‘It is, indeed, a terrible thing’

Sam Knight, The Premonitions Bureau: A True Story

Faber & Faber, 224pp, £14.99, ISBN 9780571357567

reviewed by Lamorna Ash

A black-and-white photograph — landscape, extending over two pages. A woman takes up the right-hand page, her face and torso specifically. At first instance she reminds you of a young Cher, the same long features and dark eyes. The woman is also holding a landscape photograph. It shows a catastrophic incident: what was once a building now debris and ash and mephitic smoke, men in thick gloves standing by. The smoke hints at the sequential relationship between the disaster and the photograph. This must be the immediate aftermath of the fire. The photograph bolts the event there, in the moment of witnessing its final incineration, when no one could do any more about it.

The woman with the black eyes looks directly into the viewfinder and so directly at you, the viewer. One extensively plucked brow raised, her mouth partway open. It’s hard to be sure what she is trying to convey. It’s not just horror, not just sadness. There is something else in her expression, too, like pride, something like: See! Do you believe me now?

It prompts you to remember another image. A meme, actually — though once it was just a photo. To the right of the frame, a kid (primary school-age, American, you assume) is smiling at the camera. Behind her and to the left, partly out-of-focus, there is a bungalow burning to the ground. On the kid’s face is a look of contentment, smugness, even. She is giving the camera what we would now call side-eye. ‘Disaster Girl’, the meme is named, often photoshopped so that, instead of the burning bungalow, the mushroom plume over Hiroshima or the Titanic is superimposed behind her. You cannot help but imagine a causation. Her smile, it says: I did this.

The woman in the first photograph is Jennifer Preston. The picture was taken in the 1960s and is printed in longform journalist Sam Knight’s first book. The Premonitions Bureau is itself an expansion of the 2019 New Yorker piece Knight wrote about the British psychologist John Barker, and the organisation Barker founded, the Premonitions Bureau, in order to predict future calamities collecting of portentous visions from clairvoyant members of the general public, figures whom Barker termed ‘percipients’.

It feels appropriate to compare the two images. Not only are they compositionally equivalent, but in both there appears to be something inappropriate going on in their reactions to these disastrous events. It is this tension that makes them powerful. It is the same tension between desiring and dreading disasters that makes the Premonitions Bureau such a fascinating subject.

Preston worked at the Evening Standard with Peter Fairley, the paper’s science editor and the man who set up the Premonitions Bureau with Barker at the start of 1967. Her role at the Bureau was to log the calls and file the letters describing visions of future tragedies — these were sent in daily to the part of the Evening Standard offices from which the Bureau was run. She subdivided the letters into various categories: ‘Royals’, ‘Racing’, ‘Non-specified disasters’, ‘Fire’, etc. Though the photo credit in the Premonitions Bureau gives us no information about the image Preston is holding, Knight juxtaposes it with a description of a specific forewarning sent into the Bureau: a dream about ‘a tremendous conflagration’ that would consume a large building. The next day a fire destroyed a vast department store in Brussels and 251 individuals lost their lives.

By the spring of 1968, the Premonitions Bureau had received 723 predictions. 18 of these — 3% — had come true, to some degree, which is both very little and not nothing. This makes sense of Preston’s countenance in the photograph: the quiet victory in her eyes. ‘At some level,’ Knight writes of Barker, he wanted ‘to bring on those consequences, however destructive they might be.’ If it was predicted building would burn, those at the Bureau could not help but wish it would burn.

The catalyst for the Premonitions Bureau was the Aberfan Disaster in 1966, when part of the village of Aberfan in Wales was engulfed by a slurry of waste material from the nearby Merthyr Vale Colliery. When the spoil tip (which overshadowed the village from the edge of the valley rim) collapsed, it happened so fast that there was no time to act. ‘A dark glistening wave burst out of the hillside and poured down,’ Knight writes. It totally buried Aberfan’s primary school, as well as parts of the secondary school and multiple houses. 144 people died, 116 of them children between the ages of 7 and 10 — some half of the village’s children. Later that year the tribunal concluded the disaster had been entirely preventable, a matter ‘not of wickedness but of ignorance, ineptitude.’ The phrasing is familiar, the kind of language used to describe the terrible, needless loss of lives to the Grenfell fire in London. That negligence, though, I would argue, is its own kind of wickedness.

John Barker, then in his mid-forties, drove straight over to the site of the tragedy from the mental institution near Shrewsbury where he was a senior consultant. At the time, he was writing a book about individuals who die of shock, Scared To Death, and he was hoping to find out more about a child who had escaped the disaster but died very soon afterwards. Once there, though, he realised it was an entirely inappropriate time to start prying into the boy’s death, and instead became interested in some of the conversations the bereaved families were having. There was talk of a number of dreams and visions members of the community had been having which seemed to predict the disaster: a child who had made a drawing the night before of ‘massed figures digging in the hillside under the words “the end”’. Two weeks before the collapse, a little girl who would later die in the disaster, had said, out of the blue, that she was ‘not afraid of death’. But, then again, Knight notes ‘the dark, unnatural tips above Aberfan had long played on local people’s minds.’ At each moment in The Premonitions Bureau, Knight skilfully, with the lightest of touches, steers the reader between inexplicable and more plausible explanations, never privileging one absolutely over the other. ‘Premonitions are impossible,’ he suggests, ‘and they come true all the time.’ After the Aberfan Disaster, Barker reached out to his friend Fairley. A few days later Fairley published an article in the Evening Standard asking for members of the public to write in if they had had ‘a genuine premonition before the coal tip fell on Aberfan’. They received 76 replies, 22 of which offered enough evidence, according to Fairley and Barker, to be counted as genuine premonitions. These individuals would become the first percipients at the Premonitions Bureau.

Though the framework and beats of The Premonitions Bureau and the New Yorker piece from which it grew are broadly the same, the greater space afforded to a book-length narrative gives Knight the opportunity to expand and enrich the story at each level. It is like the difference between a tree when it is young and the same tree glimpsed many years later: the base has thickened; the original branches have produced all kinds of unexpected flowerings and offshoots. ‘The act of storytelling is also an act of narrowing,’ Knight claims at one point. In The Premonitions Bureau, the opposite is true. Knight is able to flesh out his main characters and their personal lives, making the story less streamlined and more complicated; explore philosophical and scientific theories about the nature of time and entropy via Carlo Rovelli and Arthur Eddington; as well as writers who have probed in their work how supposed truths are so often constructed fiction, like Henrik Ibsen and John Berger.

In Knight’s journalism, there is only marginal recourse to an active first person, and very little space for rhetorical flourishes. In The Premonitions Bureau he reveals his gift for quick runs of personal, aphoristic sentences that are aimed more directly at the reader:

Randomness is banal. It diminishes us. But the truth is that we resist meaning all the time. We refuse its presence, often, to make life simpler and spare ourselves. There was no way we could have seen that coming. We didn’t stand a chance. Fate intervened. It’s easier to be a mole who knows nothing about the habits of birds. Letting things go, surrendering to chance, is its own narrative act but we talk about it much less.

These moments are beautifully managed, functioning as material that has not been submerged into the specifics of the story, which instead floats some way above it, providing the reader with another view of things.

Knight returns to the second law of thermodynamics throughout The Premonitions Bureau, the theory that ‘time is decay’, that our lives and the life of the universe are imprisoned in a slow state of unravel. The very existence of the Premonitions Bureau’s percipients functioned as a challenge to this theory: by predicting events that would happen in the future, they disrupted the understanding of time as a straight arrow. And yet, The Premonitions Bureau itself is propelled by a kind of entropy. It presses on towards a seemingly inevitable death, that of Barker himself.

Between themselves two percipients at the Bureau accounted for 12 out of the 18 successful predictions during the Bureau’s short lifespan: Alan Hencher, a Post Office switchboard operator and Lorna Middleton, a dance teacher. As well as correctly predicting astronauts falling from the sky and planes crashing to the earth, both Hencher and Middleton started predicting, with increasing regularity, Barker’s imminent death. First from a car crash, then later, in July 1968, at the same time Barker was experiencing terrible headaches, Middleton had a dream that her dead parents were with her. ‘THIS MAY MEAN A DEATH’, she wrote into the Bureau. Then, again, in August, Middleton woke with a choking sensation, the same feeling she had experienced just before the Aberfan disaster. The next morning, a vessel burst in Barker’s brain. He died in hospital on 20th August 1968.

After Barker’s death, the Premonitions Bureau continued receiving visions up into the seventies, with Jennifer Preston still diligently filing them away under their appropriate headings: ‘Royals’, ‘Racing’, ‘Non-specified disasters’, ‘Fire’. By its final days, the Bureau had a collection of over 3,000 premonitions.

The Premonition Bureau percipients are nothing like the ‘pre-cogs’ in Steven Spielberg’s science-fiction thriller Minority Report (2002), based on Philip K. Dick’s 1956 short story of the same title. Where Washington D.C.’s 2054 ‘pre-crime’ unit had managed to get the murder count in the district down to zero-per-cent by arresting criminals before they committed terrible acts, the Premonitions Bureau never stopped anything awful from happening. As such, the whole enterprise was marked, and mired by, a kind of impotency: like a man stopping to take a photo of a kid watching a bungalow burning down, because what else could you do in that situation, when a tragedy is beyond averting? After Hencher predicted a plane crash accurately for the second time, Barker wrote this to Fairley: ‘It is, indeed, a terrible thing to reflect that there are now only two people in the world who know that some sixty people will die in a plane crash in three weeks’ time.’

Lamorna Ash is a journalist and the author of Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish Fishing Town. She lives in London.