A data bank for the nation's dreams and visions

Richard Wiseman reviews 'The Premonitions Bureau', from Sam Knight; plus a brief extract.

This engaging book focuses on the paranormal interests of psychiatrist John Barker. A member of The Society for Psychical Research, Barker was fascinated by ideas that challenged orthodox thinking and especially interested in apparent acts of prophesy. In the late 1960s Barker visited the site of the Aberfan disaster, and was struck by the number of people who had escaped death by, for example, missing their bus or sleeping in. Curious to discover whether such experiences might reflect evidence of precognition, Barker teamed up with Evening Standard journalist Peter Fairley and asked the public to submit accounts of them predicting the disaster. 

The duo were intrigued by the large number of responses, but aware that the reports held little evidential value because they had been collected after the fact. To overcome the issue, Barker and Fairley created a ‘Premonitions Bureau’, and invited people to report experiences that they believed might predict future events. For 18 months, hundreds of reports were meticulously catalogued and scored for unusualness, accuracy, and timing. 

The duo hoped that their unusual Bureau might have the potential to act as a kind of official national early warning system that could prevent future tragedies. On the upside, a small number of the reports did indeed appear to accurately predict various disasters, including high profile air crashes and train accidents. Alas, on the downside, over 90 per cent of the reports did not seem to correspond to future events, and none were used to prevent a disaster. 

However, Barker remained convinced about the value of his work project and repeatedly appeared in public to describe how premonitions might possess the potential to save lives. Barker eventually died from a brain haemorrhage in 1968, with some of the most frequent contributors to the Bureau apparently predicting his death. Appropriately, both Barker’s demise and these predictions made the front page of Britain’s leading newspaper on paranormal happenings, Psychic News

Barker’s remarkable life and project form the backbone of this lovely book and along the way readers gain a fascinating glimpse into parapsychology, psychiatry, psychology, and philosophy. On a psychological level, the book explores whether the mind has evolved to constantly try to predict the future and why it is that some people maintain beliefs in the face of disconfirming evidence. From a psychiatric perspective, readers are presented with a detailed account of Barker’s work into aversion therapy, and how societal changes in the late 1960s resulted in those with mental health issues no longer being housed in retrograde institutions. Philosophically, the book also touches on the many famous writers and great thinkers who have been fascinated with the notion of premonition, including J.W. Dunne, J.B. Priestley, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung. Finally, Barker’s experiences are also used as a vehicle to examine how the mainstream deals with those attracted to the paranormal, including how senior figures tried to dissuade him from undertaking such work. 

The level of detail throughout the book is hugely impressive. The author has drawn on information provided by family members of the key protagonists and the resulting text transports readers to the late 1960s. Astonishingly, all of the reports that were submitted to the Bureau were carefully stored in a domestic house in South London for several years, and many of them appear in print for the first time. This is a hugely enjoyable and deeply informative read for anyone with even a passing interest in the paranormal and psychiatry. Highly recommended.   

Richard Wiseman is a Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire.

An edited extract from The Premonitions Bureau by Sam Knight (Publishing in May by Faber | £14.99 hardback)

John Barker envisaged the Premonitions Bureau as a ‘central clearing house to which the public could always write or telephone should they experience any premonitions, particularly those which they felt were related to future catastrophes’. Over time, the Premonitions Bureau would become a data bank for the nation’s dreams and visions – and issue alerts based on the visions it received.

The bureau got its first major hit in the spring of 1967. At 6 a.m. on 21 March, the phone rang in the dining room at Barnfield. Barker came downstairs and answered. It was Alan Hencher, the Post Office switchboard operator, one of the Aberfan seers who, like Miss Middleton, claimed to experience physical sensations before a disaster. ‘I was hoping not to have to ring you,’ Hencher said. ‘But now I feel I must.’

Hencher was coming off a night shift and was calling to predict a plane crash. Barker made notes on a piece of Shelton hospital letterhead. Hencher was upset. He had a vision of a Caravelle, a French-built passenger jet, experiencing problems soon after take-off. ‘It is coming over mountains. It is going to radio it is in trouble. Then it will cut out – nothing.’ Hencher said there would be 123 or 124 people on board (‘? say 124’, Barker jotted down) and that only one person would survive, ‘in a very poor condition’.

Hencher couldn’t tell where the crash was going to happen but he had had the feeling for the last two or three days. It was as if someone on the aircraft was trying to communicate with him. They were trying to make peace. ‘While I am talking to you, I have a vision of Christ,’ Hencher told Barker. He could see a pair of statues and was directed to the crash by a light flashing on and off. Barker’s notes ran to the bottom of the page and into the corner. On the other side of the paper, he noted that he called Hencher back later for more details, but there were none. Barker passed the prediction on to the Evening Standard.  

Nine days later, a turboprop Britannia passenger aircraft carrying 130 people attempted to land in Nicosia, Cyprus, during a thunderstorm. The plane, which belonged to Globe Air, a new low-cost Swiss charter airline, was on its way from Bangkok to Basel, carrying mostly Swiss and German holiday makers. It had refuelled in India and was on its way to its penultimate stop, in Cairo, when the pilots were advised the airport was closed because of heavy rain. The flight plan suggested Beirut as the back-up option but the captain, a British pilot named Michael Muller, decided to make an unscheduled landing in Cyprus, despite the bad weather.

By the time the plane reached the island, it had been in the air for almost ten hours. Muller and his co-pilot were almost three hours over their time limits at the controls. At 11.10 p.m., the aircraft was cleared to land at Nicosia, but came in a little high. Muller requested permission to make a circuit of the airport and try again. The control tower glimpsed the plane, its landing lights flashing through the low cloud, before it wheeled to the south and clipped a wing on the side of a hill – twenty-two feet from the summit – rolled over, broke into pieces and caught fire.

‘124 DIE IN AIRLINER’, the Evening Standard reported on its front page the following morning. (The final death toll was 126; two people who survived the initial impact were taken to a nearby UN field hospital, where they died.) At the time, the Nicosia crash was the sixth worst aviation accident in history. Fairley and Barker noticed the similarities with Hencher’s prediction immediately. The Evening Standard published an account of Hencher’s premonition alongside the news coverage that day. ‘The Incredible Story of the Man Who Dreamed Disaster’, the headline read. 

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