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The Premonitions Bureau by Sam Knight

While science and logic tells us not to believe in fortune tellers, soothsayers, psychics and suchlike, a part of us, however small, wants to believe - how else to explain their enduring ubiquitousness?

A survey from 2001 found nearly three-quarters of Americans profess at least one paranormal belief; one in four believe in the ability to predict the future.

Back in post-war Britain, one in four admitted to believing in some kind of occult - roughly the same proportion who thought there was an afterlife - and many of the survey correspondents challenged “how it was possible to distinguish between what was magical and what was simply yet to be understood”.

British psychiatrist John Barker could relate. A member of the British Society for Psychical Research, he’d long had an interest in precognition; he visited “haunted” houses with his oldest son and kept a crystal ball on his desk. In 1966, Barker set up an extraordinary experiment. The Premonitions Bureau collected visions from hundreds of correspondents, from which two uncannily accurate prophets emerged - and Barker found himself being warned by both of his own imminent death.

One of the prophets was Miss Kathleen Middleton, a music teacher who claimed to have had her first premonition aged seven, when a fried egg rose up out of the pan in which it was being cooked “until it almost touched the ceiling”. Her mother consulted a fortune teller, who warned that eggs flying out of the pan symbolised the death of someone close to you; a few weeks later, one of her mother’s best friends died.

On 20 October 1966, Middleton “awoke choking and gasping and with the sense of the walls caving in”; this was the morning of the Aberfan mining disaster in Wales, when an avalanche of coal buried the school and dozens of houses in Aberfan, killing 144 people, 116 of them schoolchildren.

Like the rest of the nation, Barker was disturbed by the devastation. The stories of those who narrowly escaped by chance - not to mention the one of 10-year-old Eryl Mai Jones, who dreamed she “went to school and there was no school there.

Something black had come down all over it”. She was buried in the school the next day - got Barker thinking: What if such disasters could be avoided by tuning in to apparent foreknowledge of impending doom? The Bureau was born.

(Of course the bureau faced a considerable quandary: “If a calamity is averted, how can it generate a vision to precede it?” But Barker believed if even only one major catastrophe had been prevented by premonitions, then the project was justified.)

The Bureau’s other prominent “percipient”, as Barker called them, was telephone operator Alan Hencher, who responded to Barker’s ads with nonchalance, saying he accepted he was able to foretell certain events, but he had know idea how or why. The day before Aberfan, Hencher was hit with physical illness: trembling, lethargy, and a certainty that a fatal disaster was unfolding. His various precognitions had begun after suffering a head injury aged 26 from a car accident that left him unconscious for four days.

Delving into Barker’s life and career, we discover a bold man who was a living contradiction: a scientist who believed in ghosts. The Bureau was a welcome distraction to his day-job at Shelton Hospital, an underfunded, overcrowded asylum in Shrewsbury where he dabbled with lobotomies and aversion therapy, in which patients would receive an electric shock to treat addictions and other unwanted behaviours. Barker also wrote a book - Scared to Death - about people who appear to have died after becoming obsessed with the idea that they were about to die. His publication and promotional tour of the book ruffled his peers’ feathers.

As I meandered through The Premonitions Bureau, with its potted history of research into premonition and perception interwoven with Barker’s bio, it felt as though I were reading a beautifully crafted, long-form journalism article. Turns out my gut was on the money: the author, Sam Knight, is a UK-based New Yorker writer, and the book was an expansion of a published article.

The tone of Knight’s tale is spot on. Sensationalism is neatly sidestepped, the intrigue stoked instead with thought-provoking musings about chance and coincidence: “We confer meaning to control our existence. It makes life liveable. The alternative is frightening. Randomness is banal. It diminishes us.” And this: “Premonitions are impossible, and they come true all the time. The second law of thermodynamics says it can’t happen, but you think of your mother a second before she calls.”

Grainy black and white photos of the various participants and events are scattered throughout the book, enhancing its eerie feel. I’ve a hunch you’ll like it - wink wink.

Reviewer: Stacey Anyan

Allen & Unwin


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