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.
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.
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.