Residents of the quiet, well ordered and perfectly sensible thoroughfare that is New High Street, Headington, might have been surprised as they pulled back their bedroom curtains on the morning of 9 August 1986.

Protruding out of the roof of Number 2, was the tail-fin of a giant shark.

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Twenty-five feet long and weighing 200 kilos, the fibreglass fish was the work of sculptor John Buckley. It had been commissioned by local radio presenter, Bill Heine, into whose terraced dwelling it appeared to have crashed from the heavens.

‘The shark was to express someone feeling totally impotent and ripping a hole in their roof out of a sense of impotence and anger and desperation,’ Heine declared. ‘It’s saying something about CND, nuclear power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki.’

It was, indeed, 41 years to the day that an atom bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki, a date hitherto un-etched in the consciousness of Mr Heine’s neighbours, but never again to go unremarked.

News of the shark raced around the world’s press, even making it into the pages of the Afghan edition of the China Daily. Bernard Levin in The Times, described it as a ‘splendid, fibreglass wheeze’. The overnight appearance of Headington’s newest (headless) resident wasn’t greeted with universal joy, however. There were dark murmurings, and talk of it as an ‘ugly absurdity’, ‘hideous blot’, ‘ridiculous and offensive erection’. One councillor declared tremulously, ‘we can’t let him keep the shark up there – otherwise everyone will want one!’ John Power, Chair of the Planning Committee at Oxford City Council, was particularly exercised, declaring himself willing to ‘fight with every drop of my blood to see that it is torn down’. But his attempts to do so (first on grounds of health and safety and then because it contravened planning laws) were resisted.

Debate raged for six years through council, courts and, eventually, Cabinet. Delivering his considered verdict, Her Majesty’s Planning Inspector advised the Department of the Environment that ‘an incongruous object can become accepted as a landmark after a time, becoming well known, even well loved in the process’. He went on to suggest that fear of a subversive precedent being set, with the consequent risk of a roof-top managerie, was probably exaggerated.

posh fish shopfront - Shark!His calm words proved sage. Only one new fibreglass creature has since appeared in Headington, a smaller and altogether less imposing homage to its acrobatic brother, swimming mid-air above a nearby fish and chip shop.

In 2011 the shark’s silver jubilee was marked with a decorous street party and the publication of a tastefully designed commemorative volume, The Hunting of the Shark, which documents its story in fascinating detail.

‘It is beautiful, it’s surprising, it’s funny, it’s poetic; it cheers me up whenever I go past it,’ said Philip Pullman. ‘It is quite obviously a work of art, and one which is unique to Oxford. No other city that I know has anything like it. We’ve got a wealth of antiquity here, beautiful buildings by the score, but we’re not so well off for contemporary art that we can afford to destroy this wonderful fish.’

A case perhaps of shark for art’s sake?

This Story is posted in honour of Bill Heine, broadcaster, journalist, provocateur and deep appreciator of Oxford, who died on 3 April 2019, aged 74.

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Headington, it would appear, is acquiring an exciting new sea-creature. Mark Russell explains:

We felt our front hedge was a bit boring. Being so close to the Headington Shark and Posh Fish we decided to continue the aquatic theme. We got in topiarist Jethro Hyde-Sheppard and the whale slowly began to take shape. It’s been 3 years of cutting so far – he told us it would be slow and the whale would slowly reveal itself. – MR

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Many years on, the Shark continues to provoke. James Harrison reports a surreal new twist in the tale – or should that be fin?

The owner of No. 2 New High Street, Headington, is now Bill Heine’s son, Magnus. He has declared that he wants the Shark to be removed from his roof. But the Council have given it official listed status as a heritage asset! Magnus is quoted as saying that ‘Using the planning apparatus to preserve a historical symbol of planning law defiance is absurd’ and ‘exactly the opposite point’ of the original conception. Colin Cook, heritage champion on the City Council concedes: ‘There is an intellectual argument to be had about the Council protecting something it was originally trying to get rid of.’

The shark, it would seem, retains its capacity to bite. JH

We recently heard from Magnus Heine-Hanson. He has created a website where members of the public are free to make general enquiries about the house: www.headingtonshark.com, and below he offers a more nuanced explanation for his position.

I didn’t want the Shark to be removed. I love it both as a piece of art, and as something that personally reminds me of who my dad was. I consider myself something of a steward of it in that respect. However, a large part of the Shark House was intentional opposition to government censorship, particularly of public artwork through the planning laws, to not let bureaucrats decide what kind of art the public is and (critically in this case) is not allowed to see. The freedom to remove it, much like the freedom for it to be there in the first place, is therefore absolutely integral to the artwork itself, and perhaps more broadly to a free and open society. The heritage laws are again just the planning laws, but with the opposite intent. When they decide they don’t like something, you can’t put it up, and when they decide they like something, you can’t take it down; but both of those things miss the fundamental point that it isn’t (or shouldn’t) be up to those people to decide or force their opinions onto others. – MHH

Meanwhile, we were delighted to receive this photograph of the bronze maquette made by the sculptor John Buckley.
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Morris Oxford might perhaps be interested to note the Croydon Marlin which was, I think, more or less contemporaneous with the Headington Shark. The Marlin apparently provoked numerous comments from the neighbours who complained of the smell of rotting fish, erroneously assuming that it was a real, stuffed marlin. It was of course fibreglass. I think. The owner drove up to Croydon Town Hall in an armoured car to protest about something or other. (Probably the neighbours…)

I can’t find it on the internet but I’m sure I’m not making it up. Sam Kendon

Stephanie Jenkins of Headington writes:

In 2012 the city council also made Posh Fish apply for retrospective planning permission for its shark, but had obviously learnt its lesson, as it swiftly approved it, saying, ‘This proposal is considered to add visual interest to the street scene. No objections have been received and the proposal is considered to form an acceptable form of advertisement in this commercial area.’ SJ

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