REVIEW: The Premonitions Bureau by Sam Knight

Back in the 1950s, thinkers such as Timothy Leary argued that human relationships tended to stabilise around four different dynamics or life-scripts. Over time, this idea collided with a similar suite of ideas coming out of mid-Century psychoanalysis and went on to inspire works such as Eric Berne’s Games People Play and Thomas Anthony Harris’ I’m Okay, You’re Okay.

Loosely inspired by these ideas, Robert Anton Wilson commented in one of his books that the Hippie Movement corresponded to the dynamic known as friendly weakness or ‘I’m not okay, you’re okay’. Building on this idea, Iain Spence argued in 1995 that all movements in popular culture could be understood in terms of particular life-scripts and that popular culture evolved by processing through different dynamics before settling on one of the four major life scripts. Unfortunately Spence’s so-called Sekhmet hypothesis faced two major problems: The first was his insistence that popular culture followed an eleven-year cycle that corresponded to cycles in solar energy, and the second was that aside from the Friendly Weakness of the Hippies and the Hostile Weakness of Punks, nobody can agree on what constitutes a phase of popular culture. Since first articulating the Sekhmet hypothesis, Spence has backed away from the astrological elements of the original idea.

While I don’t necessarily buy into the idea of there being a tonal cycle to popular culture, I do think it’s interesting to look at trends in popular culture in terms of their being either a departure from or a reaction to that which came before. I mention this as I am old enough to remember the 1990s when both conspiracy theories and the paranormal were part of the mainstream. It would appear that, thirty years later, these ideas are now cycling back into fashion.

Based on a long article published in the New Yorker in 2019, Sam Knight’s The Premonitions Bureau is the kind of book that would simply not have been published ten years ago. In fact, as recently as five years ago I suspect this book would have crept to market through a small-press publisher rather than on a wave of newspaper-supported hype coupled with prominent positioning at the front of every brick-and-mortar book shop you happen to venture into. Regardless of what you think about this book – and, to be blunt, I am disappointed – there is significance to the fact that it was published amidst a wave of hype in May of 2022. Things out there are getting spooky and The Premonitions Bureau is a book about an earlier time when the mainstream started to take an interest in the paranormal.

The Premonitions Bureau is first and foremost a book about a jobbing psychiatrist named John Barker. Barker was employed at the Shelton hospital near Shrewsbury, a sprawling insane asylum built to accommodate thousands of mental patients at a time when, lacking either psycho-pharmaceuticals or much in the way of rigorous psychological theory, the British state would simply lock up anyone who was mentally ill, developmentally challenged, or non-specifically weird. Barker was both ambitious and a man of his time, but the institution that employed him was stuck in the past. The age of Victorian mad-houses was over, but the more modern age of meds, therapy, and care-in-the-community was still struggling to be born.

Trapped between two worlds and forced into a somewhat confrontational relationship with the old guard of his profession, Barker allowed himself to develop what might be considered an overly-open mind. In 1966, Barker was working on a book about the possibility of being frightened to death and he happened to hear that a small boy had survived the collapse of the spoil heap that destroyed a large section of Aberfan only to later die of shock. Longer on ambition than sensitivity, Barker jumped in his car and drove to Aberfan in the hopes of interviewing survivors only to learn of weird near-misses born of worrying dreams and disrupted routines. In some cases, people had predicted the Aberfan disaster, in others they had acted in uncharacteristic ways as though their subconscious were trying to keep them out of the path of the spoil heap. Already fascinated by the weird and morbid corners of human cognition, Barker decided to study the question of whether people might actually be able to predict the future.

Already an ambitious man, Barker was already in the habit of cultivating contacts in the media. One of these contacts was Peter Fairley, the science editor of the Evening Standard, a man so science-forward that he would later become the most prominent talking head in Britain’s TV coverage of the Moon landings. Together they hit on the idea of using the information-gathering capacity of the Standard’s newsroom to collect prophetic dreams, bad feelings, and premonitions of imminent disaster. Thus was born the Premonitions Bureau.

I’ll be frank: The chief source of my disappointment with this book is that I expected it to be a book about an attempt to get British institutions to invest in the weird and the paranormal. My problem with this book is that while The Premonitions Bureau is very much about attempts to a) fold prophecy into the workflow of a news-gathering agency and b) engage with extra-sensory perception through the lens of mid-century British psychiatry, it’s about half a dozen other things as well.

Though based in Britain, Sam Knight is a feature writer for the New Yorker whose work is also published in places like the Guardian. These non-fiction markets are dominated by a literary form that sits somewhere between interviews and pieces of analytical commentary. I’m not sure what you’d call this format but you’ll know it when you see it: It often opens with a brief description of the subject’s physical appearance alongside some more-or-less comic scene setting description of where and how the journalist happened to meet up with their subject. There’ll be a bit of literary flourish and a couple of killer quotes ripped from what we can only assume was hours and hours of conversation and these will then be dropped into a very loose description of what the subject happens to have been up to. You can see why the format has proved so popular: There’s the intimation of access that lends weight to the writer’s half-baked ideas about their subject but it’s never so grounded that the piece becomes a transcribed interview. You have to be pretty invested in someone to read a full interview, much better to find a couple of fun quotes and then just write what you think about them.

The problem with this format is that while it works really well when it comes to giving you a very broad overview of a particular subject, it tends to fall apart the second you try to move beyond surface detail. This is true of your average 10,000-word broadsheet profile and it is definitely true when you try to expand that format to an entire book.

While the story of the Evening Standard’s dalliance with prophecy and British psychiatry’s engagement with the idea of extra-sensory perception may be what this book purports to be about, The Premonition Bureau is actually more like a series of broadsheet profiles run together in an attempt to tell a deeper story. As a result, we open on a profile of an eccentric dance teacher who claims to have prophetic dreams, then we have a series of profiles of Barker at different stages of his career, and then we have another profile of the former science editor of the Evening Standard. All of these profiles overlap with the story of how mid-20th Century British institutions tried to engage with the idea of prophecy but you can only learn so much about institutions and social trends by writing about individual lives. A hundred pages in and all of the weird fashion choices, tendencies to drink, and psychologically significant weight-gains serve only to distract from the meat of the story. To make matters worse, when Knight does try to engage with substantial ideas, he struggles to do so at any great length and so the book winds up covering an impossibly large number of subjects in very little detail. There’s a chapter on the Aberfan disaster, a chapter on a plane crash that may or may not have been predicted by one of the Standard’s correspondents, there’s the stuff about people getting frightened to death and other stuff about people essentially allowing themselves to die because they’ve convinced themselves they’re terminally ill, and then there’s stuff about a fire at a mental hospital. Rather than presenting all of these things and tying them together using some sort of analytical framework, Knight relies on the overlapping lives of his human subjects to create the illusion of coherence. Sure it’s all very interesting and relatively well written but I finished The Premonitions Bureau and felt like I had read a series of loosely overlapping newspaper articles rather than an actual book.

There’s a fascinating book to be written about the Evening Standard’s premonition bureau as well as the other attempts by British institutions to engage with ideas of the paranormal. I would very much like to read a book about how and why these institutions would suddenly buy into the idea of prophecy but Sam Knight is clearly not the man to write it. This is what happens when you take an already thin article and try to stretch it into the form of a book.

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