Two nights before the Aberfan disaster in 1966, when 116 children died as a mound of coal waste slid across a Welsh mining village, a 10-year-old girl called Eryl Mai Jones, had a premonition. “I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there. Something black had come down all over it, ”she told her mother de ella, shortly before her death de ella.
One of those who drove into Aberfan in the terrible aftermath was John Barker, a 42-year-old consultant psychiatrist who had become fascinated by such visions, and was working on a book called scared to death. It was a brazen act, but then, as Sam Knight writes in The Premonitions Bureauhe was not a conventional doctor: “At crucial moments in his life, when Barker was faced with a boundary or a warning, he pressed on.”
Barker proceeded to participate in a flashy experiment launched by the Evening Standard under its then-editor Charles “Chilly Charlie” Wintour. It asked readers to write into “The Premonitions Bureau” to report their dreams or precognitions of future events. The bureau did not work very well — only 3 per cent of the predictions came true — but it came to haunt Barker.
In a lesser narrator’s hands, the forgotten story of an eccentric Englishman who was devoured by his own compulsion might feel rather slight. The “percipients” drawn to the bureau, including a telephone exchange operator and a film technician, were so strange that interviewer David Frost infuriated Barker by refusing to put some on air after observing them in the green room of his ITV television show.
But Knight, a British writer for The New Yorker and former contributor to the FT Weekend magazine, spins a story that propels the reader gently but firmly to its ordained conclusion. Knight describes the case studies in a book edited by a colleague of Barker as possessing “a fable-like, poetic quality” and that is the tone of The Premonitions Bureau.
Much of it is in the telling. Knight’s amused scrutiny of postwar Britain, from sensational Fleet Street to rundown Victorian asylums filled with abandoned patients, layers detail on small detail to paint a powerful canvas. He immerses readers in the shadows of the Swinging Sixties, when all kinds of social experiments were breaking out.
“The hospital consumed 865 pints of milk per day. The grounds were infested with feral cats, which were a source of ringworm. . . Nurses smoked constantly, in part to block out [the hospital] Shelton’s all-pervading smell: of a house, locked up for years, in which stray animals had occasionally come to piss,” he records of the institution where Barker worked.
Barker was a picaresque character, an English eccentric who was drawn to excitement and media exposure. “His weight fluctuated. His eyes bulged. He did n’t look altogether well, ”Knight writes of Barker’s arrival of him at Shelton, near Shrewsbury in western England, where he installed a rigged fruit machine outside his office of him to give gambling addicts a 70 volt electric shock.
The Premonitions Bureau was not entirely a washout. Two of its prodigies, including Lorna Middleton, a piano teacher who awoke with a feeling of foreboding an hour before Aberfan, were consistent clairvoyants. Predicting one’s death is common: Donald Campbell did so just before his doomed attempt at the world water speed record in 1967 at Coniston Water in the Lake District.
Knight compellingly traces the psychological and physiological roots of these intuitions. We are not just observers: we constantly attribute meaning to phenomena and imagine what will happen next in order to make cognitive sense of the world. As the philosopher Immanuel Kant observed in 1787, “objects must conform to our cognition.”
It is understandable to reach beyond that into predicting the future. Many precognitions tell of death and disaster. As Knight says, it could stem from an unconscious effort to control worldly entropy: leaves falling from trees, empires failing, and all of us dying. “Seeing things before they happen is how we, as mortal souls, seek to slow down time.”
But there is an obvious difference between general purpose clairvoyance and personal demise. If you become obsessed with your own death, you can bring it on. A British doctor coined the term “nocebo” (the “evil twin” of placebo) in 1961 for how patients suffer pain from fearing they will, as when warned of side effects.
Was Barker’s fate a chronicle of a death forever, or a self-fulfilling prophecy? There is plenty of medical data to support the latter effect in general and only shaky evidence of the former, whatever ancient Greek myths say. All expectations of death eventually come true, like every prediction that the stock market will fall. But timing is everything.
The Premonitions Bureau: A True Story by Sam Knight Faber £14.99/Penguin Press $28, 256 pages
John Gapper is FT Weekend’s business columnist
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