The Premonitions Bureau by Sam Knight review – the press, psychiatry and the paranormal | Journalism books

Sam Knight is a prizewinning British New Yorker journalist whose features and profiles fizz with doggedly chased-down detail distilled into compelling narrative, whether he’s writing about Ronnie O’Sullivan, the £8bn-a-year sandwich industry or preparations for the death of the Queen (“Operation London Bridge”). The Premonitions Bureau, his first book, showcases the gifts that make him so endlessly readable. A richly researched feat of compression, it tells a tantalising tale of the unlikely interplay between the press, psychiatry and the paranormal in Britain during the late 1960s.

Knight’s central character (so fluently does he tell his outlandish story, it’s hard not to think of it as a novel) is John Barker, a Cambridge-educated psychiatrist whose interest in clairvoyance led him to pitch the Evening Standard late in 1966 with the idea of a “Premonitions Bureau”, by which readers would come forward with portents of catastrophe, such as that year’s deadly landslide at Aberfan. The paper went for it and over the following year received 732 premonitions, 18 of which seemed to be borne out, of which 12 came from two people: Kathleen Lorna Middleton, a privately wealthy ballet teacher, and Alan Hencher, a switchboard operator who had been experiencing premonitions, accompanied by intense headaches, since a car accident.

Unknown to each other before Barker’s enterprise, these “human seismometers”, as he came to think of them, seemed to have an unenviable – and, to them, deeply painful – track record of predicting tornadoes, bombings, deaths and crashes; in March 1967, days after Hencher called the Standard to predict a plane crash in which 123 would die, 126 people died when a Swiss airliner on its way from Bangkok to Basel came down in Cyprus.

The sense emerges of Barker as a questing intellect who, sincerely keen to enlarge understanding of time and the mind, rationalised his more esoteric experiments as steps towards some kind of ill-defined “early warning system” to prevent transatlantic disaster. It’s implied, too, that the taste of celebrity that came his way may have been more alluring than the attritional grind of his day job at a Shrewsbury psychiatric hospital, a former Victorian asylum originally built to house 60 patients and by Barker’s time treating more than 1,000, mostly there to be quarantined rather than cured.

Knight’s account is soberly sympathetic and wholly serious, with any spookiness confined to the outsize black-and-white images dropped randomly into the text without captions; I swore I could hear Delia Derbyshire’s theremin when I turned a page to suddenly find Barker staring back at me from under devilish eyebrows. When it comes to the text itself, though, Knight mostly keeps out of the way, favouring out-and-out storytelling over talking-head commentary. His flair for synthesis and compression keeps the reader riveted, yet ultimately these strengths are also the source of faint niggles; the abrupt, rather too convenient ending supplied by Barker’s death from an aneurysm in 1968 makes it tricky to gauge the overall impact of a book that isn’t a biography, exactly, yet doesn’t propose any kind of thesis to stand it up as intellectual or social history.

You finish the book, perhaps aptly, with more questions than answers. Knight suggestively quotes Rudyard Kipling on deja vu – “How, and why, had I been shown an unreleased roll of my life-film?” – and the frisson supplied by the experiences of its variously troubled seers, so easily rationalised as mere coincidence or hard-wired desire for sense-making, is hard to shake; witness the detail that a schoolboy who died at Aberfan had, the night before, drawn a picture of massed figures in a hillside under the words “the end”. Still more unsettling, though, is Knight’s reminder of just how many people had voiced concerns about the system of storing mining spoil that led to the landslide; after all, it isn’t only irrational foreboding we find easy to dismiss.

The Premonitions Bureau: A True Story by Sam Knight is published by Faber (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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