THE OFFICE OF PREMONITIONS
by Sam Knight (Faber £14.99, 256pp)
Do we take premonitions seriously enough? Earlier, I had a hunch I was going to have a bowl of Rice Krispies for breakfast, and that’s how it turned out.
But for a few mildly bewitched people – Sam Knight calls them “seers” – the premonitions couldn’t be more serious.
Imagine having a vision of a terrible event, perhaps a fire, or a horrible road accident, which has not yet happened. Who would you tell? What would you do? Could you prevent it from happening?
The story of the Bureau of Premonitions, which actually existed, begins with the Aberfan disaster in 1966, when a huge, unstable pile of unbalanced coal mud fell from a hill and completely buried an elementary school below.
Sam Knight explores the history of premonitions starting with the Aberfan Crisis. He discovers that two men predicted the train crash from Hither Green to Lewisham
One hundred and forty-four people died, including 116 children, most between the ages of seven and ten. A dead girl was found holding an apple. A boy had fourpence in his hand.
The most terrible thing is that a lot of people had had a premonition that something like this was going to happen. A 42-year-old psychiatrist called John Barker, who had a keen interest in unusual mental conditions, became fascinated by it and asked people for their stories, which poured in.
Together with an Evening Standard reporter called Peter Fairley, who would later become more famous as ITV’s science editor and ‘the face of space’ during the moon landings, he set up the Premonitions Desk in the office of the Standard, hiring a woman called Jennifer Preston to administer it. .
Hordes of people wrote or phoned detailing their dreams of disaster.
Few of them came to anything but enough to make the project worthwhile and to distract Barker from his dreadful work as a shrink in an old mental hospital in Shropshire, full of people who had been abandoned there by parents at times decades before.
In particular, Barker found two “seers” whose predictions often came true: Miss Middleton, a music teacher from Edmonton, north London, and Alan Hencher, a London-based telephone engineer.
THE BUREAU OF PREMONITIONS by Sam Knight (Faber £14.99, 256pp)
The two, in different ways, predicted the Hither Green to Lewisham rail crash, when a train derailed and tore apart, killing 49 people and slightly injuring Bee Gee Robin Gibb and his teenage girlfriend.
At the time of the accident, Hencher was in the middle of his shift and complained of such a debilitating headache that he had to go to the infirmary.
Four days earlier, Miss Middleton had said she felt ‘extremely depressed’ and, sitting in her kitchen, ‘saw a streak, then a flash of light, then some sort of gray mist’.
In her letter to the office, she wrote: “I see an accident, possibly on a railway… a station may be involved… people are waiting in the station and the words Charing Cross [where the train was headed]. The sound of a CRASH.’
The following day, the London Evening News published an article titled “The Strange Case of the Two Who Knew” and interviewed the visionary couple.
“Somehow, dreaming or awake, they can break the barrier of time… see the raging wheels of disaster turn before us.” Barker told the newspaper: “They are absolutely genuine. Honestly, that amazes me.
Where is this story hiding? What a gift for young Sam Knight, editor of The New Yorker, and what a wonderful job he did with it.
Although the actual story is relatively straightforward, Knight ventures far and wide to support it, touching on topics such as the Soviet Union’s space program, Donald Campbell’s death at Coniston in the Lake District while attempting of breaking the water speed record, the murder of Bobby Kennedy and the phenomenon of sudden unexplained deaths in animals and humanity.
None other than Hilary Mantel, on the back cover, calls it “a fluid and seductive book, deftly navigating the delicate and fringe subject of the paranormal”, and she’s not wrong. There is even a good ending.
When Miss Middleton started telling Barker to be very careful because she thought her life was in danger, he listened. At the same time, Hencher began asking for money for his premonitions.
Fairley, truly the townsman, disliked and distrusted the two suburban seers, and thought they should be quietly released.
Barker disagreed: he recognized that Hencher was not the easiest man in the world to deal with, but he wanted to expand the reach of the Office of Premonitions, find more seers, and better at predicting more and better disasters.
Then he started having these terrible headaches…
The Office of Premonitions is not a long book but it is a very good book.
I have a feeling – you could even call it a premonition – that a lot of people are going to really enjoy it.