‘The Premonitions Bureau’ Review: The Shadows of Things to Come

Alan Hencher, a gaunt man in his mid-40s, worked nights as a switchboard operator. In the quiet dark of a March morning in 1967, Hencher had a vision that left him haunted and upset: A passenger jet was going to crash. “It is coming over mountains,” he said. “It is going to radio it is in trouble. Then it will cut out—nothing.” In his vision, he saw 123 or 124 people on board. Nine days later, a Globe Air passenger aircraft fell afoul of thunderstorms and went down in Cyprus. The number of people who died that day: 124.

The Premonitions Bureau: A True Account of Death Foretold

By Sam Knight

Penguin Press

256 pages

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Hencher became an overnight sensation. It wasn’t that he’d never made predictions before, or that he was alone in the practice. Thousands of people have claimed to have premonitions of disaster, but for the most part of these only come to light after the event. Hencher, however, had shared his vision before the fact with John Barker, a psychiatrist, and Peter Fairley, the science editor at London’s Evening Standard. Together, Barker and Fairley ran the Premonitions Bureau, a small department within the newspaper to which readers sent “their dreams and forebodings, which would be collated and then compared with actual happenings around the world.”

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“Premonitions are impossible, and they come true all the time,” Sam Knight writes in “The Premonitions Bureau: A True Account of Death Foretold.” They hold our imagination, instill a sense of wonder—and sell a lot of newspapers. As Mr. Knight points out, Hencher’s prediction did not avert the crash. There were also some discrepancies between vision and reality: among them, the crash did not occur in the mountains, but on a hill; And while the original headlines announced 124 passengers killed, the death toll ultimately reached 126, as two additional passengers died days later.

The Evening Standard ran its story about Hencher the day after the plane crash, under the headline “The Incredible Story of the Man Who Dreamed Disaster.” To Fairley, the prediction and its accuracy didn’t matter so much as having a sensational story to publish. For Barker, however, the Premonitions Bureau offered something his career at the Shelton Hospital could not: a glimpse of something larger, more dynamic, and with greater reach and possibility than his otherwise banal existence could afford.

“Randomness is banal,” writes Mr. Knight, a London-based staff writer for the New Yorker magazine. And banality, the trivial everydayness of our lives, “diminishes us.” Interjected into the book’s timeline of predictions and outcomes are Mr. Knight’s own ruminations: “How do you account for the role of chance in your own life?” Awaiting the birth of their first child, Mr. Knight and his wife spotted three magpies in their garden and saw them as a sign that their child would be a girl. As a result, “we never asked for a test to confirm the sex of our daughter because we felt we had already been informed.”

Are we aware how often or willingly we ascribe meaning and value to random events, or how our mind actively rationalizes our perception? Mr. Knight cites the 19th-century German polymath Hermann von Helmholtz, who suggested that all humans rely on unconscious inferences, illusions that fill in the gaps between perception and reality—what modern neuroscientists call “predictive processing”—to “cope with the storm of information that reaches us.” Our brains, Mr. Knight explains, “work from the top down,” creating “a waterfall of internal theories and beliefs, memories and expectations, which guide our perceptions and are then corrected by feedback from the outside world.” We are, in effect, “always predicting.”

For Barker, however, our ability to see things that aren’t there, or hadn’t yet happened, was a phenomenon that sparkled with the sheen of something much more profound. Inspired by “Foreknowledge,” a book about precognition written by Herbert Saltmarsh in 1938 and released during a frenzy of new discoveries about particle physics and quantum mechanics, Barker saw a distinction between our conscious experience of time—living sequentially from one moment to the next —and the porousness of space-time, potentially accessible to the subconscious. Barker believed it might be possible for some to see beyond the apparent present and perceive a subliminal present that extended into the past and future. (For the record, Barker also believed that infidelity in marriage could be cured by electric shocks.)

What Barker hoped to achieve through the Premonitions Bureau was a computerized clearing house to detect patterns among premonitions and serve as an early warning system. It meant collecting the visions and dreams seriously of a group of people that even Fairley found difficult to take. Barker was willing to take risks. He was also willing to experiment on people like Hencher, who would eventually become disenchanted with the bureau—he’d been used, he said, and had given up his intimate visions for free.

Mr. Knight’s book proceeds episodically. We wander the streets of tragedy and the parlors of eccentric seers, witness the dismal conditions of Shelton’s sanitorium and the busy newsroom of the Evening Standard. The author’s prose delights, offering perfect pictures: “Regardless of the season, the air in the office was lit from morning until night by fluorescent tubes and heavy with cigarette smoke, bad breath and casual sexism.” It also moves quickly between time periods and individuals, which can make the reader’s journey difficult to plot. Though not the first character we meet, Barker operates as the book’s center. It’s Barker’s tireless quest in the face of opposition, even failure, that strings everything together from the book’s first calamity to its later observations on fear and unexplained death.

With puffy bags beneath his eyes, an oversize suit and a determination to prove the exceptional powers of the mind, Barker was at odds with many members of his own profession. In this way, the narrative also explores the turbulent clash of established science, pseudoscience and as-yet-to-be-discovered science. “He verged on the great secret,” Mr. Knight writes. Ninety-seven percent of the bureau’s predictions were wrong—but Barker lived in that 3%. He died there, too, having received a prediction of impending doom from both of his principal seers. Early one Sunday morning shortly afterward, a vessel burst in his brain, relegating the Premonitions Bureau to the peculiar fancies of peculiar times.

And yet we wonder. “Perhaps it is the apparent impossibility of it all that fascinated me,” Barker once wrote. It may explain our continuing search for meaning in the patterns. We look to the myth, we cry at the mirror, we listen to our dreams. They may be mere shadows of evolution, teaching us to beat the odds, but even here history is a story, a tale we tell about what it means to be human.

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