Interview With a Poltergeist

Afternoon Tea at TĪNG, Shangri-La Hotel, 35th Floor, The Shard, London

Poltergeist is running fifteen minutes late. I’m about to leave when my napkin slides off the table. 

Poltergeist: [Now sitting across the table from me when I sit back up after picking-up the napkin.] Sorry, old habits die hard.

He’s old and has earned the right to make a cliché now and again. 

Johnny Book: Does it still come easy to you? The moving of objects, after all of these years?

Poltergeist: You try to stay fit.

The waiter makes eye contact and comes to our table. He asks if we will be having celebration tea with Champaign. The waiter looks at me, but I wait for Poltergeist to order. It’s an old interviewer’s trick to get them talking. Always get them talking. 

Poltergeist: [After thinking for a second, he smiles as if proud of a recent accomplishment.] Better make it celebration.

Johnny Book: What are you celebrating, if you don’t mind the intrusion?

Poltergeist: [Waves his hand as if to dismiss the idea of an inappropriate question, but that he does appreciate the gesture of my asking.] I wouldn’t have sat down for an interview if I minded impertinent questions now and again.

Johnny Book: Fair enough.

Poltergeist: Actually I’m just about to wrap up a pretty good little geist. You were asking me if I still had it. I’ve never seen people pack up so fast. Most people are careful with Luis Vuitton luggage. Never seen it thrown down stairs to save time.

Johnny Book: Children?

Poltergeist: There were two. Doesn’t seem that would be too difficult to handle, I’ll grant you. It’s the older sibling who always convinces the younger brother, or the younger sister as in this case, that I’m not real. For every minute I spend banging pots…stomping…throwing chairs…the older sibling can spend ten times that amount of time convincing the younger child that it was all just…

Johnny Book: …Just their imagination?

Poltergeist: [Winces at the word.] Logistically speaking, it’s a f&%king nightmare. One older sibling means three times the work. It’s exponential. F*#king nightmare.

As I ponder this, the waiter sets out our three tiers of English treats on the table, and then fills my cup with tea. I always go with jasmine, but I am not surprised to see Poltergeist choose coffee. Long nights. Poltergeist then goes for a cucumber sandwich and two sips of coffee, which is good, because I want him to feel fed, caffeinated, before I ask what I must ask next. He finishes the cucumber sandwich in two bites, followed by another drink of coffee. 

Johnny Book: Why? Why die only to scare the s*&t out of the living by banging pots. The stomping? The chains? The possessions? Why do it?

Poltergeist: [He seems less phased with my question than which type of sandwich he will choose next. He foregoes another sandwich and instead moves into the second tier occupied by scones.] Have you ever seen the movie Midnight in Paris?

They say an interview is more like a dance than a conversation, so I decide to let him lead for a step or two, though I’d hate to hear the scream if I step on any toes. I pick up a scone and slather it with clotted cream. 

Johnny Book: Not when it first came out.

Poltergeist looks as genuinely shocked as I’m sure do most of his victims.

Johnny Book: I know. It’s a movie about Paris. You’d think I’d be the fist in line, the one taking up the top layer of popcorn that the ladle marked as the chosen one for all the butter, but you have to remember one thing: Many of the best movies ever made have been filmed in Paris. I mean, Christ, you’ve got Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn in the original The Devil Wears Prada singing about the Eiffel f&*king Tower in the 1957 Paramount film Funny Face.

Poltergeist: And in f*&king Technicolor, which all the CGI in the world can’t replicate, in terms of larger than life film. [He points his half-eaten scone at me.] Which is what film ought to be. Now they just try too hard.

Johnny Book: Of course then there are the modern charmers, like Amélie, set in Montmartre.

Poltergeist: [Sighs.] Audrey Tautou. Our generation’s Audrey Hepburn. [Shakes his head.] Impossible. Impossibly charming.

Johnny Book: That’s exactly my point. Movies about Paris must meet the highest of Standards, or else they’re just….

Poltergeist: …Offensive. [He pauses to let this sink in with me.] So what changed your mind as to seeing the film?

Johnny Book: The phone calls.

Poltergeist: The phone calls?

Johnny Book: The incessant phone calls.

Poltergeist: From who?

Johnny Book: Everybody I have ever known ever. And every conversation started with, I am freaking out. I literally just watched a movie and literally every single line is literally something you’ve said to me at least two dozen times. 

Poltergeist: The same call every time? Jesus. How long did that go on for?

Johnny Book: A month, maybe two, after the release.

Poltergeist: They must have thought you reminded them of the main character. Gil, was it? [He chuckles.] I can see that.

Johnny Book: To be fair, it was true, all of it. I watched it with family, who were all of them, with every line, crying with laughter.

Poltergeist: [Accepts a top-off of his coffee. He blows across the top to cool it before taking a sip.] Don’t look at me like that. Of course my tongue can still get burned. And now how many times have you seen Midnight in Paris?

Johnny Book: Couple dozen…hundred. Why do I feel like you’re about to make a point?

Poltergeist: My point is you’re not the only one in the world like Gil from Midnight in Paris. By the way, that movie has a soundtrack to die for, pun intended. Look, I gave up my old London flat where I used to live in London in the Twenties, when I was alive, which is the way I wish it still was, and so I run the new people the f*&k out, and things go back to the way it was, and everything is good again in the world. You and Gil long for Paris in the twenties. I long for London in the twenties. The only difference between you and me is I did something about.

Johnny Book: Do you know the best line in that film?

Poltergeist: [He shows his appreciation of film by taking the question seriously. He uses it as an opportunity to move to the third tier of our trey, and he takes a dessert. I can see when he makes up his mind, because his posture takes a kind of settled air, but he allows the macaroon to sit on his tongue, breathing in and out its scent. Might as well be Gandalf sitting and pondering in the smoke of his long pipe.] ‘All that’s missing is the tuberculosis,’ spoken by the pedantic gentleman when Gil is romanticizing about his little Parisian attic in the Twenties.

I realize we have yet to touch our respective glasses of Champaign. I raise my glass to him and take a sip. He leaves his untouched. 

Johnny Book: Okay. Sure. That line does all the technical stuff. It bridges Act I. It makes the protagonist flawed and therefore more human and therefore more relatable and therefore all the other parts of the circle of life of story telling that makes the illusion seem more real, etc. etc. What that line really does, though, is it makes the pedantic gentleman right. I mean Woody Allen throws every romantic lure to make the viewer fall in love with Paris in the Twenties that is humanly possible: Drinks with Hemingway…

Poltergeist: …Parties with the Fitzgeralds at Musée des Arts Forains, a freaking museum of fairground art. Or Cole freaking Porter on the piano at a party in the Île Saint-Louis. [He shakes his head.] Cole Porter. [Shakes his head again.] Île Saint-Louis.

Johnny Book: Conversations at Gertrude Stein’s with Picasso…

Poltergeist: Parties with the Fitzgeralds at Maison Deyrolle… I mean a party at a taxidermist. Not even I could think of something so surreal. Of course, now that I think about it, I guess that’s why they met all those surrealists there…

Johnny Book: And all that’s missing is the tuberculosis.

Poltergeist: [Finally sips his Champaign.] So. This is the reason you’ve brought me here. You think I’m being idealistic. Bit too romantic for your modern tastes, eh? This must be why I make it my duty to keep the old flat haunted, empty, the way it was in 1920’s London?

Johnny Book: Come on, bruv. Back then, if you sat on the plane next to the guy who sneezed and said, “Just allergies,” but really you both know it wasn’t, you freaking died, man. It was that arrogant pedantic gentleman and not Gil and not Hemingway and not Gertrude Stein who was right. You have to stop being so reckless about the past. You’ve already experienced the good parts about the past, anyway. Time to move on, bruv. London has some amazing, modern, unmatchable parts that you ought to try. But first, if people are walking into the kitchen in the middle of the night because that’s where they left their glasses after they took out their contacts, you’ve got to stop banging pans, or waiting for some guy to open the mirror above the bathroom sink to get a half-used stick of secret deodorant, which is strong enough for a man, and then when they close that mirror, scarring the living s*&t out of them by being in the mirror, or having written some silly little note on it like some silly little third grader. Quit idealizing the world in this silly attempt to make it the way it used to be a hundred years ago. Let people live in your flat, man. You aren’t using it anymore.

Poltergeist: But then what does that make me? Where’s all my power if not in banging pans when nobody expects it.

Johnny Book: Well, first, it makes you not a prat, if you’re asking. Any prat can act a prat by making a bunch of silly noises. A gentleman, like yourself, wields real power in the modern world by realizing the modern world is no more idealistic nor perfect than the eras of the past you romantasize about but which history has left behind because history knows there are no eras. There is just a series of mornings, and the past is yesterday morning. That’s all. It’s just mornings, and you waking up in the morning and deciding you’re going to use the economic power of your dollar, which is the only thing that has ever really changed the world, to finance the good, sustainable, useful parts of the modern world. Quit funding the awful parts of modern humanity so that humanity can do what it does best and that is leaving those awful parts behind. Not that, you know, opening all the cabinets at once doesn’t, you know, move humanity in the right direction.

Poltergeist: [Takes a gulp of his Champaign. He looks around Ting, the tea lounge at the Shangri-La, as if seeing it for the first time. Then, from our table 35 stories up, in a modern, glass building, he looks down at the Tower of London as it sits on the banks of the River Thames.] That castle down there was taken with such brutality in manner, that there is no person in any British prison that wouldn’t be made to look like a pretty little rose next to the atrocities committed by the people who took that castle. And the only price they would take to stop the brutality was everything. A crown. Absolute wealth. Absolute rule over absolutely everyone, and everything, to stop. And now, as an Englishman, I’m looking down at that castle, while at tea, and with scones, and dessert, and in an international hotel that recognizes England’s place as an international participant, and doing so with quintessentially English tea.

We clink and then sip our Champaign glasses. 

Poltergeist: In that case, if you wish to see power, I got the check.