On 20 October, 1966, 10-year-old Eryl Mai Jones, from Aberfan in south Wales, told her mother about a dream she’d had the night before. “I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there,” she said. “Something black had come down all over it.” The next day, at 9.14am, a colliery waste tip came crashing down the hillside, smothering the village school and the surrounding houses. Eryl Mai was among the 144 dead.
Visiting Aberfan in the days after the tragedy was John Barker, a 42-year-old psychiatrist and superintendent of a large mental hospital in Shropshire who had an interest in “psychiatric orchids”, or unusual mental conditions. Barker had conducted studies on Munchausen syndrome, sufferers of which are known to feign illness, and was in the midst of researching Scared to Death, a book about people who accurately foretold their own deaths.
Eryl Mai Jones wasn’t the only child to anticipate the tragedy at Aberfan: the day before, an eight-year-old boy, Paul Davies, had drawn a picture of a mass of figures digging at a hillside accompanied by the words “The End”. Barker was so struck by their portents that he wrote to Peter Fairley, science editor at London’s Evening Standard, and asked him to publish an appeal requesting that anyone who had experienced premonitions of Aberfan to get in touch. They received 76 replies.
In The Premonitions Bureau, a strange and gripping account of Barker’s adventures in precognition, the journalist Sam Knight writes: “Premonitions are impossible, and they come true all the time. The second law of thermodynamics says it can’t happen, but you think of your mother a second before she calls.” His book – an expansion of a New Yorker article published in 2019 – blends history and popular science with biography as it plots the career of Barker, a highly respected doctor who was also a member of Britain’s Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1882 to investigate paranormal happenings.
The rational response to premonitions is that they are a coincidence. We tend to make predictions and look for patterns, since the idea that life is random is just too bleak to countenance. Yet, Knight observes, “we resist meaning almost as often as we insist upon it. We refuse its presence to make life simpler and to spare ourselves … Letting things go, surrendering to chance, is its own narrative act but we talk about it much less.” Another rational response to premonitions is that they are based on the most likely outcomes. During the public inquiry into Aberfan, it was revealed how the disaster had been preceded by other tip slides in the area. A local government engineer had twice written to the National Coal Board about the danger posed by tip number seven on the village school below. But this doesn’t account for the dreams and drawings of young children, or indeed the experience of Kathleen Middleton, a music and ballet teacher from Edmonton in London, who, on the morning of the disaster, “awoke choking and gasping and with the sense of the walls caving in.”
After their initial inquiry about Aberfan, Barker and Fairley decided to broaden their study. In early 1967, they opened the Premonitions Bureau, where people would be able to send their dreams and forebodings, which would then be monitored for accuracy. They received hundreds of replies, most of them clearly bogus; most, but not all. Middleton, for whom portents were a regular occurrence, was one of the Bureau’s star correspondents – whenever her premonitions proved correct, Barker would write and congratulate her. Another, Alan Hencher, a post office telephone operator, successfully predicted a plane crash in Cyprus right down to the number of the dead. Hencher and Middleton separately foretold a fatal rail crash in Britain days before a train from Hastings was derailed on its way to London, killing 49 passengers.
Barker and Fairley’s ultimate plan was to present the Bureau’s findings to the Medical Research Council, with a view to setting up an official national early warning system, though their proposal had an obvious flaw: if a catastrophe is foretold and then fails to materialise, any visions that might have preceded it would appear to be fantasy. And how can an event that doesn’t happen yield a vision in the first place?
Knight tells Barker’s story in lucid, no-nonsense prose, portraying him as compassionate and progressive, with a clear stubborn streak and a taste for the limelight (his research made eye-catching headlines and he was a regular on BBC science programmes). That the author neither endorses the claims of seers (or “percipients” as Barker called them) nor dismisses them as cranks, is exactly as it should be, though it means the book’s underlying inquiry – can the human mind really see into the future? – is yet to be put to bed.
Nonetheless, the most hardened sceptic can’t fail to be electrified by the stories of ordinary citizens assailed by visions of earthquakes, tornadoes, collapsing buildings and planes falling out of the sky, and the eminent physician in their thrall. The final chapter brings a doozy of a plot twist that stretches all rational responses to breaking point. If there is something to be understood from the Premonitions Bureau, it’s that not everything can be explained.
• The Premonitions Bureau by Sam Knight is published by Faber & Faber (£14.99 in UK, $32.99 in Australia). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.