Parapsychology: A Beginner’s Guide, by Caroline Watt

Caroline Watt’s Parapsychology: A Beginner’s Guide (2016) provides an accessible introduction to the current state of knowledge in what can at times be a technical subject.  Watt was a founder member of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh, working with Bob Morris, and currently holds the Koestler Chair of Parapsychology there (though this is now a personal rather than a departmental chair).  She has long taught a highly-regarded online parapsychology course.

Despite Watt’s reputation as a sceptic, she does not push an overtly anti-parapsychology agenda but looks at the phenomena from a variety of perspectives.  Although she does not consider the research to have produced compelling results, she stresses how the innovative techniques developed in a field subjected to rigorous scrutiny by critics have helped to improve methods in other scientific areas.

Unsurprisingly, she stresses dangers in reaching false conclusions such as misperception, poor estimates of probability, questionable research practices (both in conducting experiments and analysing them) and fraud.  On the plus side, she shows that parapsychologists have tightened procedures to try to rule these problems out, and have themselves exposed instances of fraud, rather than having it done by outsiders.  Standards, she acknowledges, are higher than in many other areas of science.

Watt starts with basics, discussing terminology, before examining the roots of parapsychology in a longer tradition of psychical research.  She marks out what it is not, such as the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot, instead emphasising ‘the capabilities and experiences of living human beings’ (the word living hinting at the ambivalent attitude to survival in parapsychology).  Then she delves into the discipline in more detail, breaking her treatment into three main sections: testing psychic claims; anomalous experiences; and laboratory research.

Under testing psychic claims she looks at macro-PK, psychic readings, remote viewing, animal psi (presumably honorary human beings for the purpose), and survival issues, including mediumship, super-psi, cold reading and reincarnation.  Anomalous experiences cover out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences (neither of which she judges to be particularly evidential), hauntings, apparitions and the psychology of psychic experiences.  Problems she highlights include fraud and insufficient precautions against sensory cueing.

Moving into the laboratory, chapters cover the evolution of experiments investigating telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psychokinesis, with good discussions on ganzfeld, dream research, and the role of meta-analysis.  Pre-registration of experiments is stressed to help guard against data manipulation, and Watt runs such a registry at Edinburgh.  Concluding remarks assess the progress of parapsychology and the influence it has had on mainstream psychology in terms of methodology.

For those who fancy trying research themselves, an appendix describes informal and more formal tests for ESP and PK that can be conducted at home, the contrast in the way they are conducted highlighting the need for a rigorous approach in order to prevent counter-explanations being advanced for positive results.  There is a brief glossary and suggestions for further reading.

The book’s coverage is broad, but the necessity to compress the information obliges Watt to skate over topics, a lack of detail and nuance the reader possessing some background knowledge will find frustrating and at times even misleading.  The overall impression given is that while in general parapsychology does not live up to the claims made by its proponents, its pursuit has not been wasted effort because of its beneficial influence in other fields.

Said proponents would probably deem her at best too cautious in her estimate and at worst wrong, while there is nothing to persuade those predisposed to dismiss the subject to change their assessment based on the evidence presented.  It is thus clear what Watt’s position is, despite her attempt to be even-handed.  With that caveat, anyone interested in parapsychology who wants an overview before diving deeper will find this a useful primer.


Just the Plague, by Ludmila Ulitskaya

When one lives in an autocratic state like Stalinist Russia there are worse things than being quarantined on suspicion of having caught the plague.  Based on a true story, Ludmila Ulitskaya’s 2020 novel Just the Plague (published in English in 2021) started life in 1988 as a film script produced as an unsuccessful application to film school, and has now been turned into a novel.  Ulitskaya rediscovered the manuscript in 2020, during the Covid lockdown, and realised it had resonance today.

During the harsh winter of 1939, microbiologist Rudolf Maier is working on a plague vaccine.  He is ordered to present his results to the Moscow authorities, and in his haste to comply manages to infect himself.  He travels by train, checks into an hotel, has a shave and attends the meeting, thereby coming into contact with a large number of individuals.

He becomes increasingly unwell and is taken to hospital where a doctor diagnoses pneumonic plague and isolates himself, Maier, and later the barber.  The virus has a 24-hour incubation, so the authorities need to act quickly because its spread in the crowded city would have catastrophic consequences.

The NKVD is tasked with rounding up everyone Maier came into contact with, which it does with an efficiency usually employed on those deemed to be opponents of the regime.  Citizens taken into custody are put into a ten-day quarantine, an outbreak of influenza used as a pretext on the grounds it will cause less panic than would occur if the population knew there was the risk of plague.

In a society full of people ready to inform on each other, and the Great Purge having provided the NKVD with ample experience, the exercise of listing names and sending a van generally proves to be fairly straightforward.  There is much shuffling of paper, but it gets results.  Unfortunately, when one of the ominous black police vans turns up outside an apartment block in the middle of the night, it is easy to assume that its occupants’ motives are not benign.  The natural assumption is arrest and show trial, followed by execution, rather than a move to save lives.

The same goes for the ‘Very High Personage’ to whom the operatives answer, i.e., NKVD head Lavrentiy Beria, who is second only to ‘the Big Boss’.  Seeing every unfortunate event as an attack on the socialist system, he jumps to the conclusion that the outbreak is the result of sabotage, and the detained must be liquidated.  Fortunately, a doctor is able to convince him the danger was caused by an accident, not malice, thus sparing innocent lives.

In this paranoid atmosphere the nigh-time knock on the door creates unintended consequences.  A man shoots himself with the NKVD outside, assuming he is about to be arrested and considering suicide preferable.  A party loyalist denounces her husband to save herself, she thinks, unaware he is merely in quarantine. He is arrested as soon as the restrictions are lifted and led away without a murmur, knowing his likely fate.

On the whole though, while their relatives, who are kept in ignorance of the situation, are frantic, the quarantined are grateful they are not being held on political charges.  As one says afterwards, ‘it was just the plague,’ as opposed to the more deadly alternative.  This was one encounter with the NKVD that ended well, to their relief.

For all the efforts in rounding up and isolating those suspected of having been infected, one person remains untraced.  A Turkmen People’s Deputy who was checking out of the hotel as Maier was checking in had started to feel unwell, and on impulse decided to break her journey back to Ashkhabad in a shop in a market run by fellow Turkmen, and had not arrived at home when expected.

In the zero-tolerance NKVD, the failure to track her down is a huge matter of concern for the operatives seeking her, as the price of failure can be very high for them personally.  We assume she was not infected, but her individualistic behaviour evades the surveillance state, leaving the reader wondering whether in the circumstances her spontaneity was good or bad.  Even if lucky this time, it demonstrates how hard it is to contain diseases once they start to spread – a lesson in all pandemics.

A large cast of characters is shown in a range of situations as the effort at containment proceeds.  Ulitskaya casts sidelights on the society of the times, such as the follower of the prevailing pseudo-scientific Lysenkoist approach to genetics who thinks he has bred cold-resistant geese, only to find them frozen to death overnight.  Still, they do make a nutritious meal, so all is not lost.  More easily followed as a film would have been than as a novel, the narrative jumps around, and the list of characters at the front is very useful when trying to keep track of everyone.

In an interview which forms an afterword, Ulitskaya says she hardly changed anything in the original screenplay for publication.  This was not a story that was known about in Russia when she wrote the script; she was aware of it because the father of her acquaintance, Natalya Rapoport, had performed autopsies on the victims’ bodies, and the two women had discussed it.  From this basic fact she had weaved the fictional narrative.  She adds that, as in the novel, only three people died in the 1939 outbreak – the researcher, the barber who shaved him, and the heroic doctor.

After publication Rapoport, professor emerita at the University of Utah, said they had collaborated on the script together and Ulitskaya had plagiarised their joint work for the novelisation.  In the afterword, Ulitskaya claims the pair had only a single conversation about the episode, and apart from the central facts Rapoport conveyed to her, the rest was the product of her imagination.

However, in her 2020 non-fiction work Stalin and Medicine: Untold Stories, Rapoport has a chapter on the episode tellingly called ‘It’s Just the Plague’, and she similarly uses the phrase to juxtapose detention as a precautionary measure with detention as a prelude to being purged.  Rapoport’s chapter and Ulitskaya’s novel recount the same events, and it may well be there is more of Rapoport’s input in the novel than Ulitskaya is willing to concede.  But Ulitskaya has transformed the bare facts as reported in Stalin and Medicine into a layered portrait of life in Russia in the late 1930s.

While it is hard to admit of such a ruthless organisation, the NKVD were correct in moving quickly and decisively.  Whether such an operation could succeed today is less clear.  China imposed a draconian lockdown on its population during the Covid-19 pandemic, but the virus proved more slippery than did the 1939 Russian plague, and for all their power over the population, the Chinese authorities were unable to prevent its spread.  The Soviet secret police were operating in simpler times.

The Devil’s Trap, by James W Bancroft

The Devil’s Trap: The Victims of the Cawnpore Massacre During the Indian Mutiny, by James W Bancroft (2019), tells the story of a notorious incident in 1857.  Stationed at the East India Company’s garrison at Cawnpore (now Kanpur), a strategic position on the banks of the Ganges, were three native regiments led by British officers.  The British contingent lived there with their families.  In June 1857 the Indian soldiers, with local support, revolted, and a protracted siege took place.

Initially the defenders thought help would arrive, but this did not materialise.  Eventually they surrendered on the promise of safe passage, but the attackers under the command of Nana Sahib reneged on the agreement as the soldiers and civilians were attempting to evacuate by boat, and many – men, women and children – were massacred.  The survivors were kept captive in squalid conditions and deaths occurred from disease.  Then, with the British army closing in and bent on revenge, Nana Sahib ordered the murder of those who were left, and the corpses were dumped in a well.   There were only four survivors.

Bancroft, editor of a book of Romanian paranormal anecdotes, has done sterling work researching the massacre, delving into archives and interviewing descendants.  He has also utilised what he grandly refers to as the ‘JWB Historical Library’, which I think means he owns a lot of books.  There is information on the town, and the relationships between the British and Indian soldiers, and the imperialist power and the local political establishment.

That Bancroft is not a professional historian can be seen in his language, at times slack even for a text aimed at a popular rather than an academic audience.  He is prone to cliché and occasional statements of the obvious (Bath has a Roman spa, apparently).  In terms of organisation, while he has been assiduous in following up genealogical information he dumps biographical snippets into the narrative, which impedes its flow.

He provides an odd trigger warning, stating ‘It was inhumanity at its worst, the Devil himself could not devise a more spine-chilling scenario, and people of a sensitive disposition must not read on,’ a dubious claim guaranteed to get the ghoulish turning the pages.  His indignation at the brutality of the rebels descends into purplish prose, and he again manages to equate the uprising with the forces of darkness, claiming breathlessly and disregarding punctuation that ‘The culprits of this disturbing atrocity were not of the human race they were representatives of Satan.’ 

More seriously, he does not interrogate the presence of the British and the social and economic structures they imposed.  Expressing outrage at the behaviour of the Indians, he does not question the role of the occupying power.  True, the book’s subtitle emphasises the victims, but the events can only be understood in the broader context of occupation.  He skates over the part the East India Company played in the administration of the Indian possessions and does not examine the complacency and ineptitude that allowed the Cawnpore tragedy to occur, a mindset that clearly underestimated the likely consequences of official actions.

There is a lot more that could be said about this inglorious incident, but it would take an impartial historian to do it justice.  Bancroft is too close to his material and does not treat it dispassionately.  Still, he does provide the background and commemorates the victims, who were so brutally treated, with compassion.  The collection of information on their lives, before and, where appropriate, after, was obviously a labour of love.  Those wishing to dig deeper will find the bibliography a useful place to start.

The After Cancer Diet, by Suzanne Boothby

Suzanne Boothby’s The After Cancer Diet: How to Live Healthier Than Ever Before (2011) is primarily aimed at those who have completed treatment and want to live a full and disease-free life.  But in practice it will help those still with cancer, and those who would like to do what they can to prevent it.  It was produced in collaboration with Suzanne’s father Richard, a doctor experienced in the treatment of cancer who contributes a foreword, and it is written in a light style with plenty of advice and encouragement.

Naturally it addresses food and drink, with advice based on sound dietary research discussing what is best and what should be avoided (though there have been developments in the science since its publication), and there are some simple recipes the most cack-handed in the kitchen can manage.  But it covers physical exercise and mental wellbeing, also necessary for good health.  The emphasis unsurprisingly is on eating good-quality unprocessed food.

The term cancer survivor is dropped in favour of thriver, indicating the positive approach running through the book.  It is not necessarily a term that will achieve widespread usage, but it emphasises the value of having a mindset focused on being well rather than being ill.  The upshot is that someone with cancer need not feel powerless, but can be active in the effort to regain their health.

A quick read, it is full of tips presented in easily-digestible chunks.  A few of the recipes as written would probably require access to specialist shops, but the basics can be implemented with available ingredients.  The important point is that readers are not required to make wholesale lifestyle changes, which are hard to sustain.  Any steps in the right direction are worthwhile, and likely to lead to further improvements.

While I found the book useful, there was one thing that grated (so to speak), leaving aside the lack of a hyphen between after and cancer in the title: the use of the infantile veggie instead of vegetable.  Boothby is not alone in adopting this unfortunate usage, the Glucose Goddess does, and I expect there are other food writers who do as well.

Presumably it is employed on the assumption that many adults have a resistance to eating vegetables, and calling them by the user-friendly term veggies will make them more palatable – a veggie can’t be unpleasant, can it?  It’s on a par with pretending food on a spoon is an aeroplane when trying to encourage recalcitrant babies to eat their puree, and it should be confined to that demographic.

Psychic Dreaming, by Loyd Auerbach

Loyd Auerbach’s 2017 Psychic Dreaming: Dreamworking, Reincarnation, Out-of-Body Experiences & Clairvoyance is a revised edition of a book published in 1991 as Psychic Dreaming: A Parapsychologist’s Handbook.  It covers a lot of ground in under 200 pages, but not in as much detail as the subtitle implies.  Auerbach explores the idea of being psychic (an ability he feels we all possess to a greater or lesser extent), how it relates to dreams, and how readers can apply an understanding of their dreams to enhance their lives.

His preface notes that much of the straight parapsychological detail in the first edition (its history and then-current research) has been dropped, but with only minor editing otherwise.  While more tightly focused on the dream experience and possible connections with psi processes, this lack of a thorough revision means the latest data on sleep science has not been included.  However, as Auerbach points out, there has been no significant advance in the parapsychological study of dreams in the intervening period, and methods of working with dreams, psychic or otherwise, are much the same.

For the person coming to the subject for the first time, in addition to looking at the basics of sleep and dreaming he sets the scene with useful information on the various parts of psi that might manifest in dreams – telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition – before he delves in depth into dreams, their form and potential meanings, and the intricacies of dream analysis.  Auerbach quite correctly stresses how time-consuming keeping a dream diary then going through it to pull out significant aspects can be, but also how invaluable it is to conduct the exercise to really get to grips with dreamwork.

There is extensive advice on how to tackle recording and analysing dreams, and ideas for informal psychic experiments.  There is also a discussion of lucid dreaming, for those lucky enough to experience it, and connections with out-of-body-experiences and reincarnation.  External influences that could affect the psychic component of dreams, such as personality and attitude, are touched on.

His opinion, in the absence of firm research conclusions, is that psychic and non-psychic dreams differ little in terms of form, so ascertaining whether there is a psychic component has to rely on an intuitive feeling that it is qualitatively different from ordinary dreaming.  This is not very satisfactory, assuming dreams do, at least sometimes, contain psychic elements, but our current level of knowledge means it is not possible to point authoritatively to psychically-derived information.  Even if the presence of psi should be apparent, utilising it may not be feasible for practical reasons.

Auerbach has extensive experience of psychical research and Psychic Dreaming is based on an authoritative understanding of the field.  Anyone who is fascinated by their dreams, and wonders if they are more than the random firing of neurons, will find the book of value in exploring this mysterious region to which we travel each night.  Even if there is no psi in dreams, or there is but it is not available in ours, there are still benefits to thinking about them and what they might be telling us.

No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel is set in Texas in 1980.  Llewelyn Moss, who had fought in Vietnam and therefore knows how to take care of himself, is a welder living in a trailer and married to a child bride, Carla Jean.  One day he is out hunting in the desert near the Mexican border when he comes across the scene of a drugs deal gone very wrong, with bodies scattered around and a load of heroin in one of the vehicles.  Close by he finds another body with a satchel containing over 2 million dollars in cash.  He ignores the drugs but instead of turning the money in as a law-abiding citizen would, he decides to keep it.

As a result his life changes forever, though predictably not in a positive way.  One of the criminals is badly hurt but still alive, and Moss’s conscience propels him to return to the scene with water.  There he is seen by someone else who has an interest in the affair, and so a lengthy and bloody chase ensues.  In evading retribution all his survival experience is called upon, and he continues on his path even though he understands that not only is he unlikely to survive, he has put his wife in danger.  But he has acquired a sense of purpose civilian life cannot match, the process of more value to him than the likely ending.

The main jeopardy comes from psychopath Anton Chigurh, who is on the trail of the money.  He is an implacable fatalist, remorseless in his desire to retrieve the money as he follows Moss’s trail but with a philosophical bent that tends to leave others confused as much as frightened.  Following his own ethical path, he is obliged to keep his word, even if it means murdering an innocent person after the promise has become pointless because the person to whom it was made is dead.  Less a man than a force of nature, he has only one purpose in life: to achieve his goal.  Able to intimidate with a look, he dispatches some of his victims using a compressed-air bolt gun, a method that indicates his view of them.  He does sometimes let fate take a hand, determining an individual’s fate by means of a coin toss, but the taking of life means nothing to him as he pursues his quarry.

As Chigurh is seen to be out of control (a reasonable estimate), the criminal organisation hires the urbane Carson Wells to take care of Chigurh and retrieve the cash.  He sees dealing with Moss the easier option, and outlines the probable outcome, but Moss is stubborn and refuses to make a deal.   In an attempt to make him realise the gravity of the situation, he tells Moss that even if he were to give the money to Chigurh, Chigurh would still kill him, just because of the inconvenience Moss had caused him.  Moss would, Wells argues, be better off handing the cash back to him.  Unfortunately for Wells, his and Chigurh’s paths cross, and he ceases to take an interest in the matter.

Caught in the middle, and sharing much of the narrative through rambling internal dialogue (perhaps McCarthy thought Terrence Malick was going to direct the film version), is Second World War veteran Sheriff Bell, who is trying to help Moss and bring the mayhem to a conclusion as quickly as possible.  The novel’s moral centre, though nursing what he considers to be a shameful secret from the war (an act that seems perfectly reasonable), he is a jaded old-time lawman who feels himself out of joint with a country rapidly changing for the worse.  Exceedingly polite, he is a believer in the idealised qualities of self-reliant community spirit.  He wants to keep the residents of his county safe even though it is awash with guns and drugs, but finds himself in a degraded society possessing values he no longer recognises.  Aware of the hopelessness of holding back the tide of violence, he has become tired of trying, and reconsiders his future in law enforcement.

Told in fast-paced unadorned prose (apart from Bell’s languid musings), brisk dialogue given without quotation marks, the action plays out with the relentlessness of Greek tragedy.   The hard landscape is beautifully evoked, and one can almost hear a Ry Cooder soundtrack playing as one reads.  It is a brutal, unforgiving country, the apparent virtue of rugged individualism it nurtures prone to tip into something darker, of which Chigurh is the emblem.  It’s not merely not a country for old men, it doesn’t seem to be much of a country for anyone who aspires to live to a decent age.  Sheriff Bell may bemoan the passing of an era, but in reality it was always more in his head than in Texas.

Timeline, by Michael Crichton

In Michael Crichton’s Timeline (1999), Robert Doniger, a youngish, thrusting but amoral genius who controls ITC, a large American corporation, has a bold plan, as alpha types tend to have.  The organisation is conducting secret research while buying up large parts of the Dordogne where a group of academics led by Yale scholar Professor Edward Johnston are conducting an archaeological dig on the remains of an extensive mediaeval site, which includes two castles and a monastery, prior to building as accurate a reconstruction as possible.  The site burned down in 1357 after one of the castles was captured when a traitor revealed the location of a secret passage,

The work is progressing slowly, to Doniger’s frustration as the project is hugely expensive and he is keen for the reconstruction to proceed as quickly as possible to placate his investors.  Among Johnston’s team are his assistant hunky André Marek, a physically-fit expert on the period, to the extent that he absorbs himself in the world; David Stern, a physicist; and postgrads Chris Hughes and Kate Erickson.  The academics’ priority is scholarly rigour, and they won’t be hurried, but to their puzzlement find ITC is providing data the excavations have not yet revealed.

Suddenly there is a crisis: Johnston, who went to ITC HQ in the New Mexico desert to discuss the situation with Doniger, seems to have vanished, while his team uncover a message saying ‘help me’ written by him and apparently sent from 1357, alongside a lens from his spectacles.  The abovementioned team members are whisked off to HQ to help resolve the difficulty.  There they learn that Johnston is indeed in the fourteenth century.  It is not, though, our fourteenth century.  They are told that while time travel is not possible, the multiverse theory, in which an infinite number of universes exist, is true.

ITC has discovered a way to send people through a wormhole to a version of 1357 that to all intents and purposes is exactly like ours was; this is done by disassembling individuals and objects, and transporting their code to the other world, utilising the wonders of quantum foam, where they are reassembled.  As one of the ITC employees puts it succinctly: ‘What we have developed is a form of space travel.  To be precise, we use quantum technology to manipulate an orthogonal multiverse coordinate change.’  ITC have been sending ex-military personnel through for some time, with orders to observe but not interact, which is how it was able to supply archaeological data the team had not yet themselves ascertained.

Johnston has gone AWOL back (or rather over) there and ITC wants his associates to exfiltrate him.  They are told the rescue mission will last a couple of hours and they will be accompanied by a pair of trained military escorts (as 1357 is not going anywhere it is not clear what the rush is).  What they are not told is that there are safety issues with the technology; too many trips cause damage at a genetic level – ‘transcription errors’.  David twigs they are not being given full disclosure and elects to stay behind, which is fortunate as he proves to be more use in a crisis than the entire ITC organisation.

Naturally, the plan does not survive first contact with reality.  The group stranded, and the equipment at ITC badly damaged, their chances of returning home appear slim.  While trying to locate Johnston and work out how to get back, they find their assumptions about life during the period of the Hundred Years’ War were not always accurate.  Fortunately, they are able to bring their skills to bear on the constant predicaments inflicted on them (aided by a huge amount of luck) as they race against a deadline imposed in order to inject some tension and keep the pages turning.

Once again Crichton is warning about the dangers of scientific findings used in the wrong way, heedless of consequences, and the ease with which large corporations, unchecked by democratic processes, put profit before safety.  Despite Doniger’s relaxed approach to health and safety, the aim is eventually to monetise the site by making it a time-travel theme park, with others around the world to follow – a kind of Westworld, but going there instead of bringing it here.  In fiction, such hubris is bound to precede the enterprise getting out of hand.  Crichton points up the irony of Doniger claiming that in our inauthentic times the past is authentic, because it is not arranged for the purpose of making a profit, while simultaneously promising to turn it into a commodity.

Quite how ITC’s setup would work in real life is a mystery: considering how many people are involved in the operation, Doniger manages to maintain an admirable level of secrecy.  Any inquisitive journalist is given a bland tour of the facilities guaranteed to cause them to lose interest, when one might expect information to leak to the media and generate considerable buzz faster than one could say ‘Sliders’.  And how Donger thinks governments would allow his vision to be realised once his plans came to fruition, however much cash he splashed, is not addressed.  Officialdom is surprisingly incurious, and it takes an internal coup, with dramatic consequences for Doniger, to stop him.

Clearly Crichton did a lot of research into the period (providing a substantial bibliography to prove it), but the period does not come to life despite his attention to the facts.  The emphasis is on the complicated plot and less on characterisation.  The physics sound superficially plausible, but Crichton is obliged to have an ITC executive drop dollops of techtalk into the narrative, which slows the pace.  Otherwise, narrative progression is busy but jerky.  The book was turned into a not-very-successful film, and with the novel’s frequent, and annoying, cross-cutting of scenes the script was already half-written.

Technically this is not a time-travel novel because they are not going into the past of this world but to a particular period in another quantum universe which has evolved in a remarkably similar manner to our own.  A problem with parallel worlds stories is the assumption they will share an identical evolution to ours, at least until some key event.  This ignores the fact that splitting will have started from the Big Bang, so worlds that look even remotely recognisable will be exceedingly rare, and hard to find.  The technology necessary to send individuals repeatedly to the same period in the same world, one among squillions upon squillions, that is almost precisely like this one was at a specific period in history, then bring them back, would need to be more sophisticated than anything Crichton describes.

Leaving aside the practicalities, by having the action occur in a parallel 1357, Crichton avoids the time-travel grandfather paradox; there is no danger of our present being altered by changes in its past.  But it begs the question how Johnston’s note and spectacle lens ended up being excavated in this one; and how at the novel’s end the group is able to visit the tomb of André (who stayed behind when his colleagues returned) and his wife, when they were buried in the other one.  After the lengthy explanations of the science, and effort to present a credible alternative to hackneyed time-travel plots, it feels like either carelessness, or more probably an unflattering assumption that readers won’t notice.

The Wicked Boy, by Kate Summerscale

Kate Summerscale’s nonfiction The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer (2016) is a detailed examination of a case of matricide, and what happened to the perpetrator.  It opens in an oblique manner, in July 1895 with brothers 13-year-old Robert and 12-year-old Nathanial (known as Nattie) heading out from their terraced home in Plaistow, then in Essex, to watch the cricket at Lord’s.  At this point we do not know how it is they enjoy so much freedom at such a young age.  Only slowly does it become clear why they are seemingly exempt from parental supervision.

Their father, Robert Snr, was working as chief steward on a ship sailing to New York.  The boys told enquirers their mother Emily was visiting relatives in Liverpool as the family had come into a considerable amount of money.  To get ready cash they pawned valuables and went on trips to the seaside and the theatre.  Robert, who was intelligent and had reached a high grade in his education, had already left school but had quit his job at a shipyard after only a fortnight.  Nattie skipped classes as they mimicked the lifestyles of the well-off middle classes.

With funds low, Robert tried without success to obtain an advance from his father’s employer, and wrote a newspaper advertisement requesting a loan and offering generous interest.  They also persuaded a family friend, John Fox, to stay with them on the promise of pay when their mother returned, an adult in the house giving the appearance of normality two boys on their own would not have had.  They also involved him in pawning valuables.  The three slept in the back parlour, even though there were bedrooms upstairs.

The boys’ story began to unravel when relatives became suspicious and established that the boys’ mother was not in Liverpool.  A horrible smell from the house in the intense summer heat led to the discovery of her badly decomposed body lying in bed.  The rather slow Fox found himself caught up in the drama as he was arrested along with the boys.

Robert confessed, saying his mother, who was habitually ‘excitable’, had beat Nattie for stealing food.  The implication of this characterisation is that Emily suffered from mental illness, but financial stresses and the absence of her husband for long periods would also have been a factor, if indeed there had been unduly harsh punishments.   Robert had bought a knife for the purpose of killing her, indicating premeditation.

We follow the trio through the legal process, highlighting the way children were dealt with.  The case attracted widespread public interest, with speculations on Robert’s character and his motives.  This was considered such an unnatural crime that it was thought he might be an atavistic throwback to an earlier period and was a degenerate, tying with current concerns that western civilisation was in a process of degeneration.

His intelligence was not thought to be a counter to the degenerative process, rather his precocity was perhaps actually a symptom of it, plus he may had inherited his mother’s ‘excitability’.  He was also seen as a product of stresses and moral squalor that characterised urban living, and the lack of open-air stimulation afforded to rural children which could turn inwards for lack of a suitable outlet.  Robert stood in for middle-class distrust of the proletariat.

As in later moral panics where child crime was blamed on unsuitable reading and viewing matter, penny dreadfuls, which Robert read avidly, were deemed a deleterious influence.  True, these may have helped to shape his imagination and taste for adventure, but as with later panics, it is not possible to find a direct link between the stories and real-life violence.  They may though have helped to feed into a dissatisfaction with career prospects as a working-class boy that were well below his intellectual capacity.

Fox was cleared, while Nattie was released to his family and became a witness testifying against Robert.  Robert was found guilty but insane, meaning there was no need to delve too far into motives, and he was sent to Broadmoor.  Despite a story of Nattie giving a signal for Robert to commit the murder, the degree of Nattie’s complicity was unclear (I have to confess I was half-expecting a twist, Nattie killing Emily and big brother Robert covering for him).

Ignoring his tender years, there was a current of public opinion which felt Robert had been treated with unjustifiable lenience by not receiving a prison sentence.  The regime at Broadmoor was surprisingly relaxed, the emphasis on treatment, and rehabilitation where possible, achieved through kindness.  Robert worked in the tailoring shop and kept an allotment, but there were opportunities for creative expression.  He played chess and cricket, and his interest in music flourished, enabling him to become a multi-instrumentalist.

In 1912, after 17 years at Broadmoor and now aged 30, he was granted conditional release into the care of the Salvation Army which had a large settlement in Essex.  Here he worked as a tailor and gradually reintegrated into society.  In 1914 he emigrated to Australia, working as a clerk.  Saying farewell to England might have concluded the most interesting part of his life, but the First World War provided a second act.

He volunteered in 1914 and served with distinction.  Always keen on music, he played in the battalion band and was a stretcher bearer (an extremely hazardous role) at Gallipoli and later on the Western Front.  That he survived the entire conflict was remarkable, one of a small number to do so.  He was promoted to sergeant and awarded the Military Medal.  Nattie served as a ship’s stoker.

After the war, Robert returned to Australia and became a market gardener in New South Wales.  Nattie also settled in Australia.  Robert lived a quiet life, but took in a child who was badly treated by his stepfather (family connections which allowed Summerscale to trace details of Robert’s later life).   He died in 1949.

Utilising a wide range of archival sources, Summerscale expands the bare facts of the case to show much more than a sordid murder.  There are insights into Robert’s domestic life and social situation, the shipping industry, the English legal system, how those judged insane were treated, the Australian contribution to the war which forged its sense of nationhood, and the precarious life experienced by those who lived in Australia’s rural areas.

The one element missing is Robert’s own testimony, and we, like the jury, never discover what was going on in his head.  Whatever the reasons, or lack of them, for his crime and bizarre actions immediately afterwards, the verdict was a fortunate one.  In a sense Broadmoor made him.  It equipped him with the skills and character that stood him in good stead for the rest of his life; far more than time in prison would have done.  It was a remarkable journey for someone from the grimy streets of Plaistow.

Soviet Posters, by Maria Lafont and‎ Sergo Grigorian

Republished in the year of the Soviet Union’s centenary, the self-explanatory Soviet Posters (2014, reissued 2022) is a compilation of 22 examples, printed on good quality paper, which can be pulled out and framed.  They are drawn from the Sergo Grigorian Collection, billing itself as ‘the world’s largest publicly accessible private collection of the best Soviet political posters,’ and this is one of several spin-off books the archive has produced.  The short introduction and captions on the back of each poster were written by Moscow-born Maria Lafont.  Some of the posters are well-known (we begin with El Lissitzky’s ultra-virile Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge*), others, especially the later ones when there was a fall-off in graphic quality, less so.

The earliest date from 1919 and the latest from 1980.  However, chronological coverage is patchy, perhaps partly determined by the contents of Grigorian’s collection, with its focus on ‘the best’, or a certain romanticism attached to the pre-Stalin output, which accounts for a large proportion of the total.  There are only a handful produced after the Great Patriotic War, and the 1970s is entirely absent.  The weirdly-named Sacerdotalism is Hiding the Preparation of Intervention. Let’s Strengthen the Forces of the USSR is dated 1931 but it shows a caricature priest under long gun barrels bearing a swastika, illustrating two perceived threats to the regime, surely dating it to after 1933.

Despite the title, the emphasis is Russian, with few references to other Soviet republics.  The exception is Ukraine, and Russian bias is on display, as in the caption accompanying a 1930 poster.  It states, ‘The disruption caused by collectivisation would eventually lead to the Great Famine in Ukraine from 1932-1933,’ implying it was an unforeseen consequence of the implementation of socialist policies rather than the deliberate policy of genocide the Holodomor is now generally recognised (outside Russia) to have been.

Similarly, Metallurgy (1931) is ostensibly about Ukraine, but the focus again is on Russia.  Coloured in blue and yellow, the poster, produced as part of an effort to recruit workers, celebrates Ukraine’s acccelerating industrialisation during the first Five-Year Plan.  Sadly, names such as Zaporizhia and Mariupol, mentioned in the caption, have a different resonance now.  But Lafont goes on to say that production was important because Russia was in competition with the West.  This view of Ukraine as a resource to serve Russia’s needs is deeply embedded.

Lafont emphasises the key role of posters in a society that was largely illiterate in 1917, and their importance right up until perestroika in 1985 when, she says, their propaganda function became obsolete.  By then, one suspects, general cynicism had greatly undermined their powers of persuasion anyway.  Whatever one’s view of the society which produced them, there is no denying their ability to evoke their times, and depict the gradual destruction of the hopes of 1917.

*Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge has a nostalgic significance for me.  I once had a cheap single-sheet calendar, produced by the International Marxist Group in its Red Weekly days, with it as the top half.  When the year concluded I cut off the calendar part and kept the poster, pinned to the wall, for many years.

The Premonitions Bureau, by Sam Knight

Sam Knight’s short 2022 book The Premonitions Bureau: A True Account of Death Foretold is an expansion of an article he wrote for the New Yorker in 2019.  It is only partially about the Premonitions Bureau established by psychiatrist, and Society for Psychical Research, member John Barker and Evening Standard science editor Peter Fairley, much more about Barker and Fairley themselves.

The Bureau was set up following the Aberfan disaster (a tragedy movingly described by Knight) in October 1966, which a number of those affected apparently foresaw.  At the time, Barker was deputy superintendent at Shelton Hospital, a decaying asylum near Shrewsbury which he was trying to modernise with little success.

He had visited Aberfan in the immediate aftermath of the disaster as he was researching a book on being scared literally to death and had heard of a boy who had escaped the slide but later died of shock.  Barker had an interest in topics on the edge of mainstream psychiatric practice, such as Munchausen Syndrome.  Some of his ideas were very much of their time, believing infidelity could be ‘cured’ by aversion therapy using electric shocks, and performing a lobotomy on an intractable patient.

Barker got in touch with Fairley to ask him to print an appeal for anyone who had had a premonition of the Aberfan disaster to write in.  Premonitions could take the form of a dream, waking impression, telepathy or clairvoyance.  Initial results were encouraging so they decided to broaden the scope.  Using the Standard to publicise the project, members of the public were encouraged to send in general premonitions.  These were logged and assessed with a numerical score, using unusualness, accuracy and timing as criteria, to see if they were fulfilled.  Barker was not the only person intrigued by premonitions of Aberfan.  Celia Green’s Institute of Psychophysical Research also made a newspaper appeal, as did the News of the World.

The initial plan was to run the Bureau for a year, but this was later extended, the bulk of the administration being carried out by Fairley’s assistant Jennifer Preston, a remarkable person judging by the brief pen portrait Knight provides.  Both Barker and Fairley considered that some of their contributors had a high hit rate.  Particularly noteworthy were Alan Hencher, a Post Office switchboard operator, and Kathleen Middleton, who taught piano and dance.  Barker, though, proved to have a lower critical threshold than Fairley when it came to fitting premonitions to possible fulfilment, and was quicker to proclaim a hit.

So when Hencher issued a warning to Barker himself that he faced danger and should take care, Barker took him seriously enough to write a four-page memo he titled ‘Some Interesting Predictions and a Possible Death Sentence’ in which he recounted his alarm.  ‘Having recently written a book on people who were “scared to death,” I am perhaps beginning to feel what this would be like,’ he wrote.

Barker died in August 1968, aged 44, his death receiving a three-sentence notice in the SPR’s Journal.  Fairley moved on to other things, and while the Bureau was kept alive by Preston well into the 1970s, eventually it fizzled out.  Of the more than 3,000 submissions, only some 1,200 had been checked, and just over 3% were linked to an event: not a notable success rate for the effort expended.

Knight describes a number of disasters and shows how they fitted in with a prior warning.  Barker speculated that there might exist a ‘pre-disaster syndrome’, individuals who experienced bodily sensations in advance of significant events.  His hope was to establish an early warning system, the Bureau collating predictions using computers to detect patterns in a mass of data with sufficient specificity that alerts could be issued, and disasters averted or mitigated.

However, it proved impossible to determine precise outcomes in advance, and premonitions could only be fitted to a disaster retrospectively.  Significantly, nobody predicted a serious fire leading to loss of life at Shelton in February 1968.  Evaluating the submissions, any potential signal was obscured by the noise of the many which failed to predict anything.  That though did not stop exaggerated newspaper coverage of premonitions claiming the Bureau had produced hits.

Barker thought he was on the verge of a substantial scientific breakthrough that would alter our conception of time.  While noting precognition seems to contravene scientific principles, Knight concedes that curious events do happen which indicate a broader meaning to life.  While he delves into counter-explanations, he could have gone much further.  He notes the obvious paradox when assessing premonitions.  If a premonition occurs and as a result an intervention is made altering the occurrence to which the premonition referred, how is one to know the premonition was accurate?  There was also a toll on the seers, who could find them a burden, feeling obliged to share their foreknowledge yet fearing ridicule if they did.  Such abilities did not make Hencher and Middleton happy.

While maintaining a critical distance, Knight writes sympathetically about Barker, whose research often brought him into conflict with the hospital’s administration.  However, anyone actually wanting a history and analysis of the Premonitions Bureau is going to be disappointed by the misleading title because Knight interweaves it with biographical details, though he misses out Fairley’s work on the spin-offs of Arthur C Clarke’s television series Mysterious World (1980) and World of Strange Powers (1984), and Chronicles of the Strange and Mysterious (1987), all co-written with Simon Welfare, while including numerous tangents of dubious relevance (for example I learned that mediaeval death expert Philippe Ariès had spent his working life at a research institute specialising in tropical fruit, and a young Robin Gibb attributed his survival in a train crash to the fact he could afford to travel first class).

Knight spends a great deal of time describing conditions at Shelton and we learn about Fairley’s successful career as a science writer, focusing largely on the remarkable development of the space programme in the 1960s.  These details, with information on their personal lives, round out the characters of the two protagonists and may engage the general reader who might find a book solely about psychical research dry, but are of lesser interest to those who primarily want to know about the Premonitions Bureau.  There is so much more to be said about the Bureau and the reports it received, but that would have made it a different, and non-New Yorker, type of book.

Having spent some time describing the nocebo effect in relation to Scared to Death and the phenomenon of people thinking they are going to die seemingly as a result of their attitude, one wonders if Knight is hinting this might have been the cause of Barker’s own premature death.  Psychic News made the connection, though his wife pooh-poohed the idea.  But who knows; perhaps it was the Premonitions Bureau in general, and Alan Hencher in particular, that killed him.

By chance I came across a novel by John Barker, not the same one, though.  It is set in London in 1987 and is about dealing cocaine.  Its title is Futures, and the cover features a photograph of an aeroplane high in the sky, both aspects that would have fitted nicely with the Premonitions Bureau.

On a personal note, I remember the Aberfan disaster: it made a big impact on me because I was the same age as many of the victims and, living in leafy south London, I struggled to understand how this terrible thing could have happened to children doing what seemed the safe activity of going to school.  Perhaps the tragedy made me aware for the first time of my mortality.  While I already knew something about death, having watched the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill the year before, I became conscious, as I doubt I had been before, that life could be snuffed out in an instant, and death wasn’t something that only happened to old people.

Further reading:

Barker, J C. ‘Premonitions of the Aberfan Disaster’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 44, No. 734, December 1967, pp. 169-181.

Barker, J.C Scared to Death: An Examination of Fear, its Causes and Effects. London: Frederick Muller, 1968.

‘Doctor who Studied Premonitions Dies – A Year After Receiving Death Prediction’’, Psychic News, No. 1891, 31 August 1968, pp. 1,3.

Knight, Sam. ‘The Psychiatrist who Believed People Could Tell the Future’, The New Yorker, 25 February 2019.

Murdie, Alan. ‘Foreseeing a Disaster? Forgotten Dreams of Aberfan’, Fortean Times,Issue 350, February 2017, pp. 44-51.

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