Sam Knight: ‘The Premonitions Bureau’

❉ It’s likely that this is the only book of 2022 whose supporting cast includes both Arthur Koestler and The Bee Gees, writes Graham Williamson.

Sam Knight’s first book, The Premonitions Bureau, successfully revives the spirit of Nigel Kneale circa The Stone Tape. Here is a cast of sober, white-coated scientists in a Britain still battered from the Blitz, exploring questions that are normally the purview of mediums and mystics with a rigorous detachment. It’s a must-read even before you consider its most incredible feature – it’s all true.

Knight is a British staff writer for The New Yorker, and The Premonitions Bureau expands on an article he wrote for them in 2019. It has all the positive qualities of that magazine’s legendary journalism; thoroughly researched, discursive without being aimless, an exemplar of clear, readable prose. The latter is a particular asset considering the subject matter. Most books about the paranormal are written to convince the reader, often hitting a pitch of near-religious fervour as they do so. Knight isn’t reporting on these events to debunk them, and he isn’t reporting to validate them either. He’s just reporting on them, and the resulting book is as blessedly free of proselytisation as Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats.

The bureau of the title was set up by John Barker, a psychiatrist from Shropshire who travelled to the Welsh village of Aberfan after the notorious 1966 colliery collapse that left 144 dead, mostly children. Barker was looking for material for a book about death from terror, which he believed he could drag out of the realms of folklore and into the medical literature. He felt deeply uncomfortable combing the village for leads in the immediate aftermath of such a tragedy, and perhaps this is why he was drawn off track by something equally strange but more hopeful. Several of the children of Aberfan, it turned out, had made drawings or reported dreams that seemed uncannily predictive of the catastrophe. If this power could be harnessed, Barker realised, it could be the most potent early warning system the world had ever seen.

Barker may have had a weakness for sensational topics, but he wasn’t a crank. One of the most exciting aspects of The Premonitions Bureau is Knight’s depiction of the cutting edge of mid-20th century science, where once-unthinkable breakthroughs seemed to be happening every year. Barker himself had been involved in the early research into Munchausen syndrome, which was previously thought to be barely less absurd than psychic powers. With the secrets of DNA unlocked, and quantum physicists revealing that the universe didn’t work in the way we thought it did, it’s easy to see why the boundaries between science and the supernatural were unusually porous around this time.

That said, it wasn’t a time of boundless possibilities. There was some suspicion towards an NHS employee publishing books for the mass market, rather than an academic readership, a suspicion that only increased after Barker’s study of fear-related deaths was published under the lurid title Scared to Death. (One of the frustratingly unlabelled illustrations shows the American cover design for Barker’s book, which wouldn’t be out of place advertising a James Whale horror movie) Despite this, Knight depicts Barker as a man of pure motives, not least when it comes to his day job.

Barker was the superintendent for a mental hospital in Shropshire. The most affecting strand of the book sees Knight describing such establishments in the 1960s as having barely changed since the Victorian age. The focus was still on lifelong incarceration rather than rehabilitation, and even readers who struggle to credit Barker’s apparent faith in psychic powers will root for him as he drives through much-needed modernisation. Knight wisely doesn’t press this point, but it’s possible to interpret Barker’s zeal for disaster prevention as a natural response to inheriting a hospital full of patients who were institutionalised beyond help before he even turned up.

Needless to say, the question of whether it is possible to accurately dream the future remains unanswered at the end of Knight’s book. Some of his most engaging diversions concern earlier attempts to research parapsychology, including the remarkable story of a Scottish island whose inhabitants all seemed to have visionary abilities – but only while they were on the island. As soon as some inhabitants left to work abroad, their precognitive dreams dried up, and only returned once they came home. These side trips are perhaps the most straightforwardly fun parts of The Premonitions Bureau, if only for how much ground they cover. It’s likely that this is the only book of 2022 whose supporting cast includes both Arthur Koestler and The Bee Gees.

By bringing in stories of decades past, though, Knight tips the reader off that this is far too big a problem to be solved by one small group of researchers, ensuring that the ending isn’t too much of a disappointment. As Barker gets deeper into his project, he becomes aware of a paradox at its heart: if a psychic predicts (say) that a plane will crash, and Barker’s British Premonitions Bureau alerts the airport who then refuse to clear that plane for take-off, is it still a premonition if the event being predicted doesn’t happen? There are some eerily accurate predictions, but the signal-to-noise question – basically, are these predictions more frequent and more accurate than pure chance? – is left open.

As noted above, though, Knight’s book isn’t about proving or disproving second sight. It’s about a small band of sympathetic characters who had an astonishing, now-forgotten adventure that seems somehow relevant to the spirit of their age. The humility and diligence of Barker and his colleagues is oddly moving, echoing the self-sacrifice of World War II and the determination to build a better world that sprang forth in its wake. Even when Fleet Street get involved – the British Premonitions Bureau was co-founded by Peter Fairley, the science editor of the Evening Standard – there’s a wistful ethos of duty and public service at the story’s heart. You would not, it’s fair to say, see John Barker raking in millions supplying inadequate PPE during a pandemic.

It’s no surprise that the essential Britishness of the story shines through – Knight’s usual beat involves getting a mostly American audience up to speed on complex matters of UK domestic politics. The Premonitions Bureau takes a now-forgotten story that happened in a now-lost Britain and makes it feel vivid, palpable and strangely relevant. It’s a dream of a book.

❉ The Premonitions Bureau: A True Account of Death Foretold by Sam Knight was published 3 May 2022 by Faber & Faber, RRP £14.99 (Hardback). ISBN: 9780571378388

Graham Williamson (he/him) is a writer and film-maker from Middlesbrough who runs the Pop Screen podcast for movies either starring or about pop stars. His writing has appeared in The Geek Show, Horrified and Byline Times. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd for Bowie hot takes.

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