Castaway Culture: on my desert island

Richard Shaw (Photo submitted)

I must admit that the idea of being cast away with just some books and music seems very appealing. Deciding which to choose, however, is a much more daunting endeavour.

As with the original Desert Island Discs, I take the Bible and Shakespeare for granted. Equally, given the time I have spent with Bede’s Ecclesiastical History since I changed careers a decade ago, I am going to presume that this also washed ashore with me. My father introduced me to the work when I was nine and it has been part of my life ever since.

So, I have narrowed my literary choices down to five. First: The Lord of the Rings. I have always enjoyed books, thanks to my mother faithfully reading me a chapter a night before bed every day as a child. But The Lord of the Rings is the novel which more than any other helped me fall in love with reading at that crucial cusp moment between childhood and adolescence. I vividly remember, aged 12, devouring it after lights out at my boarding school, squinting at the pages I could only see by moonlight, so desperate was I to follow the adventures of Frodo and the Fellowship.

Next would be Dante’s Divine Comedy. Few works in all of world literature can compare to this masterpiece – one of the monuments of Western Civilization and proof that the Medieval period was no ‘Dark Age’.

My third choice would be by Barry’s Bay author and artist Michael O’Brien. I first encountered his writings when, after two degrees at Oxford, I was a journalist in London; now I work alongside him at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, the college he helped to found!

Fr Elijah is Michael’s best-known book, but I want Strangers and Sojourners on my desert retreat. This will become, I believe, an enduring classic of Canadian literature. A sprawling tale of a family wrestling with the wilderness and the many challenges of life and death, Strangers and Sojourners is a testimony to the human struggle. Exciting, engaging and even amusing by turns, it speaks truth on every page.

After journalism I joined the British Foreign Office. There I specialized in Middle Eastern issues and learned Arabic. Living in Jordan for four years, I saw firsthand the places Lawrence of Arabia describes in my fourth book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his account of the World War I Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. At its core Seven Pillars is an inspirational exploration of a man – and the inner workings of a man – whose vision and courage, despite his intense self-examination and doubt, achieved more than others ever imagined conceivable.

I enjoyed the Foreign Office and especially Amman, where my two eldest children were born, but diplomacy left little time for my primary vocations as father and husband. So, in 2008 we came to Canada, my wife’s native land, and I began a doctorate in medieval history. We focussed our lives on our children and on bringing them up as well as we could, with me, as father, very much present and involved in my (now five) children’s lives, and with my wife, who received her doctorate (in Archaeology) ten years before me – to go along with her four other degrees – educating the children at home. This explains my last book: The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer.

My wife designs her own curriculum, taking what she has collected from the best of a wide range of Canadian and international examples, but The Well-Trained Mind, which prioritizes helping children to learn to think creatively and analytically and to come, independently, to well-supported conclusions, remains one of the roots of our approach. The work is a wonderful guide for anyone contemplating ‘home-schooling’, or even for those who are just interested in understanding it from the outside.

Musical accompaniment for my exile’s little library would include Oasis’s Don’t Look Back in Anger ­– a throwback to my Oxford days. Roxette’s Fading Like a Flower, takes me back to being 13 years old when I spent a month at school in Spain. Bruce Springsteen would have to be there: “Born to Run”. Many movie soundtracks could help me happily pass the time: Pirates of the Caribbean would seem the most apt. For classical music, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. And one more song – Adele’s Rolling in the Deep. This always reminds me of my wife, Christine; if I couldn’t have her with me on my lonely island, I would still like to think about her.


About the Author: Richard Shaw, has been Chairman of the History Department at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College since 2013. He lives in Barry’s Bay with his family and is also on the Board of Directors at St Francis Memorial Hospital. His first book, “The Gregorian Mission to Kent in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History” was published in 2018.

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