The Premonitions Bureau

Sam Knight

The Premonitions Bureau
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The Premonitions Bureau

Sam Knight

Premonitions are impossible. But they come true all the time.


Most are innocent. You think of a forgotten friend. Out of the blue, they call.

But what if you knew that something terrible was going to happen? A sudden flash, the words CHARING CROSS. Four days later, a packed express train comes off the rails outside the station.

What if you could share your vision, and stop that train? Could these forebodings help the world to prevent disasters?

In 1966, John Barker, a dynamic psychiatrist working in an outdated British mental hospital, established the Premonitions Bureau to investigate these questions. He would find a network of hundreds of correspondents, from bank clerks to ballet teachers. Among them were two unnervingly gifted “percipients”. Together, the pair predicted plane crashes, assassinations and international incidents, with uncanny accuracy. And then, they informed Barker of their most disturbing premonition: that he was about to die.

The Premonitions Bureau is an enthralling true story, of madness and wonder, science and the supernatural - a journey to the most powerful and unsettling reaches of the human mind.

Review

In 2019 writer and journalist Sam Knight wrote an article that appeared in The New Yorker. It was titled ‘The psychiatrist who believed people could tell the future’. Knight found the subject of that article, the psychiatrist John Barker, so intriguing that he decided to delve deeper and write a full-length book. The Premonitions Bureau presents a fascinating slice of history that begins with the Aberfan coal mining disaster in Wales in 1966 where more than 100 children died. John Barker had a particular interest in whether it was possible to be frightened to death; he travelled to Aberfan in the days following the disaster because he had heard about a child who had initially escaped harm but had later died from shock.

While interviewing witnesses Barker was struck by multiple stories that involved dreams or omens that predicted something terrible was going to happen. With the help of Peter Fairley, a prominent science journalist at the time, he came up with the idea of a ‘Premonitions Bureau’ where people could send their premonitions and he would investigate not only the people who had them, but also whether a disaster could be prevented. Of the hundreds of submissions received by the Bureau, of particular interest were those from Kathleen Lorna Middleton and Alan Hencher who both had multiple premonitions which Barker believed to later have come true. The Bureau was closed not long after Barker’s death at a relatively young age and Barker left evidence that both Hencher and Middleton had in fact predicted his death.

Regardless of your feelings about the supernatural, you are in safe, steady hands here. Knight, a staff writer at The New Yorker, explores the importance of prophets in ancient storytelling and the role of evolution in training the human brain to see patterns in order to predict danger. He skilfully leaves the reader to make up their own minds while teasing out a broader history of science, storytelling and psychiatry.


Kara Nicholson is from Readings online

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