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The Premonitions Bureau: A True Account of Death Foretold

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“A fluent and enticing book, skillfully navigating the tricky and marginal subject of the paranormal; it is beautifully ordered, humane, capacious.” —Hilary Mantel, two-time winner of the Booker Prize From a rising star New Yorker staff writer, the incredible and gripping true story of John Barker, a psychiatrist who investigated the power of premonitions—and came to believ “A fluent and enticing book, skillfully navigating the tricky and marginal subject of the paranormal; it is beautifully ordered, humane, capacious.” —Hilary Mantel, two-time winner of the Booker Prize From a rising star New Yorker staff writer, the incredible and gripping true story of John Barker, a psychiatrist who investigated the power of premonitions—and came to believe he himself was destined for an early death On the morning of October 21, 1966, Kathleen Middleton, a music teacher in suburban London, awoke choking and gasping, convinced disaster was about to strike. An hour later, a mountain of rubble containing waste from a coal mine collapsed above the village of Aberfan, swamping buildings and killing 144 people, many of them children. Among the doctors and emergency workers who arrived on the scene was John Barker, a psychiatrist from Shelton Hospital, in Shrewsbury. At Aberfan, Barker became convinced there had been supernatural warning signs of the disaster, and decided to establish a “premonitions bureau,” in conjunction with the Evening Standard newspaper, to collect dreams and forebodings from the public, in the hope of preventing future calamities. Middleton was one of hundreds of seemingly normal people, who would contribute their visions to Barker’s research in the years to come, some of them unnervingly accurate. As Barker’s work plunged him deeper into the occult, his reputation suffered. But in the face of professional humiliation, Barker only became more determined, ultimately realizing with terrible certainty that catastrophe had been prophesied in his own life. In Sam Knight’s crystalline telling, this astonishing true story comes to encompass the secrets of the world. We all know premonitions are impossible—and yet they come true all the time. Our lives are full of collisions and coincidence: the question is how we perceive these implausible events and therefore make meaning in our lives. The Premonitions Bureau is an enthralling account of madness and wonder, of science and the supernatural. With an unforgettable ending, it is a mysterious journey into the most unsettling reaches of the human mind.


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“A fluent and enticing book, skillfully navigating the tricky and marginal subject of the paranormal; it is beautifully ordered, humane, capacious.” —Hilary Mantel, two-time winner of the Booker Prize From a rising star New Yorker staff writer, the incredible and gripping true story of John Barker, a psychiatrist who investigated the power of premonitions—and came to believ “A fluent and enticing book, skillfully navigating the tricky and marginal subject of the paranormal; it is beautifully ordered, humane, capacious.” —Hilary Mantel, two-time winner of the Booker Prize From a rising star New Yorker staff writer, the incredible and gripping true story of John Barker, a psychiatrist who investigated the power of premonitions—and came to believe he himself was destined for an early death On the morning of October 21, 1966, Kathleen Middleton, a music teacher in suburban London, awoke choking and gasping, convinced disaster was about to strike. An hour later, a mountain of rubble containing waste from a coal mine collapsed above the village of Aberfan, swamping buildings and killing 144 people, many of them children. Among the doctors and emergency workers who arrived on the scene was John Barker, a psychiatrist from Shelton Hospital, in Shrewsbury. At Aberfan, Barker became convinced there had been supernatural warning signs of the disaster, and decided to establish a “premonitions bureau,” in conjunction with the Evening Standard newspaper, to collect dreams and forebodings from the public, in the hope of preventing future calamities. Middleton was one of hundreds of seemingly normal people, who would contribute their visions to Barker’s research in the years to come, some of them unnervingly accurate. As Barker’s work plunged him deeper into the occult, his reputation suffered. But in the face of professional humiliation, Barker only became more determined, ultimately realizing with terrible certainty that catastrophe had been prophesied in his own life. In Sam Knight’s crystalline telling, this astonishing true story comes to encompass the secrets of the world. We all know premonitions are impossible—and yet they come true all the time. Our lives are full of collisions and coincidence: the question is how we perceive these implausible events and therefore make meaning in our lives. The Premonitions Bureau is an enthralling account of madness and wonder, of science and the supernatural. With an unforgettable ending, it is a mysterious journey into the most unsettling reaches of the human mind.

30 review for The Premonitions Bureau: A True Account of Death Foretold

  1. 5 out of 5

    Krista

    In the weeks before Christmas, Fairley and Barker approached Charles Wintour, the editor of the Evening Standard, to open what they called a Premonitions Bureau. For a year, readers of the newspaper would be invited to send in their dreams and forebodings, which would be collated and then compared with actual happenings around the world. Created in the aftermath of the 1966 Aberfan disaster (which saw an overflowing hilltop waste tip send a landslide of mining slurry onto the tiny Welsh town at i In the weeks before Christmas, Fairley and Barker approached Charles Wintour, the editor of the Evening Standard, to open what they called a Premonitions Bureau. For a year, readers of the newspaper would be invited to send in their dreams and forebodings, which would be collated and then compared with actual happenings around the world. Created in the aftermath of the 1966 Aberfan disaster (which saw an overflowing hilltop waste tip send a landslide of mining slurry onto the tiny Welsh town at its base, killing 144, mostly schoolchildren), the Premonitions Bureau was envisioned as a clearinghouse for augurous information that might, somehow, prevent such tragedies in the future. Conceived of by psychiatrist John Barker — a mental health reformer with an interest in unusual mental conditions and precognition — in partnership with self-promoting newspaperman Peter Fairley, the Premonitions Bureau made for good newspaper copy, but poor proof of presentiment: Of the thousands of tips that were sent in, only three percent could be plausibly linked to eventual occurrences. More than the story of this questionably useful project itself, The Premonitions Bureau: A True Story is really about the people involved in it (and especially Barker) and author Sam Knight makes a fascinating tale of it. This might be a little padded with information that I didn’t find quite relevant (did I need to know that Robin Gibb was one of the passengers on a London-bound train wreck?) but even the padding was interesting in its own right (it was Robin Gibb after all), and I found this to be a thoroughly satisfying read. (Note: I read an ARC through NetGalley and passages quoted may not be in their final forms.) Premonitions are impossible, and they come true all the time. The second law of thermodynamics says it can’t happen, but you think of your mother a second before she calls. There is no way for us to see, or feel, things before they occur but they often seem to hang around regardless. Barker was interested in stories of people who had been literally scared to death — as in the “nocebo effect” (you can apparently kill yourself with inert pills if you believe them to be deadly) and “voodoo death” (dying of no apparent cause after your death has been predicted; even if just by your own hunch) — and he travelled to Aberfan as search and recovery was still ongoing, looking for stories that fit his thesis. What he found instead were many stories of people who had had mystical forewarning of the disaster (as in a girl who had reported a dream of the landslide and a boy who had drawn a picture of his school blacked out with the words “the end” written in the sky; both of whom would die in the tragedy), and that inspired Barker to co-create the Premonitions Bureau, initially focussed on recording premonitions related to Aberfan (and this was apparently not entirely an unscientific area of study: both Freud and Jung believed in telepathy and precognition to varying degrees). Knight tells the stories of several “percipients” (and especially the two who had had the most compelling visions of Aberfan), as well as the stories of Fairley and other newspapermen, Barker’s work as a reforming psychiatrist and the Victorian-era asylum where he practised — along with the stories of other psychiatrists and the Shelton Hospital itself — and if it can tend to feel like padding, it was interesting. Barker wrote and promoted the book Scared to Death (which has no reviews on Goodreads and a solitary one-star rating; whelp) during this period, and of it Knight states, “Barker wrote for a mass audience, presenting himself as an uncompromising investigator,” and that is precisely how I would describe the writing in The Premonitions Bureau as well. On Barker and his wife, Knight writes: Barker had met Jane at St George’s Medical School, in London, in 1946. He was studying to be a doctor and she was training to be a nurse. Jane’s family was from Gloucestershire; the men served in the military or held posts in the colonies. Her father had been a district officer in Nigeria and died in a hospital for tropical diseases when she was seven years old. Jane grew up with her mother and two younger siblings in a cottage not far from Cheltenham. She had brown hair, which she kept short, above her shoulders, a wide mouth and extremely proper pronunciation. I can’t call all of that pertinent (and there are many, many passages that are similarly detail-rich), but I did appreciate Knight’s thoroughness. And especially as Barker — the expert on dying by one’s own thoughts — would eventually be contacted (repeatedly and urgently) by his two most accurate percipients to warn him of his own impending death. As a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story that eventually rolls all of the disparate parts into a neat little ball, I am happy to report that I learned plenty about the times and was interested to the end. But the question remains: are premonitions a real phenomenon? A useful definition of a delusion is not that it is an inaccurate belief about the world; it is a belief that you refuse to change when you are confronted with proof that you are wrong. The hypothesis fails. The pleasure principle is countermanded by the reality principle. Our best hopes and most extravagant fears rarely materialise. Prediction errors fire through the brain, turning the tiger back into a shadow. Prophecy reduces to coincidence. Your heart rate slows. The experiment does not repeat. The pattern won’t spread.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Claire Fuller

    I'm not sure this non-fiction book is really about what the title suggests it is: The Premonitions Bureau. I suspect that just made a good title, or that it was going to be about that but Knight got distracted, or there simply wasn't enough content. But, I'm very pleased Knight got distracted, because this meandering-blind-alley kind of book was fascinating. In the 1960s, John Barker, a psychiatrist set up the Premonitions Bureau with Peter Fairley, the science correspondent of the Evening Stand I'm not sure this non-fiction book is really about what the title suggests it is: The Premonitions Bureau. I suspect that just made a good title, or that it was going to be about that but Knight got distracted, or there simply wasn't enough content. But, I'm very pleased Knight got distracted, because this meandering-blind-alley kind of book was fascinating. In the 1960s, John Barker, a psychiatrist set up the Premonitions Bureau with Peter Fairley, the science correspondent of the Evening Standard, after Barker visited the Aberfan disaster and discovered that several people, including one girl who was killed, foresaw the disaster or even their own death. Really, there isn't too much to say (or write, it seems) about the bureau. People wrote or phoned in with their premonitions and Fairley or his assistant tried to see if they came true. Sometimes they did. Knight spends much of the book detailing the disasters that were predicted and looking at other kinds of foresight, and mostly writing Barker's biography and his time at Shelton Hospital (a mental health hospital, known as 'the mental' to the locals at the time) I really enjoyed all these side tracks, but I can see how readers, expecting one kind of book and getting something else entirely, might be irritated.

  3. 4 out of 5

    K.J. Charles

    The peculiar tale of the PRemonitions Bureau, which really ought to have been an official crime-fighting organisation and I'm annoyed it wasn't. On the other hand this is a great story. After the Aberfan disaster, a doctor and a science journalist team up to look into premonitions, getting people from all over the country to send in their premonitions and attempting to see if any of them are in fact able to predict disasters. Obviously, the answer is mostly no. There are however a couple of indi The peculiar tale of the PRemonitions Bureau, which really ought to have been an official crime-fighting organisation and I'm annoyed it wasn't. On the other hand this is a great story. After the Aberfan disaster, a doctor and a science journalist team up to look into premonitions, getting people from all over the country to send in their premonitions and attempting to see if any of them are in fact able to predict disasters. Obviously, the answer is mostly no. There are however a couple of individuals who--if the accounts here are accurate, which is the question--did have a frankly uncanny strike rate for predicting train and plane crashes and so on. We then squirrel off down all sorts of intriguing byways, such as the meaning and nature of time, whether people can will or scare themselves to death (apparently yes) and whether prediction would be any use in preventing disasters (because, if they are seen forward in time, doesn't that mean their happening is inevitable?). It's not a terribly linear book, which is fair enough, and rather inconclusive (ditto), but it's a fascinating subject, redolent of the 60s, and it's hard not to sympathise with the poor chap reluctantly afflicted with visions of calamity.

  4. 4 out of 5

    The Girl with the Sagittarius Tattoo

    A kind of dry but fast read. In 1966, Aberfan, Wales endured an unimaginable tragedy when a landslide of coal mining waste buried part of the town. One hundred forty-four people were killed, 116 of whom were children from seven to ten years old inside the school. Psychiatrist John Barker, on site providing aid in the aftermath, learned that several people experienced premonitions of what was to come. A teacher in London awoke from a nightmare choking and gasping for air, convinced some sort of sm A kind of dry but fast read. In 1966, Aberfan, Wales endured an unimaginable tragedy when a landslide of coal mining waste buried part of the town. One hundred forty-four people were killed, 116 of whom were children from seven to ten years old inside the school. Psychiatrist John Barker, on site providing aid in the aftermath, learned that several people experienced premonitions of what was to come. A teacher in London awoke from a nightmare choking and gasping for air, convinced some sort of smothering or drowning disaster was imminent. A week before the incident, a schoolgirl in Aberfan told her mother out of the blue that she wasn't afraid to die. When her mother asked her why she was thinking about death, she said she just wanted her mother to know she wasn't afraid. In one of the saddest instances, the morning of the tragedy a schoolboy didn't want to get out of bed and dragged his feet all morning. His mother finally rushed him out the door, telling him to run if he was going to be on time for school. Stories like these captured Barker's interest, and he spent the remainder of his life researching this phenomenon even though it cost him his professional reputation. Honestly, I think a lot of psychic claims are bogus, but I'm not egotistical enough to think I understand the limits of what is possible. The universe is a vast and unknowable place. As a kid in the '70s, unexplained phenomena was dinner table talk - and it wasn't just our family. Bestselling books like Chariots of the Gods, popular TV programs like In Search Of... and box office smashes like Close Encounters of the Third Kind captured the public's imagination. I'm not too proud to admit I picked this book partly out a hard-to-shake fascination with the unexplained.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Max Gwynne

    Easily the fastest I have devoured a book in a while! Whilst not entirely as in-depth as I had imagined Sam Knight has constructed a riveting and enlightening examination of The Premonition Bureau and the man behind its foundation in 1966, Dr John Barker. Consisting of just over 200 pages this book is a little gem that flits around the topics of the paranormal, philosophy (the concept of ‘free will’) and is actually an extension of his 2019 New Yorker article of the same title. My inner X Files Easily the fastest I have devoured a book in a while! Whilst not entirely as in-depth as I had imagined Sam Knight has constructed a riveting and enlightening examination of The Premonition Bureau and the man behind its foundation in 1966, Dr John Barker. Consisting of just over 200 pages this book is a little gem that flits around the topics of the paranormal, philosophy (the concept of ‘free will’) and is actually an extension of his 2019 New Yorker article of the same title. My inner X Files nerd delighted in reading about Barker and his research … I guess the closest we will get to a British Fox Mulder 🤣😂

  6. 4 out of 5

    Monique

    3.5* Readable and with some interesting ideas - but sometimes it jumped around too much, both in structure and ideas.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Catriona

    Looking at it from this side of the Premonitions Bureau era (spoiler: it no longer exists) this seems like such a far fetched idea to persist into relatively recent memory and that's what makes it so enticing to read. A respected psychiatrist, the Evening Standard and a volunteer helpline for those who feel they've perceived a premonition (the precipients) work together over the course of years and multiple disasters come to match these psychic warnings with real-life events. Looking at it from this side of the Premonitions Bureau era (spoiler: it no longer exists) this seems like such a far fetched idea to persist into relatively recent memory and that's what makes it so enticing to read. A respected psychiatrist, the Evening Standard and a volunteer helpline for those who feel they've perceived a premonition (the precipients) work together over the course of years and multiple disasters come to match these psychic warnings with real-life events.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jodie Cotgreave

    Meh. This wasn't at all what I expected it to be. I was very intrigued at the start of the book, we're told about the Aberfan disaster and the locals who foresaw some part of the tragedy, we then get slowly introduced to John Barker, the creator of the Premonitions Bureau, he led a very interesting life working in various mental institutions and also newspapers as a journalist. There are a number of fascinating stories throughout the book but I found it to be very disjointed and veered of the main Meh. This wasn't at all what I expected it to be. I was very intrigued at the start of the book, we're told about the Aberfan disaster and the locals who foresaw some part of the tragedy, we then get slowly introduced to John Barker, the creator of the Premonitions Bureau, he led a very interesting life working in various mental institutions and also newspapers as a journalist. There are a number of fascinating stories throughout the book but I found it to be very disjointed and veered of the main subject an awful lot to the point where i put it down for days on end. I think if the narrative timeline had been more linear, rather than jumping back and forth then I may have been less confused and more inclined to pick it up and finish it sooner. Ultimately I found it hard to engage with and the topics which would have been interesting we're buried within pages of inconsequential information. Disappointing as I was really looking forward to enjoying this.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    Somewhere between 3 - 3.5 A curious book about an unlikely topic: a bureau created by a psychiatrist in the wake of the Aberfan disaster in 1966 in an attempt to predict future disasters around the world (a few children killed in the Welsh mining village are also said to have foreseen the tragedy). Attracting premonitions from around the globe, two of the "percipients" were said to have predicted plane crashes, RFK's assassination and the Hither Green train crash. Whilst rather readable, this is s Somewhere between 3 - 3.5 A curious book about an unlikely topic: a bureau created by a psychiatrist in the wake of the Aberfan disaster in 1966 in an attempt to predict future disasters around the world (a few children killed in the Welsh mining village are also said to have foreseen the tragedy). Attracting premonitions from around the globe, two of the "percipients" were said to have predicted plane crashes, RFK's assassination and the Hither Green train crash. Whilst rather readable, this is something of a sui generis book - I really don't know who I'd recommend it to given that it doesn't slot neatly into any particular genre. The book did feel like it could have been slightly shorter or better edited but this is a minor niggle. I don't regret my time spent reading it and am sure it will find its fans in those who have an interest in science and niche moments in history. Thank you Netgalley and Faber & Faber for the advance copy, which was provided in exchange for an honest review.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Pat

    I guess my expectations were too high, given that both the author and editors are affiliated with the New Yorker. This was a chaotic mix of events that at times didn’t seem to be in the right place in the book. I kept wanting to see the outline to help me figure out the organization.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Maine Colonial

    As the book description says, an English psychiatrist named John Barker became fascinated by the idea of premonitions after hearing claims of foreseeing a deadly disaster that took place in the Welsh village of Aberfan. Although it got him in hot water with the traditional medical authorities, he decided that a formal study of premonitions was needed, and he teamed up with the journalist Peter Fairley of London’s Evening Standard newspaper to make a public call for people to report their premoni As the book description says, an English psychiatrist named John Barker became fascinated by the idea of premonitions after hearing claims of foreseeing a deadly disaster that took place in the Welsh village of Aberfan. Although it got him in hot water with the traditional medical authorities, he decided that a formal study of premonitions was needed, and he teamed up with the journalist Peter Fairley of London’s Evening Standard newspaper to make a public call for people to report their premonitions, which would then be collected and analyzed. What the book description doesn’t tell you is that in the end, the premonitions bureau found only 3% of reported premonitions panned out. You won’t be surprised to learn that the bureau is long gone. But the fact that this was a failed study doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth writing about. Author Sam Knight examines Dr. Barker’s life, his dissatisfaction with the treatment of mental disorders, his increasing interest in unusual psychiatric phenomena, and the bureau’s most reliable percipient’s warning of Barker’s own death. Barker was right to want to reform Britain’s mental asylum system, but some of his ideas of treatment were wrong-headed, such as curing the urge to infidelity through electric-shock aversion therapy. He did some fascinating work about the flip side of placebos; i.e., “nocebos.” A nocebo, a harmless pill, could cause physical harm and even death if the person taking it believed it would. He wrote a book, Scared to Death, on the subject of how mental conviction alone could cause death. The book also looks at such related subjects as the personalities of two of the bureau’s percipients, Barker’s trip to the US to promote Scared to Death, and some specific foretold disasters, including plane crashes, the crash of a train (with the added information that the BeeGees’ Robin Gibb was on the train), and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. It can feel a little discursive at times, but in more of a quirky, freewheeling way. It’s an unusual book, but I enjoyed it, especially because the audiobook version is read by one of my very favorite narrators, Julian Rhind-Tutt.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Kate Potapenko

    Very underwhelming and unengaging.. Maybe because I expected something entirely different, but even then.. It is very chaotic and broken up.. Throughout the whole book I didn't feel like I was reading a wholesome story. It feels like too many details were given about the events in question (or even unrelated ones) and too little time was spent talking about the premonitions themselves.. I wanted to like it, I tried, but I just couldn't.. It doesn't hold your attention, we're jumping from one topic t Very underwhelming and unengaging.. Maybe because I expected something entirely different, but even then.. It is very chaotic and broken up.. Throughout the whole book I didn't feel like I was reading a wholesome story. It feels like too many details were given about the events in question (or even unrelated ones) and too little time was spent talking about the premonitions themselves.. I wanted to like it, I tried, but I just couldn't.. It doesn't hold your attention, we're jumping from one topic to another and then are left with an aftertaste of disappointment..

  13. 5 out of 5

    Iain

    How much you enjoy this book may be dependent on how open you are to the idea that premonitions are a believable phenomenon and can be scientifically evaluated. I'm not a believer and there's nothing in this book, which centres around psychiatrist John Barker, remotely convincing to change my mind. On the other hand, it's a brief, entertaining read, and diversions into how the human mind thinks, works, evaluates life are interesting. How much you enjoy this book may be dependent on how open you are to the idea that premonitions are a believable phenomenon and can be scientifically evaluated. I'm not a believer and there's nothing in this book, which centres around psychiatrist John Barker, remotely convincing to change my mind. On the other hand, it's a brief, entertaining read, and diversions into how the human mind thinks, works, evaluates life are interesting.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Susan Tunis

    4.5 stars. I thought this was fascinating! Not so much for the possibility of some paranormal revelations--although there are some intriguing tidbits, if you're into that. But the look at the research and the times that inspired it, the man behind it, and the peripheral characters--all fascinating! 4.5 stars. I thought this was fascinating! Not so much for the possibility of some paranormal revelations--although there are some intriguing tidbits, if you're into that. But the look at the research and the times that inspired it, the man behind it, and the peripheral characters--all fascinating!

  15. 4 out of 5

    Siri

    4.5* It’s so far-fetched, I love the strangeness of it all

  16. 4 out of 5

    Chrissie

    I may be a skeptic, but I also always like to keep an open mind. The subject of this book was intriguing to me as soon as I heard of it. The book opens with the Aberfan (South Wales, UK) disaster, when 150,000 tons of slurry rushed down and covered the local school and some surrounding dwellings, in 1966, killing 144, 116 of whom were children. Several people said they foretold this disaster in some way, and this led to the starting of The Premonitions Bureau to examine this phenomenon by John B I may be a skeptic, but I also always like to keep an open mind. The subject of this book was intriguing to me as soon as I heard of it. The book opens with the Aberfan (South Wales, UK) disaster, when 150,000 tons of slurry rushed down and covered the local school and some surrounding dwellings, in 1966, killing 144, 116 of whom were children. Several people said they foretold this disaster in some way, and this led to the starting of The Premonitions Bureau to examine this phenomenon by John Barker, a British psychiatrist. Whatever your feelings on the subject, this is a very interesting read, both regarding the phenomenon and the people involved.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Lewis Bailey

    This book compelled me, having been given this book in a stack of proofs, I thought nothing of it, to begin with. Thankfully this book greatly impressed me, it's written in a similar style to the Tattooist of Auschwitz (but obviously about much less dark material). Knight has written a gripping story that I could not put down, each page flows onto the next and I couldn't stop. Read this book. You will not be disappointed. This book compelled me, having been given this book in a stack of proofs, I thought nothing of it, to begin with. Thankfully this book greatly impressed me, it's written in a similar style to the Tattooist of Auschwitz (but obviously about much less dark material). Knight has written a gripping story that I could not put down, each page flows onto the next and I couldn't stop. Read this book. You will not be disappointed.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Nikk Effingham

    A bit dull. Too many tangents into events and disasters where those details weren’t that relevant to the premonitions. And ultimately the Bureau is less interesting than it sounds; nothing here is genuinely eerie, it’s all just a selection effect in practice.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Pamela (Here to Read Books and Chew Gum)

    The Premonitions Bureau was a fascinating book. It dealt with tragedy in a way that was both empathetic but dispassionate, which I found genuinely surprising. The idea behind the real-life "Premonitions Bureau" is so far-fetched that the book could easily have fallen into farce and become a lighthearted non-fiction comedy of errors. But it didn't. Sam Knight managed to deal with his subject matter in a way that showed genuine compassion for every person in his story, no matter what role they pla The Premonitions Bureau was a fascinating book. It dealt with tragedy in a way that was both empathetic but dispassionate, which I found genuinely surprising. The idea behind the real-life "Premonitions Bureau" is so far-fetched that the book could easily have fallen into farce and become a lighthearted non-fiction comedy of errors. But it didn't. Sam Knight managed to deal with his subject matter in a way that showed genuine compassion for every person in his story, no matter what role they played. Despite being factual, The Premonitions Bureau read like a novel, and I found myself furiously turning the pages to find out what happened next. For this reason, I felt the end was a little lacking - but I suspect that is due to the nature of the events themselves, and not for any poor writing on Knight's part. Because the rest of the narrative was so engrossing, the end of The Premonitions Bureau felt like a flame that just fizzled out and left me a little underwhelmed. Still, this is a crazy non-fiction romp that I can highly recommend to readers of all kinds. Knight takes no firm stance on the objective truth of premonitions, which made the book thought-provoking rather than restrictive. I'll definitely be reading more from Sam Knight in future.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Selena

    This book feels like a quirky film plot. In the wake of the 1966 Aberfan disaster, psychiatrist, Richard Barker, visits the Welsh village and is struck by the number of stories of premonitions about the tragedy. Working with the science editor of the London Evening Standard, he puts out a wider call in the newspaper for people to get in contact about their Aberfan premonitions but of course, all these are reported in hindsight. So the seeds are sown for an intriguing experiment: what if people s This book feels like a quirky film plot. In the wake of the 1966 Aberfan disaster, psychiatrist, Richard Barker, visits the Welsh village and is struck by the number of stories of premonitions about the tragedy. Working with the science editor of the London Evening Standard, he puts out a wider call in the newspaper for people to get in contact about their Aberfan premonitions but of course, all these are reported in hindsight. So the seeds are sown for an intriguing experiment: what if people sent in any premonitions they had and these were collected and collated with a view to a more scientific investigation of psychic phenomena and spotting and potentially warning about disasters? This collaboration with the Evening Standard became the Premonitions Bureau. Barker is a remarkable man, an experimental psychiatrist frustrated by a 60's mental health system both stuck in the past and chaotic. Alongside wanting to improve psychiatric treatment, he had multiple side-projects of a more curious nature, including the Premonitions Bureau, as well as studying the phenomena of people seemingly scaring themselves to death. This book tells his story, the projects and the sometimes colourful characters he comes into contact with via the Bureau. It's a story of disasters, ideas, experiments but mainly intriguing people. Intriguing because they are, for the most part, not flamboyant, self-proclaimed psychics but ordinary people, just going about their everyday business but thrown by seemingly extraordinary experiences. This is such a fascinating and unusual read that it seems odd that it hasn't come to light previously. Sam Knight writes in an engaging and balanced way, leaving the reader to make up their own minds. I found it mysterious, thought-provoking and compelling to read.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Sean Farrell

    A highly unusual but absorbing book, the Premonitions Bureau is genuinely brilliant. Covering at its centre the formation of an investigation into the possibility that predicting future events might be reality rather than science fiction, the true genius of this book lies in the storytelling verve of the author, who weaves into this central premise a series of otherwise unrelated stories, each of which are fascinating in their own right. The Aberfan disaster, Donald Campbell and the Bluebird and A highly unusual but absorbing book, the Premonitions Bureau is genuinely brilliant. Covering at its centre the formation of an investigation into the possibility that predicting future events might be reality rather than science fiction, the true genius of this book lies in the storytelling verve of the author, who weaves into this central premise a series of otherwise unrelated stories, each of which are fascinating in their own right. The Aberfan disaster, Donald Campbell and the Bluebird and Robert Kennedy's assassination are among the many events related through the prism of the central premise, which weaves its way intriguingly throughout the book. At its heart though, like most great books, it doesn't really matter what the subject matter is - this is a great story, brilliantly told, and as a result, a highly enjoyable read.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    First and foremost, my thanks to Faber & Faber and Net Galley for the digital ARC of this title. It is a rare thing when I take a foray into non-fiction titles - if I'm going to take the dive, I like my non-fiction with a driving narrative and an interesting story. The Premonitions Bureau had plenty. The Bureau was created after the Aberfan disaster in October 1966. John Barker, a psychiatrist, was involved with assisting parents of children who were lost in the disaster. However, he was shocked First and foremost, my thanks to Faber & Faber and Net Galley for the digital ARC of this title. It is a rare thing when I take a foray into non-fiction titles - if I'm going to take the dive, I like my non-fiction with a driving narrative and an interesting story. The Premonitions Bureau had plenty. The Bureau was created after the Aberfan disaster in October 1966. John Barker, a psychiatrist, was involved with assisting parents of children who were lost in the disaster. However, he was shocked to find out that two children had foreseen the disaster via dreams or drawings in the days leading up to the tragedy. Barker wondered if some events, especially those of an extreme or violent nature, could cause some people to have premonitions. Knight weaves a compelling and narrative driven story about Barker's foray into these seemingly supernatural experiences and the scientific explanations behind them. Barker was interested in whether or not one could be scared to death or that your thoughts could end up killing you. It wasn't something I personally had considered until reading Knight's book. This was a quick and interesting read (when I first heard of the title I thought it was a work of fiction, because how could the Premonitions Bureau be real) and I enjoyed Knight's thoroughness and ability to spin a good yarn. Definitely a recommended read for someone who wants to read a book that truly is stranger than fiction.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Mike Sumner

    Not an easy book to review. The Premonitions Bureau was an organisation created by Dr John Barker in 1967 in the wake of the Aberfan disaster on 21st October 1966, with the catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip above the Welsh village of Aberfan, resulting in 144 deaths (28 adults and 116 children). Various individuals claimed to have had premonitions of the event including a Mis Middleton who became a regular contributor to the Bureau. She, and a man called Hencher, had visions of a maj Not an easy book to review. The Premonitions Bureau was an organisation created by Dr John Barker in 1967 in the wake of the Aberfan disaster on 21st October 1966, with the catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip above the Welsh village of Aberfan, resulting in 144 deaths (28 adults and 116 children). Various individuals claimed to have had premonitions of the event including a Mis Middleton who became a regular contributor to the Bureau. She, and a man called Hencher, had visions of a major passenger plane crash with 124 deaths. Days later a C4 crashed near Stockport with - 124 deaths. Middleton had a premonition of the assassination of Robert Kennedy, days before he was shot. She also 'saw' a 'spaceman' dying in his capsule days before Vladimir Komarov's ill-fated flight on Soyuz-1. Barker had the idea that if enough premonitions of a particular event were recorded beforehand then perhaps something could be done to avert disaster. But if a calamity is averted how can it generate a vision to precede it? The Premonitions Bureau was fairly short lived given the premature death of Dr John Barker on 20th August 1968. It is a complicated read.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Sophia

    Had such a fun time with this one, both for its content and Sam Knight's personal writing style without mentioning himself more than once the entire book. This book thrilled me, made me curious about things I've already thought on for years, and got me out of a bit of a dip in my reading energy. Had such a fun time with this one, both for its content and Sam Knight's personal writing style without mentioning himself more than once the entire book. This book thrilled me, made me curious about things I've already thought on for years, and got me out of a bit of a dip in my reading energy.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Eden

    Good info but it was everywhere

  26. 5 out of 5

    Beth

    Many interesting premonitions and stories of British disasters, but the sequence was a bit confusing. Interesting but more of a browsing book than an engrossing read

  27. 4 out of 5

    Paul McCarthy

    Interesting tale, does what it says on the tin (cover). 3.5 stars.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Darren Gore

    A very captivating, engrossing and haunting read. On the surface, The Premonitions Bureau is a concise account of a 1960s British attempt to study premonitions - but below the surface, it's so much more. Like the works of Patrick Radden Keefe and Jon Ronson, which a blurb compares it to, The Premonitions Bureau ranges far and wide with a wealth of moving and thought-provoking material that Knight brings together so well with a highly-readable style. The Premonitions Bureau is an amazing reading jo A very captivating, engrossing and haunting read. On the surface, The Premonitions Bureau is a concise account of a 1960s British attempt to study premonitions - but below the surface, it's so much more. Like the works of Patrick Radden Keefe and Jon Ronson, which a blurb compares it to, The Premonitions Bureau ranges far and wide with a wealth of moving and thought-provoking material that Knight brings together so well with a highly-readable style. The Premonitions Bureau is an amazing reading journey.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Katy Wheatley

    This book is so fantastic in all senses. It's so bonkers and yet it's all true and that's so much of the allure here. It's one of those books that makes you want to grab people, look deep into their eyes and start every sentence you utter with 'did you know?' Various people's tales are interwoven here, but the main story belongs to John Barker a doctor who worked in British mental hospitals during the fifties and sixties and who came to believe that there was something more than coincidence when This book is so fantastic in all senses. It's so bonkers and yet it's all true and that's so much of the allure here. It's one of those books that makes you want to grab people, look deep into their eyes and start every sentence you utter with 'did you know?' Various people's tales are interwoven here, but the main story belongs to John Barker a doctor who worked in British mental hospitals during the fifties and sixties and who came to believe that there was something more than coincidence when people had premonitions. After the national tragedy that was the Aberfan disaster in 1966, Barker teamed up with a journalist to launch The Premonitions Bureau, which ran for 18 months and which invited members of the public to log any premonitions they had and send them to the Bureau who would collate the information and see if there was any truth to Barker’s hunch. Knight is a completely even handed investigator here. He presents the facts and makes no attempts whatsoever to ridicule or mock those who became involved in the Bureau. There is a real sense of openness to whatever he might discover and that's what makes the book far more compelling reading than if he had already decided the angle and was simply tailoring the data to fit his ideas. This is fresh and strange and utterly captivating from start to finish.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Gill

    This is described as follows:- "Premonitions are impossible. But they come true all the time. You think of a forgotten friend. Out of the blue, they call. But what if you knew that something terrible was going to happen? A sudden flash, the words CHARING CROSS. Four days later, a packed express train comes off the rails outside the station. What if you could share your vision, and stop that train? Could these forebodings help the world to prevent disasters? In 1966, John Barker, a dynamic psychiatris This is described as follows:- "Premonitions are impossible. But they come true all the time. You think of a forgotten friend. Out of the blue, they call. But what if you knew that something terrible was going to happen? A sudden flash, the words CHARING CROSS. Four days later, a packed express train comes off the rails outside the station. What if you could share your vision, and stop that train? Could these forebodings help the world to prevent disasters? In 1966, John Barker, a dynamic psychiatrist working in an outdated British mental hospital, established the Premonitions Bureau to investigate these questions. He would find a network of hundreds of correspondents, from bank clerks to ballet teachers. Among them were two unnervingly gifted "percipients". Together, the pair predicted plane crashes, assassinations and international incidents, with uncanny accuracy. And then, they informed Barker of their most disturbing premonition: that he was about to die. The Premonitions Bureau is an enthralling true story, of madness and wonder, science and the supernatural - a journey to the most powerful and unsettling reaches of the human mind." Although this is the story of the Premonitions Bureau it is also a biography of Dr John Barker who set it up and the state of psychiatry and psychology and it's relation to society in the mid 60's. For almost 30 years I worked close to Shelton Hospital (which had a significant presence in the area) where Dr John Barker worked so the information about how he was at odds with colleagues and was committed to making improvements for patients was particularly interesting. The work of the Bureau proves that some people do experience premonitions relating to personal and bigger events and it has enabled individuals to take actions which have saved them, but it raises bigger questions about whether such events could be avoided and what would be the ethics involved. It was also interesting that the author and the Bureau questioned the effect which experiencing the premonitions had on the individuals and whether it could be considered a gift or curse. For me what was lacking was an exploration of why certain individuals experienced premonitions and the frequency of them. Although science has made huge advances across the centuries personally I think that perhaps it's good that there are still some things that are unexplainable.

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