Thursday, April 20, 2023

Book review: The Premonitions Bureau by Sam Knight

The Premonitions Bureau: A True Story
Sam Knight
Faber, 2023, £9.99 pbk

After the Aberfan disaster of 1966, it was reported that two of the 116 child victims had experienced some form of premonition of it. 

The day before, ten-year-old Eryl Mai Jones had told her mother: "I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there. Something black had come down all over it." Two weeks before, the girl had said, out of the blue, that she was not afraid of dying.

And weeks after the disaster, the parents of another child victim, eight-year-old Paul Davies, found a drawing of massed figures digging in the hillside under the words 'the end' that he had made the night before it took place.

People far from Aberfan claimed to have had some for of premonition of the tragedy too. Some even said they had seen the name of the village.

John Barker, a psychiatrist working at Shelton Hospital just outside Shrewsbury, became fascinated by the claims of foreknowledge, both because of his interest in unusual mental states and because he wondered if it might be possible to act on them.

With the help of an Evening Standard journalist, Barker collected accounts of dreams and visions from members of the public that seemed to foretell death and destruction. Though the overall results were disappointing, he did recruit two people who seemed to have a genuine gift for anticipating such events.

The idea of acting on premonitions causes a logical problem: if you prevent an event taking place, how can people have foreknowledge of it?

And what exactly is it that people experience? Is it the event itself or the weight of public grief after it has taken place? One woman claimed to recognise the image that had come to her before Aberfan in a television report broadcast from among the debris.

Barker emerges as a progressive professional for his era: he was instrumental in ending the use at Shelton of electroconvulsive therapy without anaesthetic. Yet he performed leucotomies and had an interest in aversive treatment to change behaviour. At least the behaviours that worried him, gambling and adultery, cause more harm than those usually targeted by psychiatrists.

Knight paints an unforgettable picture of Shelton Hospital. A vast institution designed by George Gilbert Scott a couple of decades before he produced the hotel at St Pancras, it became a dumping ground for unwanted people from across the county. In its design and its governance, it most resembles Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast.

Shelton closed in 2012, but a friend of mine, who was head of the clinical psychology service in Shropshire for many years, had his office in a former nurses' home there when I first met him in the 1990s. He later moved to less stigmatising premises near the centre of Shrewsbury.

Barker's story is never less than engrossing, and Knight tells it wonderfully well. He is equally at home summarising Kant's account of perception and discussing the Bee Gees' first single.

He follows that story to its end, where tragedy, foreseen or not, both institutional and personal, breaks in.


Frank Little said...

Fascinating story, which was serialised in Radio 4's daily 9:45 slot. As I remember, it conjured up the period excellently.

Jonathan Calder said...

Yes, it's a terrific book. I've just listened to an interview with Sam Knight and he said that he wanted to get away from the way the paranormal is usually treated, i.e. the author is determined to prove that a phenomenon is real or that it is not. He just tells the story.