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02May

The Premonitions Bureau by Sam Knight review – the press, psychiatry and the paranormal

The prizewinning New Yorker journalist provides more questions than answers in a tantalising tale of a psychiatrist fascinated by predicting disasters

Sam Knight is a prizewinning British New Yorker journalist whose features and profiles fizz with doggedly chased-down detail distilled into compelling narrative, whether he’s writing about Ronnie O’Sullivan, the £8bn-a-year sandwich industry or preparations for the death of the Queen (“Operation London Bridge”). The Premonitions Bureau, his first book, showcases the gifts that make him so endlessly readable. A richly researched feat of compression, it tells a tantalising tale of the unlikely interplay between the press, psychiatry and the paranormal in Britain during the late 1960s.

Knight’s central character (so fluently does he tell his outlandish story, it’s hard not to think of it as a novel) is John Barker, a Cambridge-educated psychiatrist whose interest in clairvoyance led him to pitch the Evening Standard late in 1966 with the idea of a “Premonitions Bureau”, by which readers would come forward with portents of catastrophe, such as that year’s deadly landslide at Aberfan. The paper went for it and over the following year received 732 premonitions, 18 of which seemed to be borne out, of which 12 came from two people: Kathleen Lorna Middleton, a privately wealthy ballet teacher, and Alan Hencher, a switchboard operator who had been experiencing premonitions, accompanied by intense headaches, since a car accident.

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