“Office of Premonitions” Review: Shadows of Things to Come
Alan Hencher, a scrawny man in his forties, worked night shifts as a switchboard operator. In the still darkness of a March morning in 1967, Hencher had a vision that left him haunted and shaken: an airliner was about to crash. “He comes over the mountains,” he said. “He goes on the radio he is in trouble. Then it will stop – nothing. In his vision he saw 123 or 124 people on board. Nine days later, a Globe Air passenger plane ran into thunderstorms and crashed in Cyprus. The number of people who died that day: 124.
The Bureau of Premonitions: A True Account of Foretold Death
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Hencher became an overnight sensation. It wasn’t that he hadn’t made predictions before, or that he was training alone. Thousands of people have claimed to have premonitions of disaster, but for the most part these only come to light after the event. Hencher, however, had shared his vision before the fact with John Barker, a psychiatrist, and Peter Fairley, the science editor of London’s Evening Standard. Together, Barker and Fairley ran the Office of Premonitions, a small department of the newspaper to which readers sent “their dreams and presentiments, which would be collated and then compared to actual events in the world.”
“Premonitions are impossible and they always come true,” writes Sam Knight in “The Premonitions Bureau: A True Account of Death Foretold.” They capture our imagination, instill a sense of wonder, and sell lots of newspapers. As Mr. Knight points out, Hencher’s prediction did not avert the crash. There were also some discrepancies between vision and reality: among them, the crash did not happen in the mountains, but on a hill; and while the original headlines announced 124 passengers killed, the death toll eventually reached 126, as two additional passengers died days later.
The Evening Standard published its article on Hencher the day after the plane crash, under the title “The Incredible Story of the Man Who Dreamed of Disaster”. For Fairley, the prediction and its accuracy mattered less than having a sensational story to publish. For Barker, however, the Office of Premonitions offered something his career at Shelton Hospital could not: a glimpse into something bigger, more dynamic, and with greater scope and possibilities than his existence. otherwise commonplace could not afford.
“Chance is commonplace,” writes Mr. Knight, London editor for the New Yorker magazine. And the banality, the banal daily life of our lives, “diminishes us”. Mr. Knight’s own ruminations are inserted into the book’s timeline of predictions and results: “How do you explain the role of chance in your own life?” While awaiting the birth of their first child, Mr Knight and his wife spotted three magpies in their garden and saw them as a sign that their child would be a girl. Suddenly, “we never asked for a test to confirm the sex of our daughter because we had the impression of having already been informed”.
Are we aware of how often or how willingly we assign meaning and value to random events, or how our mind actively rationalizes our perception? Mr Knight cites the 19th century German polymath Hermann von Helmholtz, who suggested that all humans rely on unconscious inferences, illusions that bridge the gaps between perception and reality – what modern neuroscientists call the “ predictive processing” – to “weather the storm”. information that reaches us. Our brain, says Knight, “works from the top down”, creating “a cascade of internal theories and beliefs, memories and expectations, which guide our perceptions and are then corrected by feedback from the outside world”. Indeed, we “always plan”.
For Barker, however, our ability to see things that don’t exist, or that haven’t yet happened, was a phenomenon that shone with the glow of something much deeper. Inspired by “Precognition”, a book on precognition written by Herbert Saltmarsh in 1938 and published during a frenzy of new discoveries in particle physics and quantum mechanics, Barker saw a distinction between our conscious experience of time – living sequentially from moment to moment — and the porosity of space-time, potentially accessible to the subconscious. Barker thought it might be possible for some to see beyond the apparent present and perceive a subliminal present that extended into the past and the future. (For the record, Barker also believed that infidelity in marriage could be cured by electric shocks.)
What Barker hoped to achieve through the Bureau of Premonitions was a computerized clearinghouse to detect trends among premonitions and serve as an early warning system. It meant collecting the visions and dreams of a group of people that even Fairley struggled to take seriously. Barker was willing to take risks. He was also willing to experiment on people like Hencher, who would eventually become disenchanted with the office – he had been used, he said, and had given up his intimate visions for free.
Mr. Knight’s book unfolds episodically. We wander the streets of tragedy and the saloons of eccentric seers, witness the dismal conditions of Shelton’s sanatorium and the bustling press room of the Evening Standard. The author’s prose delights, offering picture-perfect images: “Whatever the season, the air in the office was lit from morning till night by fluorescent tubes and laden with cigarette smoke, bad breath and the occasional sexism. It also moves quickly between time periods and individuals, which can make the reader’s journey difficult to chart. Although not the first character we meet, Barker functions as the center of the book. It’s Barker’s tireless quest in the face of opposition, even failure, that connects everything from the book’s first calamity to his later observations of fear and unexplained death.
With bulging bags under his eyes, an oversized suit and a determination to prove the exceptional powers of the mind, Barker was at odds with many in his own profession. In this way, the narrative also explores the turbulent clash of established science, pseudoscience, and science yet to be discovered. “It came close to being a big secret,” writes Mr. Knight. Ninety-seven percent of the bureau’s predictions were wrong, but Barker lived within that 3%. He also died there, having received a prediction of impending doom from his two chief seers. Early one Sunday morning soon after, a vessel burst in his brain, relegating the Bureau of Premonitions to the particular fancies of particular times.
And yet we wonder. “Perhaps it was the seeming impossibility of it all that fascinated me,” Barker wrote. This may explain our continuous search for meaning in models. We look at the myth, we cry in front of the mirror, we listen to our dreams. They may be mere shadows of evolution, teaching us to defy predictions, but even here the story is a story, a tale we tell about what it means to be human.
-Mrs. Schillace, editor of the journal Medical Humanities, is host of the online “Peculiar Book Club” and author of “Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher: A Monkey’s Head, Pope’s Neuroscientist and the Quest to Transplant blade.
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