The Premonitions Bureau by Sam Knight: an “infinitely readable” book
In October 1966, a ten-year-old Welsh girl named Eryl Mai Jones told her mother of a disturbing dream, in which “something black” had blanketed her school, Steven Poole told The Daily Telegraph. The following day, she was one of 144 people killed in the Aberfan disaster – caused when a hilltop coal dump collapsed and buried the mining village below.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, a “maverick psychiatrist” named John Barker visited Aberfan and discovered that Eryl Mai was not the only one who had foreseen it: several other people had had similar premonitions. For Barker, it seemed that “psychic precognition might be as common in the general population as awkwardness” – and this belief led him to found an “office” to solicit premonitions from the public. Sam Knight first wrote about Barker in a 2019 New Yorker article. Now he’s expanded that piece into “a short book that’s long on period atmosphere and pleasingly gratuitous detail.”
Opened in January 1967, the Premonitions Bureau was a collaboration between Barker and Peter Fairley, the science editor of the London Evening Standard. Over the next year and a half, the office received hundreds of premonitions, the vast majority of which turned out to be false.
But Barker’s efforts uncovered a few “human seismometers”, with an apparent knack for prophesying calamity, Johanna Thomas-Corr told The Sunday Times. Between them, Kathleen Middleton, a ballet teacher in London, and Alan Hencher, a postal telephone operator, accurately “predicted a train derailment, two plane crashes, the first death of an astronaut and the assassination by Robert F. Kennedy”. Both also predicted the event that ultimately led to the office’s closure: Barker’s death from an aneurysm in August 1968.
The Bureau of Premonitions’ goal was to use the nation’s “dreams and visions” to create a “warning service analogous to a government office of seismology or meteorology,” Mike Jay said in Literary Review. Such a goal, Knight shows, has never been realistic, not least because of the “Jonas dilemma” – the fact that a prophecy ceases to be accurate if the event in question is prevented from occurring.
Although it is a “story of failure”, Knight tells it with “wit and intelligence”. And wisely, he doesn’t mock Barker, but treats him as a “seeking intellect” worthy of respect, said Anthony Cummins in The Observer. Sparkling with ideas and “obstinately researched details”, this is an “infinitely readable” book.
Faber 256 pages £14.99; Bookstore of the week €13.99
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