It’s amazing what people can get accustomed to. Locals living in Headington, a quiet suburb on the eastern edge of Oxford, don’t seem to notice the 25 foot long headless shark embedded in the roof space of an otherwise undistinguished terraced house. The head turning and furrowed brows are now the preserve of outsiders who gaze quizzically at the fibreglass fish then look skywards as if the beast has crashed down from the heavens. But this fishy protrusion is not in place by accident and from the time it was craned into position on 9th of August 1986 the shark swam into a wave of controversy.
The owner of the house with the new finned extension was Bill Heine, an American expat who had commissioned sculptor John Buckley to create the piece. If Bill’s desire was to generate publicity he very quickly achieved his goal as pictures of the shark went from Oxford to Fleet Street and then around the world. Camera crews and the curious followed all questioning the motives behind the eccentric project. Bill replied that the shark, actually named ‘untitled’, was a comment on Cold War politics having been installed on the 41st anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. He told journalists,
“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….It is saying something about CND, nuclear, power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki. “
For many locals and council officials this artistic explanation did not provide Heine with the freedom to lower the tone and possibly the house prices in the area. At first the shark was hunted on the grounds that it posed a danger to public safety, but engineering reports on the girders supporting the structure suggested otherwise. The council decided they needed a ’bigger boat’ so used failure to comply with section 22 of the Town and Country Planning Act as grounds for removal. While the debates on the future of the shark became mired in council committees local people slotted into pro and anti camps. The shark was either a harmless bit of fun or an unlawful eyesore. Heine proved adept at stalling for time and in 1991 appealed to Michael Heseltine, then secretary of state for the environment, for clemency. In 1992 Heseltine’s inspector Peter Macdonald ruled in favour of the sculpture and the shark was free to remain a fish out of water.
In the time since then the much feared proliferation of similar structures has not taken place and the roofs of Oxford are not bursting with doppelgangers. In retrospect the fuss surrounding the shark seems incredible given the freedom with which thousands have been allowed to bolt ugly satellite dishes to the side of their houses. Now the shark is a landmark, photographed and ignored in equal measure, a symbol of individualism and glorious silliness.
How to get there
The shark can be spotted at 2 New High Street, Headington, Oxford, OX3 7AQ. The property is still owned by Bill Heine and is situated just off the London Road, the main eastern approach into the city. Look out for the Royal Standard pub on the corner. Google map.
For more information on the history of the sculpture and some of Bill Heine's other projects see the Headington website.