Having watched the film twice now, I understand why it led me to feel that way and I wanted to dive into its creation by expanding on the words of the creators themselves.

Overall, I think the Joker is a wonderful film, with enthralling cinematography that at times is simply spell bounding. Joaquin Phoneix’s display as Arthur Fleck was wonderful insofar as he lost 52lbs for the role, immersed himself in understanding the setting, and would spend hours at night discussing with Todd Phillips how they could play with so many aspects of the story. In an interview with Peter Travers, he explained his working relationship with Todd and how such collaboration is what excites him about filmmaking. He described the process as transformative, his most intense collaboration for a film. They bounced ideas back off each other constantly, and there was even a suggestion they go for a heavier route with the Joker instead of the skinny and frail. Although, his harrowing looks in the film is another facet of this character and the weight loss had to happen. Joaquin felt way more in tune with his body throughout this process, it was somewhat holistic and encouraged him to perform beyond his means. As a result, this impacted the character along the way. Specifically, this reminded me of a scene where the Joker frolics and dances. Joaquin stated he was starved at times during filming, and he very much looked it. What was captivating to me was his style while donning full makeup. He dances like a pantomime, swivels like a ballet dancer, but looks and acts like a maniacal clown.  All this fused with a stunning score that creeps alongside your thoughts, it is a perfect marriage of notions portraying an unease. From the way Arthur expresses himself, the tailormade clown-shoes to the running style and childlike tone in voice, all were specific and necessary for his character to work.

As an origin story it seeps the Joker into a desolate and starved Gotham, the cast is not unnecessarily spread, and nothing felt out of place. It was a neatly contained movie and a standalone story that alluded to a few renditions of the Joker’s elusive past but did not relegate its potential to be fixed on just one. I find this was masterfully and purposefully done. Though very much grounded in the hypothetical city of Gotham, Todd Phillips, the director of the film, stated he witnessed the entirety of Gotham’s elements as characters alongside the Joker/Arthur Fleck, as it is an individual story. Hence the music, location and time-period, were all very much important. The film is set in 1981, and Gotham is on the brink in many ways. This is the basis Arthur Fleck develops from. My understanding of the Joker is as a phenomenon with multiple origins, one of the main nemeses of Batman’s, and a thrilling wildcard obsessed with rattling people’s cages. Though this film is different and exposed a route to understanding what could lead to ‘The Joker’ in this hypothetical setting. At its bare bones, the film itself makes me consider how we interact with people on a human level. There is a “one-upmanship” with communication, where we impose on each other, we see someone as weaker, a joke, and demean them whether playfully or at their expense, we are naturally inconsiderate by just how we exist. There’s a cold shoulder, lack of accountability and expectation to see people or help by not contributing to the animosity in already stressed lives. It contains a lot of nuance and elements of Gotham that mimic real inner swollen city livelihoods. Such as the coldness in acknowledging people, the preconceptions and status we exact on each other and the volatile and damaged states of mind.

I really appreciated Todd Phillips interpretation of Gotham and Joaquin Phoneix’s brilliance in acting. The film truly has a handmade feel. Another thing that impressed me was Todd asking the composer Hildur Guðnadóttir to write music, based only off material she read in the script. Joaquin’s performances were inspired by the sound written to the music, and I find that fantastic. Hildur also composed the Chernobyl (2019) series music, which makes a lot of sense, and the score is dark, unnerving and is very much a presence in the film. As someone who loves a score, I adore the composition of the film. Joaquin also had the freedom to utilise a room and see where he saw it best fit to perform a part of the script. Todd describes this all as the magic of making movies, and it certainly had an ethereal touch. Thinking about it, I actually love this film. It ticks all the impressionable boxes for me. Instead of a now usual Comic Book genre type film with “big CGI events” as Todd describes it, we received a deep dive into a character and the daunting city they’re from. There’s no overcooked action sequence that occurs just to show the violent range of the protagonist.

Joker is a perplexing story that recognises trauma through the lens of a psychological thriller. In conclusion, when asked about the criticism of mental health issues being related to an infamous character like Joker Joaquin stated how irresponsible it is to discuss. In this social media age, we do tend to look to critique and cancel as it’s a culture. For such media platforms to threat over cinema shootings or violence is indirectly inspiring, Todd Phillips even made some comments on this “woke culture” and how it has impacted comedy, this was his first thriller and it was more than well done. Similarly, to ideas within the film, I do not think woke culture has entirely overridden comedy, but it is more-so weary of the impact we have on each other. To what degree its concerns should be capitalised on I am unsure, but as long as the conversation is recognised and not simply damning, we always have something to learn.

Three nine two…months in

Author of The 392 Ashley Hickson-Lovence tells us about his first two months as a published debut author.

It was moments after I had just got off the Megabus at Stratford that I finally felt like a proper published author. I hopped off the coach and braved Westfield to have a look in Foyles and, as I entered, I immediately spotted my recognisably red and black cover sitting alongside the likes of Michelle Obama, Candice Carty-Williams, Akala, Jeffrey Boakye and others under the ‘Foyles Choice’ section. I had spotted The 392 in shops before – sometimes on the main table, sometimes hidden on a shelf, sometimes on a trolley – but this sight took me by surprise, being in such esteemed company felt special.

My little novel is told from different passengers’ perspectives as a single-decker London bus negotiates the gentrified streets of Hackney and Islington. We hear from a range of different characters, of varying ages and backgrounds, over the course of 36 minutes as a suspected terrorist loiters at the front shouldering a cumbersome rucksack. Today, two months after its release, I’ve been reassured that The 392 continues to sell steadily which is a pleasant relief. I knew in signing with an indie press, with a small/non-existent marketing budget, it would be a much slower burn compared to releasing it with a bigger publishing house. This is not to say that this has been to the detriment of the success of the book so far; in just two months there have been some incredible highs. The London launch at Second Home London Fields in April for example, was probably the best night of my life. Former colleagues, friends and family all joined me to celebrate The 392’s release into the world in style. In a packed programme hosted by JJ Bola, featuring a Q+A with writing royalty Irenosen Okojie and mesmerising poetry performances by Deshawn McKinney, MC Angel, Sophia Thakur and Suli Breaks, there is no doubt that this was another example of a fantastic OWN IT! launch event.

Since then, I have had a second smaller but equally lovely launch at Norwich’s The Book Hive, appeared twice at Stoke Newington Literary Festival, including as part of a ‘Rising Stars’ panel alongside Elizabeth Macneal and Rosie Price. I have been on BBC Radio London twice with Robert Elms and Judi Love. I featured on an episode of Tim Clare’s ‘A Death of a 1000 Cuts’ podcast. Publishing superwoman Sharmaine Lovegrove said that The 392 made her “laugh, cry, nod and remember what it means to be a Londoner” on Twitter. Fellow bus fanatic and writer Travis Elborough said “the whole thing had such pace” and the “plot was compulsive”. Even Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has been pictured handling my book.

All this, and more, in just eight weeks. Although, one of my proudest moments was when a close friend messaged me to say it was the first book that they had read cover to cover, ever. This for me epitomised one of my main initial aims when writing The 392, to engage reluctant readers.

I am still somewhat anxious of having people read – and sometimes review – my work but I try my best to embrace it. I had very particular aims when writing The 392 and for these reasons I appreciate it mightn’t be to everyone’s taste. I wanted it to be a pacey, accessible read, quintessentially British, written in an authentic youthful vernacular at times to appeal to, among others, some of my former students I used to teach. Although I label it a love letter to London, the wider themes of gentrification, otherness, growing old and unconditional love are hopefully relatable to readers from all walks of life, so I am encouraged by hearing from readers – who are sometimes not even from London – engage with and enjoy this story I’ve written.

I am so grateful to everyone who has taken the time to read or review The 392 or tweet me a picture of them reading it on holiday or on a bus! This really means a lot. I hope to continue to be just as generous when I read new works I enjoy. I am ridiculously excited about what the future holds for The 392 and otherwise; excitingly, as part of my Creative Writing PhD, I have already started work my second novel. I also have some very exciting events lined up in the coming months, including: Riff Raff (July 4th), Africa Writes (July 6th), Greyhound on the Green book club appearance (July 23rd), WOMAD (July 27th), Primadonna Festival (30th August); I look forward to hopefully getting the book into more people’s hands and sharing my story as a young, black, working-class debut novelist.

If you haven’t already, you can buy a copy of The 392 from all good bookshops (including lots of London indies) as well as Amazon, Waterstones and the OWN IT! online shop. I have already had some lovely ratings and reviews on Goodreads, Amazon and Waterstones but I would greatly appreciate some more if can spare five minutes, I’ve been told these can make a big difference.

Reluctant reader? So was I!

Author and Creative Writing PhD student Ashley Hickson-Lovence with ten book suggestions to get you reading. 

In October 2018, I started my PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia. Getting accepted – with full funding, was probably my greatest achievement last year, possibly in my entire twenty-seven-year life. The Creative Writing courses at UEA are famous for producing such names as Ian McEwen, Kazuo Ishiguro, Louise Doughty, Joe Dunthorne, Diana Evans and a wealth of others, so acceptance was a huge surprise considering I was rejected by the same university for undergraduate study some nine years earlier. Considering now I obviously have to read quite a lot to achieve my doctorate, you might find it hard to believe that while in secondary school – like most of the other boys in my Catholic single-sex North London school, I found reading boring and difficult. My daily life at this time was centred around playing football and messing about with my friends, there was no time for books.

It wasn’t until Year 11 that I started to take some joy in reading finally in a deliberate effort to make myself feel smart and impress girls before I started sixth form and hopefully university. I found out that my English teacher at the time – Bo Fowler, was also a published author after I stumbled across his novel, Scepticism, Inc – told from the perspective of a talking shopping trolley, one day in a second-hand bookshop in Ealing. He was amazed I had found it when I quizzed him the following Monday, but something about that relationship of Mr. Fowler being both an English teacher and a published novelist really spoke to me as an impressionable adolescent. I have since learned that he too studied for his PhD at UEA, doing the very same course I am doing now. More than just being my secret internet password answer to the question ‘Most memorable teacher?’, Mr. Fowler’s success was (and still is) hugely influential for me.

As an avid Manchester United fan growing up, at around aged sixteen, I became engrossed by the autobiographies of the likes of Roy Keane, Lee Sharpe and Rio Ferdinand which my family were happy to buy for me – despite not having a great deal of disposable cash to hand, to curb time I spent playing on my Game Boy or PlayStation. My mum read, but not regularly I recall: I remember her reading Memoirs of a Geisha, Constance Briscoe’s Ugly and some Stephen King now and then but not much in the way of fashionable literary fiction and certainty nothing from the canon. To be fair, there weren’t huge amounts of room for a vast library of books in our small two-bedroom Hackney council flat. 

I chose to study English at A-Level. I was fortunate enough to have been taught by three fantastic teachers during my two-year spell at sixth form and between them, they coaxed me into joining the weekly after-school book club which unknowingly became a hugely influential period in my reading journey. I look back at those moments reading and discussing seminal texts like Shelley’s Frankenstein and Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye for the first time with such achingly-warm fondness. 

In my most recent role as an English teacher and Key Stage 3 coordinator in charge of reshaping the curriculum to be more engaging and rigorous, I was always on the lookout for texts that would appeal to the ever-growing group of boys who clearly just didn’t enjoy reading. Evidently, my list of ten book suggestions below are shaped from my experience as a secondary school teacher trying to engage reluctant readers in my classroom, but hopefully apply to anybody who’s hoping to ignite, or reignite, a desire for reading for pleasure. Admittedly, many of the works are personal favourites but bias aside I hope you will engage with these incredibly compelling, sometimes funny, sometimes bleak, often gritty and voice-driven texts that in their various and intuitive ways helped myself or others around me quench that indescribable thirst for good literature. Yes, unashamedly, I am passionate about getting more teenage black boys reading literary fiction (so please do share this list with any that you know!), but in an ideal world, I want to see everybody reading, no matter your age, sex, colour or creed. The works below are just informed suggestions of course, fundamentally I am keen to stress, that whatever you read – whatever form or genre, it doesn’t matter, you are still a reader. It all counts. Reading is important, fun, healthy, sexy and everybody should be doing it all the time. 

  1. 1984 – George Orwell: Having grown up amidst the noughties Big Brother craze, I was fascinated by the fact that the concept for the show was based on this classic text. It might not be the easiest read on this list but it is a novel that makes you question topical issues around government policy and censorship. Winston Smith is an unlikely protagonist but one we’re rooting for till the bitter end.
  2. The Catcher in the Rye – J.D Salinger: The archetypal coming-of-age story: strange, frustrating, fantastic. Hugely accessible for a novice reader and a must read for all teenagers.
  3. The Lonely Londoners – Sam Selvon. This gritty voice-driven narrative of Trinidadian Moses negotiating life in bleak 1950s London is utterly compelling from start to finish. A succinct snapshot of life as a black man in a white world.
  4. The Outsiders – S.E Hinton: Published when she was just seventeen, S.E Hinton’s debut is an emotive tale of family, friendship, gang rivalry and always looking cool. Heart-wrenching and hugely memorable.
  5. Prisoner to the Streets – Robyn Travis: A raw and painfully honest memoir of life on London’s mean streets. To say that my students were totally captivated by it when added to the Year 9 curriculum at my last school, would be grossly underestimating just how impactful teaching it was.
  6. Pigeon English – Stephen Kelman: Poignant story of a young protagonist desperately keen to integrate into his scary new South London environment. Incredibly funny, incredibly sad.
  7. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime – Mark Haddon: Hugely important, entertaining and inventive, always popular when read with secondary students.
  8. N.W – Zadie Smith: Books that are subsequently turned into films or television shows are helpful in understanding the cinematic qualities of particular written texts. I read N.W after watching the BBC adaptation a few years ago. The novel is a masterclass in writerly craft; an ingenious weaving of stories and seeing setting as an active aspect of novel writing, something that is just as important as character.
  9. In Our Mad and Furious City – Guy Gunaratne: Raw, uncensored, emotive portrayal of fractured lives in a gritty London estate. My favourite read of 2018, deservedly longlisted for the Man Booker last year.
  10. The 392 – Ashley Hickson-Lovence: A shameless plug, but I wrote The 392 with reluctant readers in mind. Relatable voices, real places, short chapters, I want everyone to enjoy this story of a London bus journey that goes wrong when released with OWN IT! on 25th April 2019.

Writing My Debut Novel: Writer and Creative Writing PhD student Ashley Hickson-Lovence shares his journey to publication

My debut novel The 392 is set to be released on 25th April 2019 and I have never been more excited in my entire life. Getting this book published, after working on it for over four years, is unquestionably a dream come true.

The 392 is a literary novel set entirely on a single-decker London bus; a fictional route starting from Hoxton in Hackney to Highbury in Islington – places which represent where I grew up, to where I lived until very recently. Much of the narrative focuses on the unease a suspicious passenger is causing by standing at the front of this bus and is told from the other passengers’ perspectives, and the driver herself, over a period of just thirty-six minutes. At its core the novel is about fear of ‘the other’, the allusion of terrorism, the spread of gentrification, urbanity, love, grief, justice and family.

The story has grown immeasurably since I first noticed a fashionable female bus driver in Islington in 2014. As I often still do, I immediately wrote a few lines about her on my phone. In fact, the bulk of my first draft of what is now The 392 started life using the ‘Notes’ app on my iPhone; a method I still use to write as I love the immediacy of scribing what I see and hear around me within seconds of experiencing them – it’s also convenient when a random idea flitters into your tired brain at an ungodly hour in the middle of the night. 

Armed with a central character, the original idea was to write a novel from the single-perspective of this trendy bus driver driving a new route from Hoxton to Clapton, my first working title, the unoriginally named: Journey to the Centre of Clapton. I knew I wanted to openly describe the impact of gentrification in Hackney, but I certainly didn’t have a story, not even close to one. As I often did during my spell as a secondary school English teacher, I used the lines I’d written about this bus driver – with details of her floral headwrap and jangly gold earrings, to my top-set Year 9 class to analyse as part of a starter activity. Their response was underwhelming, and justifiably so, it wasn’t very good. There was work to do.

In 2015, for the second time, I applied to do my Masters in Creative Writing at City University, London. The first, out of desperation mainly, was during my last year of my BA because like many of my peers, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after graduating. I had been regularly writing poetry and the odd short story throughout my late-teens and university years, but fancied the challenge of writing something more substantial. I was unsurprisingly rejected by City following interview but on my second go, three years later – better equipped with half an idea and some much-needed life experience, I was subsequently offered a place to study on the MA Creative Writing and Publishing programme part time.

Obviously doing a MA in Creative Writing isn’t for every aspirational author – it’s a huge financial commitment, in fact I’ll be paying mine off for a few years to come, but I have absolutely zero regrets in enrolling. Without explicitly knowing it, my writing improved considerably over a relatively short period, and the healthy mix of larger lectures and intimate workshops in the first year really pushed me and my writing to new and interesting places. I owe a lot to my wonderful tutors and mentors at City, namely Clare Allan, Julie Wheelwright and Jeremy Page who critiqued my work over those two years with such impressive authorial expertise.

Still a full-time teacher at this time, I was too time-poor to complete the weekly MA homework activities and simultaneously work on the novel about the bus driver, so I amalgamated the workload. The challenge to write a modern Cinderella story become what is now Natalie’s opening chapter in The 392. The challenge to write about a character walking down an unknown street became Juan Carlos’ story. The task to write about a blind character became Ray’s and so on. This trick, unbeknown to many, meant on a weekly basis my novel was being added to and gradually beginning to take shape. Three years in the making at this point, the title of my bus book was called Journey – the name I’d given to the bus driver at the centre of the story, and now it had characters, voices, dynamism and an identifiable sense of story.

After two years at City, my part-time MA study was coming to an end. The final submission was my Major Project dissertation piece made up of a 15,000-word version of my bus story. It would be months before I would find out my overall result but I was just relieved to have made it through to the end, as being unable to attend daytime lectures in the second year because of a new job in a new school, this looked highly unlikely. 

In the week following the launch of the City Voice 2017 anthology – a publication made up of short stories or opening chapters from our work-in-progresses, I had a number of emails from interested agents requesting the full manuscript. It was totally unexpected and totally exciting. Unfortunately though, I didn’t have a full manuscript to send them, the word count sat at a measly 20,000. Nonetheless, buoyed by their interest, I had meetings with these agents anyway, reassuring them that although my story was somewhat short of a publishable length at that moment, I had it in me to finish in six months or so. They seemed encouraged but sensibly most wanted to wait until it was done before taking me on. Not that it mattered too much as I knew who I wanted to represent me anyway and she was willing to take a punt on me straight away. She was complimentary, warm, passionate, a visionary and evidently loved my little story. And so, just weeks after completing my MA, with less than half a manuscript, I had myself a literary agent.

After signing with Philippa Sitters and DGA in October 2017, I remember thinking what now? Did having an agent guarantee publication? Would a publisher be interested immediately? Naively, a big part of me thought publication was now a certainty. This is obviously very far from the truth, but at the very least I had something to aim for. I would come home from work, tired, eat and then write till the early hours of the morning to reach my 60,000-word target. By mid-December I had done it, a first full draft was complete. It was a terrible first draft but a first draft nonetheless.

After the relative quiet of Christmas, the start of the new year marked the first of a flurry of back-and-forth exchanges of my manuscript between Philippa and I. With her help, the novel grew stronger – and less terrible. It was around May 2018, while the manuscript felt more-or-less ready to go out for submission, that Journey finally became The 392. A title paying homage to my fascination with London buses.

With my story out in the world, every minute it seemed I would check my emails for news. Interest in my work did intensify following some Twitter exposure after being shortlisted for Penguin’s #WriteNow mentoring scheme. Responses trickled in over a series of weeks and often the news wasn’t what I hoped for. And of course, as the rejections come in, I was disappointed, but all the responses I received were so nice – and often very helpful, the excitement of having my work out there still burned strong.

Some months after sending it off, I received a response from Crystal Mahey-Morgan of OWN IT!. The response was a good one, they were keen. I was delighted that a publisher whose previous releases I was hugely fond of appreciated what I had written and the story I was telling. I officially signed a few weeks later.

Now I’ve signed a book deal – something I’ve always craved, I’m starting to realise, that as excited as I am, life must go on. I can’t just sit around until the book is released in April; I can’t let the excitement of it all hinder progression with my PhD and the second novel I’m working (which requires a lot of research). I must be patient, have faith and keep writing.

Be patient, have faith and keep writing.

For a personalised signed copy from the author on publication day pre-order The 392 from the OWN IT! online shop

The 392 will publish on 25 April 2019