The Premonitions Bureau Non-fiction by Sam Knight a staff writer at The New Yorker, based in London. “The Premonitions Bureau” is his first book.
Tagline: “Premonitions are impossible –and they come true all the time.”
What do we mean by a premonition? The Cambridge Dictionary defines a premonition as “a feeling that something, especially something unpleasant, is going to happen.”
What’s the difference between premonition and precognition?
Precognition is a sense of foreknowledge arrived at by “paranormal” means; e.g., via card reading, or a psychic dream or clairvoyance. On the other hand, a premonition is simply a feeling, however powerful, that something is about to happen – usually this means something bad.
The Premonitions Bureau tells a story that started with a tragedy.
Background: Aberfan 21 October 1966
Aberfan is a mining village near Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. There was a huge colliery tip on a mountain slope above the village, Tip Number 7, and this tip had a natural spring rising up underneath it, bubbling out in a stream that flowed down into the village below.
Heavy rain had led to a build-up of water inside the tip, until one morning it suddenly collapsed and went sliding down the hill. A thirty foot wave of coal slurry hit not only a row of houses but Pantglas Junior School, and killed 116 children and 28 adults, of whom 5 were the children’s teachers.
The following inquiry firmly placed the blame on the National Coal Board, who had received multiple previous warnings about the instability of this particular colliery tip, Number 7 after it was created in 1958 against regulations which said no coal tip was to be raised on top of a spring, but the NCB, although they knew this, had taken only sporadic maintenance action.
After this tragedy a high profile psychiatrist and psychologist called John Barker went to Aberfan to try and support the bereaved. Then he started receiving reports of people who had had premonitions of this disaster. Most tragic of all was a premonition experienced by one of the children who had died in the school and who had been worried, telling her mother about a dream she had had the previous night.
“Mummy, let me tell you about my dream last night.” Her mother answered gently, “Darling, I’ve no time. Tell me again later.” The child replied, “No Mummy, you must listen. I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there. Something black had come down all over it.”
Two other children had done drawings of the avalanche before it happened.
John Barker, who was the resident senior psychiatrist at a sadly run down mental hospital which he was working hard but with mixed success to modernize, went to Aberfan to offer counselling support and was deeply struck by some extraordinary reports received in the aftermath. He decided, with assistance from a newspaper, The Evening Standard, to make it his mission to collect and collate other premonitions. How common were they? How did they manifest? Could they be logged and used to give an early warning of impending disaster?
“A more predictable existence is, in theory anyway, a less frightening one,” writes Sam Knight of Barker’s motivation. “Societies have always craved prophets, or people who claim to see round the next corner.”
But unless we can do something about it, maybe sometimes we would really rather not know. One day, John Barker received two premonitions which were about him, himself, and which seemed to suggest that his own death was imminent…
I won’t provide spoilers, except to say that these premonitions were proven correct.
“It is a story both elegant and eccentric, cleanly capturing that brief moment in the 1960s when extrasensory perception verged on mainstream acceptance. It is also quietly terrifying, a reminder that even those who can see the future have no hope of getting out of its way.”
Source The New York Times
Article: The Psychiatrist Who Believed People Could Tell The Future
The Curse of Cassandra
Coming back to the question of preferring not to know, as a useless burden, the so- called gift of prophecy- assuming we accept there is such a potential, is likely to feel more like a curse. It is not known as The Curse of Cassandra for nothing.
Cassandra (or Kassandra) was a tragic figure in Greek mythology; a Trojan princess, a daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba and a priestess of the sun god Apollo. Apollo had given her the gift of prophesy but when she subsequently rejected his sexual advances, he could not withdraw the gift but he turned it into a curse, such that Cassandra would see and speak the truth, only never to be believed.
Cassandra warned the Trojans to send Helen straight home again after Paris eloped with her and brought her to Troy, taking her away from her husband Menelaus in Sparta. Cassandra had warned the Trojans it would bring disaster down upon them all. They didn’t listen. Then the Greeks came and laid siege for ten long years.
Cassandra then warned them not to bring the giant wooden horse into the city. Again, they didn’t listen. There were Greek warriors hiding inside it, and in the night they crept out and opened the gates and let in all the other Greeks. A massacre followed; the Sack of Troy. The city fell. Cassandra was first raped in the temple of Athena by Ajax, then dragged away to become the slave of Agamemnon, and together with him, was later murdered by his queen Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus on returning to his kingdom of Mycenae.
The takeaway here is that while Cassandra knew her own fate, she could do nothing to save herself. Helen meanwhile, was forgiven by her husband Menelaus, and, restored as his queen, led on board his ship, passing the wretched lines of the other surviving women, now homeless, stateless and bereaved, all slaves and captives now.
It could be said that it was Helen who was really the Trojan horse.
The name of Cassandra has therefore come to mean a person whose accurate prophecies, generally of impending disaster, are not believed.
Cassandra by Evelyn de Morgan: Public Domain
This ancient story, like this new book highlights a big problem with prediction. If the future exists, what can be done about it? If the future doesn’t exist, how is prediction possible?
But prediction is rarer and premonitions are common. Barker reckoned that it was at least as common in the population as being left handed, the experience of premonition, suggesting we are all more connected than we understand or can logically explain.
The Premonitions Bureau is an intelligent, understated, quietly absorbing read. It raises big questions with many fascinating, if often deeply sad anecdotes.
It has been criticized by some reviewers for failing to provide clear conclusions. But this is in the nature of the subject, as it is in life, and there is at least one conclusion to be drawn from this story that is self-evident.
What is that conclusion? John Barker had hoped that a Premonitions Bureau might help save the countless lives through the interventions of a centralized psychic early warning system. But this was never a practical possibility. Why not? A premonition may be an intensely powerful feeling, but it lacks detailed information sufficient for anyone to act on it in any meaningful practical way.
A True Story
June 2016 I was staying away from home in Carlisle when I had a presentiment of a terrible accident or impact that was about to happen. I was shown in my Tarot cards that it would be involve a vehicle, anger and a fiery impact.
My first worry was that we were about to have an accident in the car. Then I decided no, I didn’t feel that was it. I said to my husband, “We will soon find out what this is. It will be on the news soon”.
Two hour later, we saw on the television, the news of the terrorist truck attack in Nice.
“On the evening of 14 July 2016, a 19-tonne cargo truck was deliberately driven into crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, resulting in the deaths of 86 people and the injury of 458 others.  The driver was Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian living in France.  The attack ended following an exchange of gunfire, during which Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was shot and killed by police”- Wikipedia.
This experience was neither a premonition nor a precognition. It was somewhere between the two. My feeling of unease did not hit me out of the blue. It came to me while I was looking, initially rather casually in my Tarot cards. I drew The Devil, The Chariot and The Tower cards all together in a row and knew I did not like it one bit.
But of what possible potential use was this to anybody? It lacked actionable specifics, and even had there been a whole ton of specifics, there was no outlet, no mechanism or avenue of action or follow-up, such as John Barker had once envisaged in creating The Premonitions Bureau.
May 24, 2022, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos fatally shot nineteen students and two teachers and wounded seventeen other people at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, United States. Earlier in the day, he shot his grandmother in the forehead at home, severely wounding her. Wikipedia
Date: 24 May 2022 at 7:27 pm BST
The night before, I was sitting up late in bed, reading. It was after midnight when I turned off the light and noticed a peculiar sensation, a fizzing, buzzing, tingling sensation that affected my head and shoulders, but only my head and shoulders. I first wondered whether it was a new physical symptom that was possibly affecting my ears or balance. I have severe rheumatoid arthritis which can affect organs as well as joints and muscles. But then the thought came to me, “what is this? Who is it? What bad news is this now, that is coming down the track?”
Was it a family member? I didn’t think so, but I had no idea was it was. All I knew was, and I said this to myself before turning over to go to sleep was, “there will be bad news tomorrow.”
How do any parents bear such a thing as this and it happened for what? One unhappy creature, empty of purpose and full of ugliness, grudge and spite, a loser in the true meaning of the word, was handed the means to indulge himself to the full, unleashing the grotesque horror of the Id, for mere dollars.
On May 24, 2022, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos fatally shot nineteen students and two teachers and wounded seventeen other people at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, United States. Earlier in the day, he shot his grandmother in the forehead at home, severely wounding her. Wikipedia
I’ve been jittery for some weeks one way and another, and possibly so have you. Leo season, I feel, is going to be extra dramatic in world events this August, both the beauty and the beast.
“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy,” said. F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely”, wrote Edna St Vincent Millay
A Dirge Without Music Edna St. Vincent Millay I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground. So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind: Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned. Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you. Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust. A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew, A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost. The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,— They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve. More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world. Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind; Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave. I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
But if there is hope for us all- and there is, then it is exactly this. That we have this shared, mysterious but entirely natural human potential to sense what may be happening to others, even over great distances, and to sense, to feel -to work for, care for, or even fight for people we have never met and never will.
It’s a natural magic but it’s not unique to us. Baboons have it. South African naturalist and poet Eugène Marais witnessed it in action. A group of male baboons attacked a stalking leopard in order to defend their group, and succeeded in killing it, but only one of them survived.
Marais also observed soldier ants racing up a tree and attacking and killing a praying mantis many times their own size, that was preying on their column,helping itself as the marching column passing under its tree. A lot of soldier ants died in the process but they stuck fast, swarmed on it and finally managed to bite off its head.
What we call courage or duty might be vainglory. It might be the Ego or the tribal Id. But what we call heroism is the readiness to put ourselves last in the service of some quest undertaken for some greater purpose, no fear or favour, no guarantee of success, reward, recognition or memorial.
“If one loves nature, one learns automatically.”
― Eugène N. Marais, The Soul Of The Ape; The Soul Of The White Ant
Back soon. Till next time 🙂