- Title: Closer to God
- Author: Anna Jordan
- First performed: 2009
- Page count: 24
A 79-year-old man and a young, single mother live in adjacent flats at the top of a UK tower block. This is the premise of Anna Jordan’s short play entitled Closer to God. Neither of the main characters is named, they are just opposing forces named “He” and “She.” They represent quite different conceptions of Britain: the old versus the new; the conservative pitted against the liberal; the nostalgic contrasting with the forward-looking. Jordan’s play appears to reference the backdrop of Brexit, but the play was actually written prior to the 2013 referendum announcement. Nonetheless, the play explores the changing face of modern life in the United Kingdom by addressing controversial topics such as foreigners and racism. Among the other themes highlighted in the work are social isolation, single parenting, memory, and interconnectedness.
Ways to access the text: reading.
Anna Jordan is a contemporary writer, and this short work is relatively new so you may well consider purchasing this play. However, there are some free online sources such as the website – Withoutapaddletheatre.co.uk or alternatively you may access the script via Scribd using the free trial period.
Closer to God is quite reader-friendly and consists of a single extended dialogue.
Why read Closer to God?
“Up where the air is clear” (Sherman and Sherman).
One cannot imagine Jordan’s characters being particularly interested in singing songs like “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from Mary Poppins. In fact, even though they are quite literally up where the air is clear, they surprisingly complain that there is “no air up here” (Jordan 11). The play examines the intricacies of life at the top of a high-rise which include myriad overt and covert stressors. Examples of these are noises, smells, broken lifts, entrapment, loneliness, misunderstandings, and poverty. Kids of suburban families go fly kites in a park but up in the rarefied air of tower blocks, people are effectively cut off from the world and usually from each other too. This is a land of tinned foods and few opportunities for improvement. Jordan’s play is depressing and inspiring in equal parts.
Post reading discussion/interpretation.
“Man Against a Concrete Colossus.”
Anna Jordan’s play, Closer to God, has two main characters named He and She. However, the high-rise tower exerts such influence over its residents that one may view it as a third character. The influence is not good. In an essay by Robert Gifford entitled “The Consequences of living in High-Rise Buildings,” he explains that – “Early studies and reviews concluded that high-rises are, on balance, not beneficial for residents” (2). Needless to say, high rise buildings are still being constructed all over the world each year so they evidently benefit someone. Maybe since tall building have a smaller urban footprint, they appease the gods of nature and also our environmental conscientiousness. Jordan’s play delves into the topics concerning life in a modern, multicultural Britain and how human nature resists the conditioning of a negative dwelling place like an aging, high-rise of council flats. Such buildings have long been the reserve of the poor, disenfranchised and forgotten. At the close of the play, the character He refers to a documentary named “Life After People” (Jordan 19) which predicts “how nature will eventually reclaim all the towns and cities” (20). Jordan acknowledges the problems of high-rise housing but promotes the view that human nature battles against the insidious influence of the concrete giants that are high-rises. The play explores the battle between human nature and architecture while Mother Nature looms ominously in the background.
First, one may ask what are the problems of high rise living? Gifford explains that “High-rise residences evoke at least six fears” (2), which are: people falling or jumping; getting trapped during a fire; an earthquake; a terrorist attack on the building; strangers and crime; and the risk of communicable diseases (2). This list includes everything from the plausible to the somewhat paranoid. Of equal, or possibly more interest, is the fact that “High-rise buildings can be associated with negative outcomes without causing those outcomes” (3). Gifford outlines how these “Moderators are factors or variables that are associated with differences in outcomes, but not in a causal sense” (3). It is by reference to moderators that one can most easily distinguish between potentially happy or discontented living conditions. Gifford writes that “Four such moderating factors are residents’ economic status, the amount of choice among residences a resident has, the building’s location within the urban fabric, and population density” (3). In the cases of He and She, these moderating factors are greatly enlightening. First, residents in social housing have a low economic status as this is a requirement of admission. They would have had minimal or no choice in the location of their new homes. Social housing buildings are often in less desirable parts of a town or city and overcrowding is a frequent problem. An example of the last point is given when He complains of neighbours in his building – “six of them, living on top of each other in that tiny flat!” (Jordan 11). In essence, what unites unhappy high-rise dwellers is a stark lack of choice. There are consequently two distinct faces to high-rise living as Gifford describes below.
“Among high-rise residents, for example, presumably most wealthy denizens of tall expensive apartment buildings in desirable locations are quite pleased with their high rises, and we know that many residents are miserably unhappy with their broken-down ghetto high-rise dwellings.”(Gifford 4)
Another important moderating factor highlighted by Gifford is “life-cycle stage” (3). ‘He’ is elderly and in poor health while Jayden is still just a baby. In a high-rise building, the elderly may become fearful of new and foreign tenants and subsequently isolate themselves just like He does when he adopts a bunker mentality and stocks up on tinned foods. As for Jayden, his prospects are not enhanced by his living environment either since “Numerous studies suggest that children have problems in high-rises; none suggest benefits for them” (10). If one delves into the specifics then one finds that children – “who lived in high-rises were significantly more likely to have severe behavior problems than children in other forms of housing” (8). Jayden’s social housing environment will prime him to evolve into an anti-social youth thus perpetuating the problems of such communities.
There are both visible and invisible negatives to high rise living. Understanding the effects of the building is the starting point to assessing the residents’ behaviours. The play does not depict people crushed by their circumstances but instead shows a valiant, ongoing struggle to survive by people who are often unsure of their true enemies.
From godsend to godforsaken place.
The meaning of the title, Closer to God, works on several levels. ‘He’ explains that when the towers were first built, they were greeted with optimistic fanfare. He jokes of – “High-rise living, [being] that little bit closer to God” (Jordan 9). In a literal sense, the elevation above the rest of the city brings the man closer to the traditionally understood location of heaven in the sky. However, the title harbours more serious, negative connotations. First, the old man is reminiscing about when the towers were initially built but that is a past, now lost era of his younger days. Gone too are the lofty expectations of high-rise social housing. Neither the man’s life nor the buildings have been a remarkable success. Now, old and sick, He faces death after years of painful, social isolation. When once he may have considered himself blessed by God to attain a flat in a modern building – now, it is different, the flat (or a care home) will be his last grim residence before death. She wryly comments that his “leg [is] dead already. Waiting for the rest of him to join” (15). The feeling of being a little closer to God changes tone from a one-time gleefulness to an aching despondency because the slow-creeping necrosis that has already got his foot, will soon end him too.
Building higher and higher into the sky has been a millennia-long fascination of man. Robert Gifford writes that, “If the minimal definition of a high-rise is a building taller than three storeys, then the history of high rises may be traced back to the pyramids of Egypt” (2). In practical terms, high rise buildings are an economical use of scarce and expensive land space but, more than anything else, they will always be interpreted as daring feats of architectural excellence. Tall buildings are symbolic of a modern, thriving world where cities are bursting with people and the wheels of industry spin endlessly. Jordan quietly delineates the type of buildings of which society is proud, and contrastingly the type of buildings she describes in the play which are the yesterday of progress and the today of ghettoization and deprivation. Such building are no longer symbols of success but icons of the anonymised poor who often lead dead-end lives. The dream of a ‘high life’ is gone when tower blocks are plagued by anti-social behaviour, poor upkeep, and divisions between tenants.
Various problems emerge within the high-rise tower that serve to diminish the quality of life of old and new residents alike. One of the most unexpected wedges to come between tenants is the English language. In Gifford’s essay, there is a salient reference to towering buildings and the associated importance of a common language.
“The Christian Bible briefly tells the story of the Tower of Babel. According to the account, before the tower was complete God decided that if humans could complete such a tower, they could accomplish anything. That was not acceptable, so God caused confusion among the people by cursing them with multiple languages (everyone had spoken the same language until then, and their tower-building success was attributed to this).”(Gifford 2).
The Tower of Babel was constructed thanks to cooperation supported by a common language whereas the tower block of the play becomes a failure due to a breakdown of cooperation associated with an ‘uncommon’ language. In the old man’s view, the new tenants do not speak the same language as him. It is still English but not as he knows it. The strangely undulating accents of foreigners’ grate on his ears so much that he experiences them as alien.
“Made English sound like a foreign language. Didn’t recognise the sounds, the vowels. They’d stolen it. They’d stolen English!”(Jordan 17)
‘He’ makes these comments about Jayden’s dad and the accompanying male friend. These people are not of his tribe, not like the original tenants in the building who had “Good English names. Round white faces” (8). Now it is “a sea of brown faces, foreign tongues. Assads and Mohameds and Osamas” (10). If one looks beyond the apparent racism of the comments then there is fear at the core of the old man’s concerns. When Jayden’s dad visits, he is under the influence of alcohol and cocaine (17) and there is a second man in tow. The old man describes how he hears this ex-partner “Hitting her. Kicking her, I think” (17) and this is soon followed by sounds of sex. These new people scare him. Long gone are the residents with familiar names and accents whom he felt safe approaching and conversing with. Long gone also is the level of cooperation that meant “each flat would take it in turns to clean the landing” (10). Complaining about language is just the old man’s way of othering them. Additionally, he displays reverse ageism through his disapproval of his female neighbour’s modern slang, her misuse of his language. He regards her vocabulary as coarse, saying she has a “potty mouth” (7) because of her habit of saying things like “‘F this,’ ‘F that,’ ‘Little F-ing C’” (6). The rift between him and the new tenants is predominantly a cultural one rather than a linguistic one. In a figurative sense, they do not speak his language and therefore cooperation breaks down.
Behind the scenes, successive governments and local councils contribute to the problems by underfunding social housing and neglecting essential support for, and integration of foreign nationals. The results are not just tower blocks that end up as eyesores on the landscape but conditions within such blocks that lead to social unrest and burgeoning prejudices. Jordan’s play encapsulates many of the social ailments that were precursors to Brexit.
Closer to God broaches the emotive topic of suicides, or what He calls “jumpers” (11). He recalls one couple he knew from the building – “Paul died of cancer and Sandra threw herself off” (11). The unavoidably public nature of such deaths by suicide means that they are regularly reported by newspapers. Gifford poses a crucial question in his essay – “do high-rise building contribute to suicide?” (7). He explains that “One school of thought (the substitution hypothesis) holds that individuals who wish to dispose of themselves will find a way, regardless of the possible means” (7). In other words, if one method is not available then the person will simply substitute with another way of killing themselves. On the other hand, “A different view, the availability hypothesis, holds that tall buildings, to some extent, encourage or facilitate suicides that would not have otherwise occurred” (7). Neither He nor She speak directly of suicide, but the oppressive atmosphere of their living conditions suggests depressive thoughts. For instance, when the lift is out of order which regularly happens then the residents at the top of the building feel “Trapped … In a shoebox in the sky” (Jordan 12). This description suggests a feeling of claustrophobia but it also connotes death. Small pets are often buried in shoe boxes by little children. The shoe box doubles as a coffin and thereby a pet may be buried inexpensively and without much commotion in a suburban garden. Are He and She living in cheap, cardboard coffins on the 19th floor? She articulates her dread as follows.
“If I sit around here for too long I start to get that feeling. That numb feeling? It’s like I’m sitting here and it starts at my feet, up to my knees then right through my body … I feel …dead. I feel that I’m dying slowly. Dying and rotting up here.”(Jordan 12)
She reflexively contemplates the life led by the elderly man next door, and she fears that his forgotten existence presages her own future. The numb feeling starts at her feet and she may end up like him – “dragging that poor leg” (15). To ward off her fears, she puts on dance music at high volume, and as she says – “I dance and I sweat and then I know I’m alive” (12). In a dissimilar fashion but to the same end, the old man lets his TV on day and night. The “telly” (13) is his sole companion and it alleviates his feelings of loneliness and protects him against the same deathly silence and soul numbing that oppresses her. Given that these two individuals have almost nothing in common then the common denominator is the building and the influence it exerts over its inhabitants. Neither of the two may ever actively contemplate suicide but their existence in that atmosphere constitutes a slow, passive suicide.
Rhythm of life.
Despite the antisocial behaviour, the turds in the elevator, and the puke in the hallway – Jordan’s play is not a diary of the crestfallen. The playwright reveals an almost imperceptible force that endures and even combats the cold environment of the tower block, namely human nature.
In a building with “walls paper thin” (11), the separate, contrasting rhythms of his and her lives result in a tremendous, interconnected effect. To return to the earlier topic of choice – neither of them asked for the neighbour they ended up with, so they are effectively launched into a symbiotic relationship. Their eventual connection is all the stranger given that they never even meet anymore.
“SHE. We don’t meet now, face to face.
HE. Just the noises and sounds”(Jordan 15)
She knows what TV programmes he watches, how often he bathes, that he lives on pies (evidence in rubbish), and even when he breaks wind! He knows her lack of routine, her singing, Jayden’s play noises, the “boom boom boom” (13) music, and the sound of her ex-boyfriend’s voice. It is ironic that they do not even know each other’s names, yet they exist in a strange union with one another daily. It is this semi-anonymous interconnectedness that Jordan mines for meaning in her play.
The prickly relationship between the neighbours is a by-product of the building’s power. For example, even though he was “pleased at first” (7) about getting a new neighbour, his sustained experience of isolated living inadvertently led to a spoiled first impression. He had not had a visitor for years and therefore unthinkingly slammed the door in her face (14). She was insulted as her only intention had been to offer to do his shopping for him. Since all his former neighbours have left or died and he is now surrounded by unfamiliar, often foreign faces and strange accents, he has become withdrawn and fearful. The environment has brought out the worst in him, like his xenophobia. For her as a newbie, the monstrosity of concrete that is the high rise is complemented by the old man’s “flabby, grey face” (14). The building’s cold impression has successfully rubbed off on the old resident of some thirty years.
But the connection between these two people still has value. She is annoyed by him and yet she feels sad knowing that he awakes from his dreams calling out the name “Evie” (16). She wonders if it’s his wife’s name. He considers her a small, spiky, “in-your-face” (14) type, yet when she is being beaten by her ex-partner, he grabs a baseball bat and very nearly confronts the man. Jordan depicts the thorny relationship between He and She which despite the aggravations, has a golden seam of goodness hidden within. What is shown is that they are acting against expectations since “Research is unanimous in finding that rates of helping others are lower in high-rise buildings” (Gifford 12). In the end, the force of human nature is stronger than the environmental ills.
Another compelling aspect of the relationship between him and her is how each perceives the other. For her, he represents the awful prospect of a lonely, valueless, old age. She bristles when he bluntly asks what she has done so far in her life. She responds with – “I’m young. I’ve got time!” (13). He is an omen of things to come for her, should she never escape her current predicament. For him, it is quite different since he looks to the past for comfort, whereas her youth obliges her to look only forward. He finds in her a spark to fully ignite his memory of his daughter, Evie. It is not clear if he is estranged from his daughter or if she died. ‘She’ acts as a substitute for a missing loved one and her laugh is reminiscent of his daughter’s so the connection feels less false, less contrived. Without this lifeline, he has only his TV for a friend.
Jordan does not depict any grand gestures or unprecedented character transformations. Instead, she shows how people may be driven quite crazy by their neighbours and nonetheless still grudgingly look out for them, empathise with them, keep them in mind. The play is a tale of a little triumph in a world that is unyielding and hard. However, to expose this little glimmer of hope, the play must also honestly expose the loneliness of urban living, the fears of old age, and the damaged prospects of a new generation.
It is fitting that the world inhabited by the residents of the top floor may only truthfully be reflected back to them by “stand[ing] at the window and look[ing] at the other tower” (19). These people are detached from the lives of the millions down at ground level. The sight of the lights going out in the adjacent building represents the child’s idea of stars blinking in the night’s sky. It never happens that all the lights go out. In the old man’s apartment, the lights also never go out, at least not the flickering, blue glow of the television screen in the living room. For him, the buzz of background noise is proof of persistent life, not yet re-consumed and devoured by Mother Nature like in the TV documentary he watched. Like in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, “Ozymandias,” which speaks of an ancient statue now in ruins in the sand, the tower block’s “sneer of cold command” (line 5) will one day crumble too. However, left behind will be the world we still recognise where goodness grows in the most inhospitable of soil.
Gifford, Robert. “The Consequences of living in High-Rise Buildings.” Architectural Science Review, vol. 50, no.1, University of Sydney, 2007, pp. 1-16.
Jordan, Anna. Closer to God. Nick Hern Books, 2018.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Ozymandias.” Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46565/ozymandias. Accessed 18 November 2022.
Sherman, Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman. “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Mary Poppins: Original Cast Soundtrack, Walt Disney, 1964.