Yet hanging in the stars

For most of human history, people have believed that we can see into the future. The Bible is filled with prophecies and premonitory dreams; the ancient Greeks put their faith in oracles and in destinies that no mortal being could swerve. “That which is fated cannot be fled”, warned Pindar. As Oedipus discovered, what is going to happen to us becomes what we choose to do.

The Premonitions Bureau, Sam Knight’s elegant and illuminating work of cultural history, transports us back to a mid-twentieth-century Britain still clinging to this faith in precognition – the extra-sensory perception of future events. Precognition, which hinted at “undiscovered reaches of physics and of the mind”, managed to escape the taint of the occult that clung to phenomena such as ghosts and ectoplasm. It teetered on the edges of scientific respectability.

In 1927, JW Dunne, an aeronautical engineer, published the bestselling book An Experiment with Time, which remained in print for more than half a century. In 1902, while serving in the Boer War, Dunne had dreamt of a volcano about to erupt on a French colonial island. A few weeks later, he killed he got hold of a newspaper which reported that the eruption of Mont Pelée, on the French Caribbean island of Martinique, had 40,000 people. Dunne’s book was a thirty-year history of his own dreams and their intimations of the future. He explained it all with reference to the new fields of relativity theory and quantum mechanics, which theorized that time’s linearity was no simple matter. Dreams that predicted future happenings became known as “Dunne dreams”. On Dunne’s advice, many of his readers began leaving pencil and paper by their beds so they could write down their dreams on waking.

JB Priestley, in plays such as Time and the Conways (1937) and An Inspector Calls (1945), drew on Dunne’s work. Priestley also popularized Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity, which suggested that events could be linked outside the normal logic of cause and effect, such as when a dream foretells an event in the waking world. In Time and the ConwaysAlan Conway tells his sister Kay that the secret to life is that time is not monodirectional but eternally present, and that at any given moment we see only “a cross section of ourselves”.

At the heart of Knight’s story lies a remarkable character called John Barker. When we first meet him, in 1966, he is a forty-two-year-old psychiatrist working at Shelton Hospital in Shropshire, one of Britain’s sprawling and overcrowded mental institutions. Barker worked tirelessly to improve conditions at Shelton by phasing out the more brutal treatments, such as electroconvulsive therapy administered without drugs. But he was also frustrated with the professional timidity of his field. Fringe dismissed as psychic or paranormal were just waiting to be absorbed into mainstream science, he believed. He was a member of Britain’s Society for Psychical Research and fascinated by precognition.

The book begins with the event that galvanized Barker: the Aberfan disaster of October 21, 1966, when a coal-tip avalanche buried a primary school, killing 144 people, mostly children. The precarious-looking tips above Aberfan had long worried locals, and many spokes of having disturbing thoughts and visions before the disaster. Given how much Aberfan had pierced the national consciousness, Barker decided to ask the public if they had felt any presentiment of it. He contacted Peter Fairley, the science editor of the London Evening Standard, who agreed to publicize his appeal. Barker received seventy-six responses from what he called “percipients”. After prodding them for details and witnesses, he concluded that precognition was a common human trait, perhaps as common as left-handedness. He thought that a small subset of the population might experience “pre-disaster syndrome”, somewhat similar to the way in which twins were thought to feel each other’s pain remotely.

The problem was that, as with most similar evidence, the Aberfan data had been scientifically compromised by being collected after the event. So just before Christmas 1966, Barker and Fairley approached Charles Wintour, the Evening Standard‘s editor, about setting up a “Premonitions Bureau”. For a year, the newspaper’s readers would be asked to send in their forebodings of unwelcome events, which would be collated and then compared with actual events. The Standard‘s newsroom was soon inundated with letters and telephone calls.

Barker envisaged the Premonitions Bureau as a “central clearing house” for all portents of calamities, “a data bank for the nation’s dreams and visions”. This crowd-sourcing of the collective unconscious recalled the work of an earlier research organization, Mass Observation, which also made use of unpaid volunteers to create “weather maps of public feeling”. Barker hoped that the results would eventually be uploaded to a computer database, and that the Bureau would issue early warnings of potential disasters.

Barker and Fairley appeared often in newspapers, as well as on BBC2’s Late Night Line-Up. They also turned up with a group of percipients to be interviewed on ITV’s The Frost Program, but were dropped mid-show, probably because David Frost worried how the group might come across. “’Weirdos’ would be too strong a description,” Fairley wrote later, “but they were certainly different.” Fairley put his own raised profile to good use, going on to present ITV’s coverage of the moon landings.

The Bureau received hundreds of warnings, most of which proved, predictably, to be blind alleys or impossible to verify. On quiet mornings, Fairley would go through the letters pile in search of racing tips. Two respondents, though, had real staying power: Kathleen Middleton, a piano teacher from Edmonton, and Alan Hencher, a Post Office switchboard operator from Dagenham. They have a whole run of unfortunate events, including the Torrey Canyon oil spill, the death of a Russian cosmonaut on his re-entry to earth, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and the Hither Green rail crash in which predict forty-nine people died. Distressingly for Barker, they both then foresaw his own death (which nicely sets up the end of the book).

Knight’s refreshing approach to his subject matter avoids being either too cynical or too credulous. “Premonitions are impossible, and they come true all the time”, he writes. He knows how hard it is for us storytelling animals to separate an event from the link we give it in a causal chain. A few weeks before their wedding, he and his wife saw three magpies, and “never asked for a test to confirm the sex of our daughter because we felt we had already been informed.”

Time is an arrow. The second law of thermodynamics rules that there is no way we can know about things before they happen. Entropy – the cup of tea that cools as you drink it, the leaves that fall in autumn, the lines that form on your forehead – is the concrete proof that time only runs forwards. And yet some contemporary theoretical physicists, such as Carlo Rovelli, suggest that the explanatory power of entropy, which makes sense of our lives and our deaths, has caused us to give it too much credence. Perhaps we only see the small part of reality where this rule holds. Knight feels no need to come down on one side or the other. Instead, he uses the theme of precognition to explore deep existential questions about time, causation and the meaning of life.

The Premonitions Bureau is full of lightly dispensed research, gathered from the archives of the Society for Psychical Research and interviews with the families and associates of the main characters. Knight’s method and tone will be familiar to those who have read his Guardian Long Reads on everyday subjects such as the British sandwich industry and Uber’s takeover of London, or his New Yorker “Letter from the UK”. He deploys two highly effective narrative techniques. The first is the deadpan drop of bits of stray information. We learn that a survivor of the Hither Green rail crash was the seventeen-year-old Robin Gibb, of the Bee Gees; that Barker was a keen surfer, although overweight and at least two decades older than his fellow longboard pioneers; that Fairley chased stories on a fold-up motorcycle and that only when he died did his widow and four children learn of his secret second family. As well as being weirdly fascinating, these facts add authenticating specificity to the story.

Knight’s second technique is the narrative handbrake turn, where the story veers off without warning, the significance of this new thread only emerging later. “In the 1690s, a young tutor named Martin Martin was commissioned to map and document life in the western islands of Scotland”, he might begin, out of the blue. Or: “One day in 1995, in the German cathedral city of Mainz, a fifty-one-year-old woman went to hospital…”. The creatively jarring juxtaposition of human voices and stories reminded me a little of Tales of a New Jerusalem, David Kynaston’s multi-volume history of postwar Britain. Knight, like Kynaston, leaves us with a sense of the stubborn strangeness of other people and of the recent past, without ever seeming condescending to either. Other people, his book reveals, are infinitely and incurably odd. Still, they might just be on to something.

Joe Moran is a Professor of English at Liverpool John Moores University. His most recent book is If You Should Fail2020

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