Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.
1 John 4:4
I can see him now in my mind’s eye – his short body bent double as he lifted one clod of earth after another in the garden. He would ease out the earth-worms gently, and lay them carefully, one by one, in the mustard tin to join the slimy, wriggling mass already there. Then he would straighten up and be off post-haste to the barn to collect his fishing tackle, and away he would go to the river.
That was Howel Wood, one of the last Romanyspeaking Romany gypsies. He stayed with us in Pantyneuadd, my old home near Bala, for nearly forty years. His father’s only possessions were a cart, and a mule, and a tent – nothing so luxurious as a caravan. After all, you could take a tent much nearer to the river, right to the water’s edge! Howel appeared many times on television programmes; once he danced a clog dance in one of Emlyn Williams’ films – The Last Days of Dolwyn. While in the studio in London one day he saw that it was raining, and it was all that they could do to keep him from going home to his tackle and the fish and the river.
Fishing was Howel’s chief interest. Follow him now, with me, to the river. As he comes within sight of it, he breaks into a trot. It is all-important, you see, to catch the first swelling of the flooding river and to offer the bait to the fish before they are surfeited. How carefully he puts the worm on the hook – there is none of the hook to be seen as he casts it into the water. No, not to the turbulent mid-stream, but into the little still pools. That is where the fish are to be found when the river is in spate. It is easy to know when the fish is hooked: there is a sudden pull on the line, and the force of the pull tells the size of the fish. Howel knows very well that he must on no account try to pull the fish out suddenly; if it is of any size at all it will break the line, and the hook and the fish will be lost. He will pull it slowly upstream, and when the line becomes slack, he knows he can land the fish safely.
If the day were fine and the water clear, Howel would go down to the riverside and take careful note of the kind of fly that skimmed the surface of the water. If he did not already have a similar ‘fly’ stuck in his cap, or tucked into the little wallet that he used for the purpose, he would go to it to make one, with the help of the tail hairs of a squirrel and the feathers of the domestic hen. He would then bind the whole safely to the hook with a silken thread of the appropriate colour.
He was a past master at casting the fly, so that it lay gently on the surface of the water, floating, so naturally, with the help of a piece of cork. He himself would then crouch silently behind the stump of a tree, or hidden in some convenient hollow in the bank. It was very interesting to watch him; but on a good fine day Howel would soon let you know that he could do without your company. He was afraid that our voices and our movements would scare the fish and distract their attention – the water being so clear – from the one important thing, the bait.
Howel’s family had spent their lives studying the ways of fish. They understood how they would react in all manner of different circumstances. They gave all they had to the work of trying to tempt and allure the fish to allow themselves to be caught. Alas for the fish! They were hard put to it to evade all the tricks.
As I thought of Howel, I could not help thinking of the one who tempts us, too. The devil knows a great deal about us. (But, God be thanked, he does not know all.) See him in the Garden of God. How craftily he used his bait with the first man! He knows all our leanings, our strength and our weakness – how disheartened we often feel as we swim, always against the currents of the age. He knows how to disguise the hook, and what bait will appeal to our palate; which fly we are most likely to swallow almost unconsciously, and where and when to cast his hooked line. Alas for us!
But there is One that he has never been able to deceive or to charm – One who has vanquished the devil and all his evil plans.
A safe stronghold our God is still,
A trusty shield and weapon;
He’ll help us clear from all the ill
That hath us now o’ertaken.
The ancient prince of hell
Hath risen with purpose fell;
Strong mail of craft and power
He weareth in this hour;
On earth is not his fellow.
With force of arms we nothing can,
Full soon were we down-ridden;
But for us fights the proper Man,
Whom God Himself hath bidden.
Ask ye, Who is this same?
Christ Jesus is His Name,
The Lord Sabaoth’s Son;
He, and no other one,
Shall conquer in the battle.
And were this world all devils o’er,
And watching to devour us,
We lay it not to heart so sore;
Not they can overpower us.
And let the prince of ill
Look grim as e’er he will,
He harms us not a whit:
For why? His doom is writ;
A word shall quickly slay him.
Martin Luther tr. Thomas Carlyle
Mari Jones, In the Shadow of Aran