SAm Knight is an award-winning British New Yorker journalist whose features and profiles sparkle with doggedly hunted detail distilled into a gripping narrative, whether he’s writing about Ronnie O’Sullivan, the £8billion-a-year sandwich industry or the preparations for the death of the Queen (“Operation London Bridge”). The Office of Premonitions, his first book, highlights the gifts that make him so infinitely readable. A richly documented feat of compression, it tells a tantalizing story of the unlikely interplay between the press, psychiatry and the paranormal in Britain in the late 1960s.
Knight’s central character (he tells his bizarre story so fluently it’s hard not to think of it as a novel) is John Barker, a Cambridge-trained psychiatrist whose interest in clairvoyance led him to start the evening standard in late 1966 with the idea of an “Office of Premonitions”, whereby readers would present omens of disaster, such as that year’s deadly landslide at Aberfan. The newspaper launched into it and the following year received 732 premonitions, 18 of which seemed to be true, 12 of which came from two people: Kathleen Lorna Middleton, a wealthy private ballet teacher, and Alan Hencher, a switchboard operator who had had premonitions, accompanied by intense headaches, since a car accident.
Unknown to one another before Barker’s venture, these “human seismometers,” as he called them, seemed to have an unenviable – and, for them, deeply painful – record in predicting tornadoes, bombings, deaths and accidents; in March 1967, days after Hencher called the Standard to predict a plane crash in which 123 people would die, 126 people died when a Swiss airliner en route from Bangkok to Basel crashed in Cyprus.
Meaning emerges from Barker as a seeking intellect who, sincerely eager to expand understanding of time and mind, has rationalized his more esoteric experiences as steps toward some kind of ill-defined “early warning system” for prevent a transatlantic catastrophe. It is also implied that the taste of fame that presented itself to him was perhaps more alluring than the attrition of his day job at a mental hospital in Shrewsbury, a former Victorian asylum originally built to house 60 patients and at the time Barker was treating over 1,000, mostly there to be quarantined rather than cured.
Knight’s narrative is soberly sympathetic and thoroughly earnest, any dread being confined to the oversized black-and-white images dropped haphazardly into the text without captions; I swore I could hear Delia Derbyshire’s theremin when I turned a page to suddenly find Barker staring at me from under devilish eyebrows. When it comes to the text itself, however, Knight generally steers clear, favoring full narration over talking-head commentary. His flair for synthesis and compression keeps the reader riveted, but ultimately these strengths are also the source of mild annoyance; the abrupt and somewhat overly practical ending provided by Barker’s death from an aneurysm in 1968 makes it difficult to gauge the overall impact of a book that isn’t a biography, exactly, but offers no sort of of thesis to defend it as intellectual or social history.
You end the book, perhaps rightly so, with more questions than answers. Knight suggestively quotes Rudyard Kipling on deja vu – “How and why was I shown an unreleased roll of my life movie?” – and the thrill provided by the experiences of its variously troubled seers, so easily rationalized as mere coincidence or a hard-wired desire to make sense, is hard to shake; witness the detail that a dead schoolboy in Aberfan had, the previous night, drawn a picture of figures massed in a hill under the words “the end”. Even more troubling, however, is Knight’s recollection of the number of people who had expressed concern about the mining spoils storage system that led to the landslide; after all, they are not just irrational hunches that we find easy to dismiss.