Vane

(creator: John Fuller)


John Fuller
Vane (as he is referred to throughout) is a (presumably) late medieval priest, marked by a silver cross hanging round his neck, who has been sent by his bishop as his personal emissary to investigate the strange lack of pilgrims on a remote Welsh island with a miraculous well. He is an energetic, if mysterious, searcher after truth, and faithful servant of his bishop, but we discover surprisingly little else about him, except that he seems to feel sympathy for the missing pilgrims' families and priests. But he is certainly not a man to be trifled with.

John Fuller (1937- ) is the son of the poet Roy Fuller. He was educated at St. Paul's School, and New College, Oxford, where. after lecturing in New York and Manchester, he became Fellow of Magdalen College. He has published many books of poetry, and was the winner of the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize (1974) and the Southern Arts Literature Award (1980). He is married with three daughters. Flying to Nowhere was his first work of adult fiction. He went on to write other novels, as well as books for children. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and lives in Oxford.

Flying to Nowhere (1983)
Flying to Nowhere is set in late medieval times on a Welsh island with monastery, farm and miraculous well. There is an Abbot who is much occupied in dissecting bodies to discover "the precise physical seat of the human soul", as well as novices who never seem to end up as monks, and farm girls who gather in the harvest then exchange dormitory tales of sexuality and flight. "I'm flying to nowhere," explains one of the girls. "I'm just becoming myself." And pilgims no longer come to the island, perhaps because those who came earlier never left it.

Vane has been sent by the bishop to investigate. But first he loses his horse, Saviour, who tries to leap ashore and perishes. So is he vain and does he lose his saviour? Things are not as simple as that. He meets the Abbot and asks why there are no pilgrims. "Ah," said the Abbott carefully. "That is a deep question." That first evening Vane "prayed for guidance in his undertaking". He was going to need it.

"You have no register of pilgrims," Vane complains to the Abbot, who seems quite uninterested in their fate. "Pilgrimage," the Abbot tells him, "is a symbolic act, is it not? It is only the outward sign of an inward direction. It is the earnest of our spiritual condition, a manifestation of the natural tendency of life to seek its fulfilment. Life is not a condition for which, I think you will admit, there is any cure." But, if there is no cure at the miraculous well, what arrangements do they make to bury the dead?
"The usual arrangements," said the Abbot. But Vane can only find 3 graves for 26 missing pilgrims. But he does discover the body of a drowned man.
He gets no sense from the Abbot: "He had for some time reached the conclusion that he (the Abbot) was not serious, and had decided that the best course was to humour him, and to remain watchful."

Beneath all this, there is a core of hard reality. A dying farm woman, the Abbot's one-time lover (?), Mrs Ffedderbompau, asks the Abbot, "Why am I inside myself and not somewhere else?"
"The Abbot smiled faintly, his hands on his knees, leaning back in the uncomfortable chair. He was prepared for kind words, unusual feelings, even for confessions, efforts at truth. But her question was too close to his own enquiries to be easily pursued."
"I am a victim of what I can see, feel, hear," she continued. "But why should I be?"
"Why indeed?" murmured the Abbot. There are no glib answers in this story.

The time comes for the ceremonial ordination/ordeal of a novice. The Abbot preaches a sermon against flying: "What is the temptation that every monk must put behind him? It is the temptation to forget that he is dust. It is the temptation to fly. Remember that spending with women is a struggle from roots, an attempt to fly. A man who uses the grape is a man who tries to fly .... Remember that uttering strange sounds in the wind is an attempt to fly. A man who cannot keep his silence is a man who tries to fly." So "Be secret, tread soberly and know not women."
Yet "when he had finished his sermon, the Abbot was ashamed, because he knew he had lied. 'It is no wonder,' he said to himself, 'that I am misunderstood. I hardly understand myself, for that is not what I meant to say at all.' "

Then the novice is put to his final trial and next morning women approach his bedchamber carrying sharp knives and bowls of water. Just what is going on? Vane does not know because, stripped to the waist, he had been busy excavating the courtyard, unearthing strange channels that seemed to lead to trhe Abbot's quarters. What is the Abbot up to?

It's an extraordinary story told in a fascinating way, strange, powerful and mystical. It is very short but full of interest. It is, the blurb explains, "a fable about everybody's feeling that the body is insufficient and that there ought to be the possibility of some sort of miraculous escape from it." Highly original, whether you find it profound or pretentious, and a book you can't put down. Recommended.

See the British Council page about the author, and, for a full list of his books, the fantasticfiction site.



Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!



Return to CONTENTS LIST

Flying to Nowhere cover
The stylish cover hints at the author's imaginative approach. The anatomical drawing of the horse is particularly appropriate in a story in which dissection plays such a major part.
Return to
CONTENTS LIST