On October 21, 1966, Kathleen Middleton woke up gasping for breath, convinced that the walls of her suburban bedroom were caving in. The choking feeling soon passed, but the fifty-two-year-old Londoner was left with a familiar drag of depression and dread. After a lifetime of these queasy spells, Middleton knew exactly what it all meant: something really horrible, almost certainly involving death, was on its way.
An hour or so later, and more than two hundred miles away in industrial South Wales, a man-made mountain of coal slurry began its wicked slide toward the elementary school nestled in the valley below. People who survived the Aberfan disaster, as it became known, later compared the sound of the heap as it thundered down the hill to the roar of a low-flying airplane. Inside Pantglas Junior School, the young pupils were assembling for morning registration, unaware of the thirty-foot wave of tarry sludge that was thundering toward them. In total, 116 children, mostly aged between seven and ten, along with twenty-eight adults, either were killed on impact or suffocated within minutes.
Among the hundreds of rescuers, well-wishers, and gawkers who descended on the scene in the following hours and days was John Barker, a forty-two-year-old psychiatrist. He had traveled from his home a hundred miles away not, in truth, because he thought he could offer much help to the grieving families but because he was intrigued by an early story that had already leaked out about a boy who had survived the disaster but then died a few hours later, apparently of shock. Alongside his day job as a National Health Service consultant at Shelton Hospital, a large mental hospital near the England–Wales border, Barker had a sideline in parapsychology. He was just then researching a book for the popular market titled Scared to Death, which recounted examples of healthy people who had apparently died from fright. It was a project that left Barker’s hospital bosses tutting that his extracurricular work was “undignified and embarrassing.” They insisted that he publish anonymously, to protect both his reputation and theirs.
During his time in Aberfan, Barker tactfully but doggedly set about recording examples of precognition that came his way. There was Eryl Mai Jones, a ten-year-old girl, “not given to imagination,” who the day before the disaster had told her mother about a dream she had: “I went to school and there was no school there. Something black had come down all over it!” Weeks later, the mother of eight-year-old Paul Davies “found a drawing of massed figures digging in the hillside under the words ‘the end.’” Again, the child had made the drawing the night before he died.
Quite aside from wanting to understand how the children had managed to foretell their own deaths, Barker felt obliged to consider whether collecting and publicizing premonitions might be a way of forestalling the next Aberfan. He envisaged assembling a data bank for the nation’s prophetic visions that could eventually be uploaded to a computer database (this concept was itself hard to grasp in 1966), from which early warnings of coming disasters would emerge. Barker saw this service as something like a long-range weather forecast, with air disasters and train crashes replacing downpours and droughts.
The next step was to enlist Peter Fairley, the science editor at London’s Evening Standard, to ask readers to write in if they had experienced “a genuine premonition before the coal tip fell on Aberfan.” From the seventy-six responses received, Fairley identified twenty-two that appeared to offer evidence of genuine precognition. These doleful seers would become the first “percipients” (Barker’s word) in what Fairley and Barker dubbed “the Premonitions Bureau.” Despite sounding as if it might have government backing, or even be part of the secret service, the Premonitions Bureau consisted of the kinetic Fairley, often absent from the office on his foldaway motorbike chasing other stories, and his deft assistant, Jennifer Preston. She would log every letter that came in, making a note of its headline contents—“Royalty,” “Racing,” “Non-specified disasters”—and, together with her boss, award points for such qualities as unusualness, accuracy, and timing.
While Fairley was not above wondering whether the Premonitions Bureau might help him win a fortune on the horses, Barker’s ambitions aimed higher. He hoped both to normalize precognition, thinking it might turn out to be as common as left-handedness, and harness it for the public good. There remained, however, one conceptual fault line that neither man ever managed to bridge: If a calamity were averted, then how could it generate a vision to precede it? And, if such a vision did still appear, then surely that would mean having to demote it to the status of a misfire, which would in turn undermine the validity of the entire enterprise. Or to put it another way: by intervening to avert a crisis, Barker and Fairley would be creating a glitch in the Matrix, something that neither Fleet Street journalists nor Cambridge-educated psychiatrists were really supposed to do.
In this hugely enjoyable book, expanded from his New Yorker piece of 2019, the British journalist Sam Knight is careful to neither poke fun at the Premonitions Bureau nor to treat it as holy writ. Keeping editorializing to a minimum, Knight sticks close to his main characters as they navigate a postwar world where “science” is revealing itself in all its mixed capacities, able to wipe out a whole city in a mushroom cloud and to put a man on the moon. It was a moment that Fairley was determined to make his own. Within a few years he would leave the Evening Standard, move to television, and become the public face of what Britons now happily referred to as “the space age,” despite having no skin in the game.
Barker’s interest in precognition was more nuanced. While not a psychoanalyst, he was familiar with the idea of the unconscious in both its Freudian and Jungian inflections. In the case of Aberfan, it was Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious that spoke most clearly. Slurry heaps had been looming over South Wales’s skyline for generations, and landslides were an old subject of chatter at the playground and around the tea table. It was entirely plausible that children growing up in the valley had absorbed a generalized sense of menace, which might then reveal itself in portent-laden drawings and dreams.
Then there’s Freud’s more singular reading of the unconscious as the place where deep personal desires reside in anxious semi-slumber. Could it be that Barker was becoming desperate to break out of a life that was no longer delivering on its early promise? A bright man who had studied medicine at Cambridge and written a thesis on Munchausen’s syndrome, Barker was now stuck in a provincial mental hospital run by small-minded and penny-pinching bureaucrats. This was in stark contrast to the thrilling advancements in residential psychiatric care that were taking place in London. In 1965 the Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing opened Kingsley Hall as a radical therapeutic community for those suffering from acute mental health distress. Staff and residents assumed equal status and responsibility for the running of the community, and the use of medication was voluntary. It was a different story for Barker, who oversaw the management—“care” would be too strong a word—of a thousand poor, elderly, and confused people who were confined in conditions of doubtful safety (the hospital had been built, more than a hundred years earlier, for just sixty patients) simply because no one else wanted them.
Out of this sediment of frustration had grown Barker’s interest in the fringier parts of psychiatry. This included treating various compulsions such as cross-dressing, gambling, or simple adultery by blitzing patients with small electric shocks while simultaneously exposing them to images associated with their particular obsession. And then there was Barker’s long-standing interest in the occult. At St. George’s medical school just after the war, he had become fixated on contacting the ghost of the brilliant late-eighteenth-century surgeon John Hunter, who was said to make noisy mischief in the library. Later, as a doting father, Barker would take his eldest son to visit various haunted houses on weekends. (The terrified six-year-old preferred to stay in the car.) His younger children, meanwhile, were intrigued by the fact that their dad kept a crystal ball on the desk in his study.
All of which suggests that Barker, who had turned from a keen student athlete into an obese thirty-five-year-old and from a first-class Cambridge man into a public servant at the shabbier end of the NHS, was excited by the possibility that a single life might have several parallel permutations. Perhaps, just like his philandering patients who were addicted to gambling, he too could be jolted into a new, improved version of himself, with all the bad bits burned away. And perhaps if precognition really worked, then it meant that, far from flowing forward in an inexorable straight line, time could be fashioned into loops, detours, and even do-overs. For someone whose life was increasingly small and predictable, the Premonitions Bureau offered Barker the thrilling possibility of infinite expansion.
This sense of enchantment was not shared by the bureau’s two star percipients, Kathleen Middleton and Alan Hencher, who between them were responsible for twelve of the eighteen successful predictions during its eighteen-month life span. To these unassuming but scrupulous clairvoyants, their “gift” felt more like a curse. “Do those who record our predictions really understand what it entails to make predictions?” Hencher asked tetchily in a letter to Fairley in April 1968, by which time relationships were beginning to sour.
Hencher’s point was that what seemed like an exciting spree to journalists and even doctors was, to him, an oppressive responsibility involving splitting headaches, sensations of terror, and chronic worry about whether and when to share his hunches. This shy man who worked as a telephone operator and lived with his parents in a council house in East London had absolutely no desire for the limelight. Yet the selfishness of doing nothing for the sake of a quiet life and then watching while hundreds of people plunged or burned to their deaths a few days later struck him as unendurable. A photograph taken of him to publicize the bureau’s activities shows a man who looks as though he would rather be somewhere, anywhere, else.
This was despite his having a pretty high strike rate. Six months after foreseeing Aberfan—“It just HIT me without warning”—Hencher phoned Barker to predict a plane crash “over mountains” that would result in 123 or 124 casualties. A month later, in bad weather, a Swiss charter plane botched its landing at Nicosia Airport in Cyprus, flying into a nearby hill and killing 124. Hencher had similar luck—although that is not a word he would have thought appropriate—later that year when he foretold the derailment of a crowded train on the outskirts of London, with a death toll of forty-nine.
Across town, Middleton, the North London music teacher who had awoken choking hours before Aberfan, had also foreseen the railway crash. Her most spectacular precognitions, however, came from the farthest reaches of the world. On April 23, 1967, she sent a vision to the bureau of an astronaut on his way to the moon, who was “petrified, terrified and just frightened.” She even enclosed a drawing of a spaceman crouched inside his craft, warning, “This venture will end in tragedy.” The following day the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz 1 fell out of the sky, reducing the cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov to a cindered brick measuring roughly twelve by thirty inches. Barker wrote to congratulate her: “You were spot on. Well done!” When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated a year later, after months of Middleton’s increasingly frantic warnings, Barker said it was her best work yet.
Throughout his book Knight maintains a scrupulous neutrality as to whether these precognitions were coincidences or supernatural happenings. “Finding meaning where there is none is a neat definition of madness…. But making connections, in what we see, or hear, or dream, is also a definition of thought itself,” he writes, in a typical refusal to come down on one side or the other. He manages to sustain this stance even when he embeds his argument more specifically in scientific and philosophical theories about the nature of time and entropy from the work of the astronomer Arthur Eddington or the quantum physicist Carlo Rovelli, or the free energy principle of neuroscientist Karl Friston. A typical line from Knight on precognition runs: “The second law of thermodynamics says it can’t happen, but you think of your mother a second before she calls.”
Equally important to Knight is the human theater in which these epistemological battles were fought. He gives fleeting but acute pen portraits of his four main characters, gathered from interviews with their families and associates as well as from the archives of the Society for Psychical Research, where Barker’s archive now resides. While Hencher seemed to find the whole business of the Premonitions Bureau troubling, Middleton felt validated by the attention of such a distinguished man as Barker. Neither percipient, though, was particularly impressed by Fairley. That’s partly because journalism was, and still is, not considered a professional or gentlemanly calling in Britain, a prejudice amply vindicated by Fairley, who clearly had an eye on the Premonitions Bureau as a way to sell newspapers, please his boss, Charles Wintour, and raise his personal profile.
Barker, meanwhile, is the least legible of this central quartet. On the one hand, he was a scrupulous and committed public servant who devoted his time to the unstarry business of improving the lives of his elderly, working-class hospital patients. On the other, he reveled in his increasingly high media profile, which involved multiple television appearances on such shows as the BBC’s Late Night Line-Up. There were times when Barker’s need for the bureau to succeed outstripped his duty of care to the percipients. Knight is admirably clear on this, noting that Barker “needled” and “cajoled” men and women “whose illusions had not been previously taken seriously.” Most chillingly, he never seemed to consider the impact this might have on their long-term mental health.
Knight paints a carefully textured picture of London in the swinging Sixties that also serves as a reminder of how patchy the new social and political freedoms really were. Carnaby Street might appear to the watching world to be the center of the hip universe, but in the dreary corner of London where Hencher lived, and in the Edmonton semi-detached where Middleton taught ballet with the carpet rolled up, life jogged on in a remarkably steady way. If a city can be said to have an affect, then London’s at the time of the Premonitions Bureau was cautious, as much concerned with repairing the disruptions of the war as it was with going after something new. All the main characters refer to one another as “Mr.,” “Miss,” and “Dr.,” and, although Knight doesn’t say so, it is likely that Fairley and Barker addressed each other by their surnames. Even the posthumous revelation that Fairley, who was married with children, had maintained a secret second family feels like adultery of a structured Victorian kind, rather than the spontaneous expression of free love.
Knight’s privileging of association over causation allows him to retain material that a more rigorous narrative scaffolding would require him to discard. So, for instance, he relays the uncanny occasion on which a seven-year-old Middleton was watching her mother fry an egg when “without warning the egg lifted itself up. It rose up and up until it almost touched the ceiling.” This, strictly speaking, adds nothing to the story of the Premonitions Bureau but does help create an atmosphere where impossible things happen all the time. Shifting registers only slightly, Knight also tells us about Fairley’s remarkable assistant, Jennifer Preston. Preston lived in a one-bedroom flat with her cabdriver husband, yet read Latin “easily” and later in life exchanged letters with President Mitterrand of France, “as if that were a normal thing to do.”
This associative technique is so capacious that at times The Premonitions Bureau is in danger of becoming simply a container for lengthy detours on various public scandals and disasters of mid-1960s Britain. Knight spends a great deal of time on the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 1967, which brought the British countryside to the brink of devastation. Bleak though that was, it’s not clear how these fields of smoking animal carcasses fit with precognition—although, given that the center of the outbreak was near Barker’s hospital, it does set up a thematic resonance that will be realized much later in the book.
An equally lengthy detour into the thalidomide scandal of 1961, in which thousands of British children were born with deformed limbs as a consequence of their mothers being prescribed an insufficiently tested anti-nausea pill during pregnancy, sets a suitably somber tone but, again, has little to do with foreseeing the future, apart perhaps from implying what a boon it might have been in this instance. From here we branch out even further to present-day Sweden to hear about the strange “resignation syndrome” that has afflicted the children of migrants, who sink into a dangerous coma-like state, rallying only when their family is granted a visa to remain.
This blurriness of the book’s intellectual architecture is not helped by the decision to do without endnotes, which means that it is sometimes unclear who or what is being quoted at any given moment. Likewise, the choice to go full Sebald on the photographs, using atmospheric black-and-white images without anchoring captions, is not always successful. While it creates a space where the reader is required to make her own meaning out of narrative scraps, neatly underscoring Knight’s point about the fact that we are pattern-making creatures, it can be frustrating too. It is not always completely clear whether we are looking at a photograph of Jennifer Preston or Kathleen Middleton, John Barker or Alan Hencher.
This calculated vagueness becomes more striking given that, in the end, it is the specifics of the Premonitions Bureau story that drives the book to its extraordinary denouement. Among the precognitions that both Middleton and Hencher manifested was a growing anxiety about Barker himself. Hencher was the first to raise it, on one occasion phoning the doctor in the early hours to tell him to “be very careful” and hinting strongly that his life was in danger. Quite independently, Middleton had an ominous dream involving her dead parents, which she interpreted as presaging the death of someone close to her.
John Barker died on August 20, 1968. He was only forty-four and, while he had recently been hospitalized for headaches, there was no reason to think that a subarachnoid hemorrhage was in the offing. In one way this seemed like extraordinary proof of the power of precognition: news of his death and its premonition was splashed on the cover of the Psychic News. Yet while it brings stunning narrative closure to The Premonitions Bureau, Knight seems aware that it is simply too pat, almost an embarrassment in its neatness. There are, after all, many other ways to understand Barker’s death: he had always worked compulsively, he had in the past been dangerously overweight, and, recently, he had undergone a severe trauma.
Six months earlier, on February 25, 1968, part of Shelton Hospital had gone up in flames, leaving one ward as a blistered skeleton. Twenty-four women, many of them elderly, lost their lives. Some were literally melted into their surroundings, a symbol of the way that the decrepit asylum insisted on hanging on to patients in a way that Barker had long considered unhealthy. Indeed, his previous attempts at reform at the hospital, trying to shake up care and improve the lives of his patients, had led to yet more strain with his immediate bosses. The recent commercial success of Scared to Death, published with a schlocky gothic front cover, had only made things worse. He had, mutinously, decided to publish under his own name.
Barker’s bosses were surely among the many who couldn’t help pointing out—and, indeed, enjoyed pointing out—that the Premonitions Bureau had not yielded a peep about the coming disaster at Shelton. A genuine tragedy had engulfed Barker, yet neither Middleton nor Hencher had raised the alarm. This was despite the fact that the previous year Hencher had warned of a terrible fire in a Brussels department store that killed 251. This obvious failure raised the question of whether the bureau had actually had any real successes at all, or whether the whole thing was a case of smoke and mirrors and wishful thinking. At one point Fairley totted up the figures and reckoned that the bureau had achieved a success rate of just over 3 percent, which, as Knight comments in his typically measured way, was “very low, but not nothing.”