In Review

The Premonitions Bureau by Sam Knight: an ‘endlessly readable’ book

Story explores psychic ‘precognition’ surrounding 1966 Aberfan disaster

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 covered her school, said Steven Poole in The Daily Telegraph. The next day, she was one of 144 people killed in the Aberfan disaster – caused when a coal-slurry tip on top of a hill collapsed and buried the mining village below.

In the wake of the tragedy, a “maverick psychiatrist” named John Barker visited Aberfan and discovered that Eryl Mai wasn’t alone in having foreseen it: several other people had had similar premonitions. To Barker, it seemed that psychic “precognition might be as common in the general population as left-handedness” – and this belief led him to found a “bureau” to solicit premonitions from the public. Sam Knight first wrote about Barker in a 2019 New Yorker article. Now he has expanded that piece into “a short book which is long on period atmosphere and enjoyably 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 bureau received hundreds of premonitions, the vast majority of which proved bogus.

But Barker’s efforts did unearth a couple of “human seismometers”, with a seeming knack for prophesying calamity, said Johanna Thomas-Corr in The Sunday Times. Between them, Kathleen Middleton, a London ballet teacher, and Alan Hencher, a post office telephone operator, accurately “predicted a train derailment, two plane crashes, the first death of an astronaut and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination”. Both also predicted the event that ultimately led to the bureau’s closure: Barker’s death, from an aneurysm, in August 1968.

The goal behind the Premonitions Bureau was to use the nation’s “dreams and visions” to create a “warning service analogous to a government seismology or meteorology bureau”, said Mike Jay in Literary Review. Such an aim, Knight shows, was never realistic, not least because of the “Jonah quandary” – the fact that a prophecy ceases to be accurate if the event in question is prevented from occurring.

While this is a “story of failure”, Knight relates it with “wit and intelligence”. And wisely, he doesn’t sneer at Barker, but treats him as a “questing intellect” deserving of respect, said Anthony Cummins in The Observer. Fizzing with ideas and “doggedly chased-down detail”, this is an “endlessly readable” book.

Faber 256pp £14.99; The Week Bookshop £11.99

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