10 February 2024


Sam Knight. The Premonitions Bureau, Faber and Faber Ltd, 2022.

This is that rarest of literary animals – a book about what might loosely be called the paranormal that not only made it into the mainstream, but received excellent reviews from those who would normally be complete cynics unwilling to soil their eyes on any such work. Sam Knight, however, has cracked it.
For a start, this is a clever, nuanced and meticulously researched book that draws one in immediately with its deceptively direct style. It’s not for nothing that Sam Knight is a staffer at The New Yorker. He knows his way around the art of communication. What is surprising is that this is his first book.

It received such uncompromising acclaim that at first I thought it was a novel. But some eager poking around in display piles in W.H. Smith’s revealed the truth – it’s a ground-breaking work of nonfiction but about a subject only too often thought of as the opposite.

(Obviously I love and recommend it, but one minor niggle is that he – and others quoted throughout - use the term ‘occult’ as being interchangeable with ‘supernatural’ or ‘paranormal’. It isn’t. The occult refers to what believers actually do – ritual magick, for example. The supernatural or paranormal is what happens anyway, but often can’t be explained. Ok, that’s arguable, some of you might be thinking. Not me, though.)

The book is largely concerned with what happened in the 60s, though some elements hark back further. Early comments reveal that there were surveys during the Second World War about belief in the paranormal. One teacher replied: ‘I don’t know where the “supernatural” begins and the “subconscious” ends’, which is a pretty good underpinning for this book.

Actually, one of Knight’s greatest strengths is that he simply tells the story of two British men, one a psychiatrist and one a famous TV scientist, who collaborated on running the Premonitions Bureau of the title, seeking data that would help us understand the phenomenon of receiving information about coming events – almost always tragedies. Knight never slides off into arguments about the subject, unless they are the men’s in question, or anything approaching New Agey waffle. This is intensely historical and factual but buzzing with life.

The early chapters concern one of the UK’s worst peacetime disasters. And if I may, I want to share my own slight experience of those linked to the event because it’s a powerful memory in its own right and serves to underline its towering horror.

I was at university in Wales when, one morning, shortly before we young women were about to leave our hall of residence for the day’s lectures, I heard something extraordinary. And I never want to hear anything like it again. It was a dual noise, a huge rising din that battered the eardrums. It was both the sound of throngs of students running headlong down the corridors, their feet thudding and thumping as if to underline the enormity of the event, together with the dreadful sound of their shrieking and howling with panic, shock and pain.

It was 21 October 1966. The day that began with the news that that a mining village in the Welsh valleys, a tiny place called Aberfan (pronounced Abervan) had suffered a landslide of slurry from the coalmining tip. It had rushed down the hillside and buried Pantglas Junior School, just as the children were settling in for the day. Many of my fellow students had relatives there. Some were actually from Aberfan.

And the news from Aberfan was only to get worse. Much, much worse. Altogether, 144 people died under the black deluge: 28 adults and 116 children – some still with their colouring-in crayons in their hands.

Soon it emerged that some people had relayed weird dreams or feelings about the tragedy before the event. The most famous was the dream of little Eryl Mai Jones, an 11-year-old girl, who told her mother – two weeks before the event – that she wasn’t afraid of death. Her mum Megan replied, ‘Why are you talking of dying, and you so young?’

But the very day before the disaster, Eryl said to Megan: ‘Mummy, let me tell you about my dream last night’. Megan said gently that she hadn’t time, but Eryl insisted, saying: ‘No, Mummy, you must listen. I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there. Something black had come down over it.’

The next day, Eryl was buried in the black filth at the school.

Forty-two-year-old psychiatrist John Barker visited the scene of devastation, being immensely moved by the human agony – but also dignity – on display. He realised it would have been ‘inopportune’ and tasteless to interview the families then and there but would come back to the event many times in his studies.

A senior consultant at a mental institution, Barker was currently working on a book about whether it was possible to be literally scared to death, pursuing that and more esoteric interests – he was a member of the Society for Psychical Research - with what he called ‘a conscious rationalism’.

The Aberfan tragedy fascinated Barker, because he discovered that there were many stories of unusual little occurrences that saved lives and ended others. For the first time ever, one little boy overslept, to be sent rushing off to school in tears by his mother - and only to be crushed by the deluge. Weeks after the horror, a bereaved mother found a drawing of massed figures digging in the hillside under the words ‘the end’ by her eight-year-old son, who had also died.

So, ‘given the singular nature of the disaster and its total penetration of the national consciousness’ Barker decided to gather together as many premonitions of the Aberfan event that he could, and try to comprehend the data.

So he wrote to Peter Fairley, the science editor of the London *Evening Standard* and later famous broadcaster, asking him to publicise the idea – and a fascinating partnership was born.

Fairley was by no means a total sceptic. In 1966 he had suffered a three-month episode of blindness, which he thought would be permanent. One day he found himself wondering about doing some recording about the then hot topic of the space race for blind people. Then his phone rang. It was a radio producer asking him to record a long interview about the space race for blind patients… Fairley said later: ‘You can call it coincidence. But once a few of these things happen you start to wonder.’

And wonder, or at least curiosity, was what galvanised the two men to form the Premonitions Bureau, soon whittling down the would-be psychics to a smallish stable of those given to ‘hits’. In almost all cases, they predicted tragedies.

There was a good deal to double check about Aberfan, which they never forgot. One Constance Milder had had a vision at her Spiritualist meeting the day before the coal slide. She told six witnesses immediately about it: she saw an old school, a Welsh miner, and ‘an avalanche of coal’ go rushing into a valley towards an absolutely terrified little boy. Ms Milder recognised him from a photo on the news. He’d been killed.

One man suddenly knew there’d be a national disaster on the 21. When the day arrived, he said: ‘Today’s the day.’ He said the feeling came ‘as strongly as might come the thought that you have forgotten your wife’s birthday.’

Barker was anything but a gullible fool, and recognised there were potential problems with data that had been collected after the fact. But he accepted the validity of the most extraordinary and well-witnessed cases, wondering if premonitions might be a sort of symptom of a ‘telepathic shock wave’ induced by the coming disaster, seeing the predictors as ‘human disaster reactors’.

He, and Fairley, also wondered what use the information might be. Even if the dreams and visions had been publicly recorded at the time, there was no reason to suspect they would have been believed or acted upon. And if they were acted upon – say, a plane envisioned on a certain day to have crashed was prevented from even flying that day and therefore didn’t crash, did that mean the premonition was invalid?

There is a plethora of other cases discussed, and a large cast of colourful and often engaging characters – all real, all flawed, but all part of Barker and Fairley’s incredible story.

Knight also takes us into the not-always relatable world of 1960s’ psychiatry – a troubling and uncomfortable journey – and into the personal lives of the two researchers, so we know them and really rather like them. But as they continue to work with their supernatural stars, meticulously logging their premonitions, something worrying keeps cropping up – Barker’s own demise. He was a relatively young man. But he died, pretty much as described.

What could he have done about it? Probably nothing. But at least he’d made a note of all those unsettling and deeply personal predictions…
  • Lynn Picknett

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