Future Imperfect

Daniel Francis

One of the best episodes in the third season of The Crown dramatized the 1966 landslide in the Welsh mining town of Aberfan. Heavy rain had caused a mountain of coal waste to liquefy, washing down a slope to over- whelm part of the town. A school lay directly in its path; heartbreakingly, 116 of the 144 fatalities were young children. The Crown does not mention it, but apparently, the day before the dis- aster, one of the children spoke of a dream she had had involving a dark shadow overwhelming her school. This and other premonitory stories attracted the attention of John Barker, a psychiatrist with a professional interest in the paranormal. When he made a public appeal for similar stories, seventy-six people responded. This led to the creation of the premonitions bureau at the Evening Standard newspaper in London. People were urged to contact the paper with their stories of deaths foretold, plane crashes predicted, storms anticipated and so on. The idea was to establish a warning system—a sort of DEW Line for catastrophes—that would allow government to respond to disasters before they happened. The Premonitions Bureau (Penguin Random House) by Sam Knight, a staff writer at the the New Yorker, is the strange story of what Barker and his journalist colleague, Peter Fairley, discovered. The short answer: not much. Barker believed that the ability to foretell the future was present in a significant proportion of humans, like left-handedness. But in practice, sorting out the cranks from the gifted (and there were some) turned out to be more difficult than anticipated and the bureau faded away without success. Knight is a wonderful writer. His sentences are clear, vivid, charming, sometimes quirky in a good way. It is a subject that could easily be made fun of, but he presents it seriously, though never ponderously. The book raises many questions: What is the difference between premonition and coincidence? How can the future be foretold if it hasn’t happened yet? In what sense does the future even exist? And, as you might expect, it manages to answer none of them.

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Daniel Francis

Daniel Francis is a writer and historian. He is the author of two dozen books, including The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (Arsenal Pulp Press). He lives in North Vancouver. Read more of his work at


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