A terrific book by Sam Knight about a bizarre, real-life attempt to collect people’s premonitions is beautifully written, but goes too easy on the pseudoscience
IN OCTOBER 1966, around the time a colliery spoil heap in Aberfan in Wales collapsed, burying a school and homes and killing 116 children and 28 adults, an English psychiatrist called John Barker was working on a book about people who appeared to have scared themselves to death.
In some ways, it was a precursor to the work of writers such as Oliver Sacks: Barker was boldly but thoughtfully exploring the odder reaches of the psyche. In other ways, however, his research was sensationalist and foolish – Barker was also a member of the Society for Psychical Research and he had suggested that people could become aware of the moment of their death. By telepathy, perhaps.
In the aftermath of the Aberfan disaster, Barker heard that a boy who had escaped the wave of coal slurry had later died of shock. Barker drove 160 kilometres from a psychiatric hospital where he was a consultant to investigate. But while touring Aberfan, he heard stories of forebodings and warnings, and he had a new idea.
Within a week, in collaboration with Peter Fairley, the Evening Standard‘s science journalist, he was inviting the newspaper’s readers to contact him with their “dreams and forebodings”. These would be recorded and, in the event of ensuing disaster, verified. This was the “premonitions bureau”, and its story (and Barker’s) is the subject of a book by journalist Sam Knight.
Barker was certainly an interesting man. Intellectually ambitious, he researched Munchausen’s syndrome and experimented with aversion therapy, claiming to have cured a man of desire for an extramarital affair by administering 70-volt electric shocks. He was a pioneer of longboard surfing. And he kept a crystal ball on his desk.
In the 15 months it existed, the bureau collected 723 predictions, of which 18 were recorded as “hits”, with 12 coming from just two correspondents. One was a London music teacher, Kathy Middleton. She saw pictures, with words flashing as if in neon lights. The other “human seismometer”, as Fairley put it, was a switchboard operator called Alan Hencher, who worked at the Post Office. His visions were accompanied by distress and headaches.
In one “major hit” for the bureau, Hencher predicted a plane crash involving 123 people. Nine days later, a plane came down near Nicosia in Cyprus, killing 126 people, 124 of them on impact.
In another, Middleton wrote to Barker detailing a vision of a petrified astronaut. Earlier that day – although it wasn’t reported until later – Vladimir Komarov’s Soyuz 1 capsule had crash-landed in Russia, burning him to death.
Knight finds that Barker could be “credulous, or laconic; doubtful, yet insinuating”. Something similar is true of Knight. Now a staff writer at The New Yorker, his non-fiction heroes include sophisticated literary storytellers such as W. G. Sebald and Joan Didion. He likes jump cuts, internal resonances and leaving things unstated.
Take the section where he segues from a discussion of entropy to a tragic outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in England and then to a campaign to shut Victorian-era asylums – by a woman who dreamed of the winning horses in the Epsom Derby.
Or another where he moves from the origin of the word embolism to the nocebo effect and Sweden’s uppgivenhetssyndrom (resignation syndrome), a condition in which refugee children appear to retreat into near-comas of hopelessness.
With such manoeuvres, Knight builds a subtle, allusive study of his subject, and his evocation of the frowsty yet aspirational mid-1960s England feels just right. But it is Barker who dominates the book, with his “contained, quietly belligerent energy”, and Knight treats him with generosity, and delivers a great deal of pathos.
Too much generosity and too much pathos, because premonitions aren’t true. If you deal in them, you are deluded or a charlatan. Barker was mostly the former. Knight, I am sure, is neither – but he still allows the possibility to play, as a kind of mood music. And for all that this is a compelling, beautifully written book, it feels like bad faith.
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