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The long hard fight to save the Headington shark
It seems like yesterday. But, as with so many of my ‘yesterdays’, this one was decades ago. In fact it was as far back as August 7, 1986, that Bill Heine and I lunched in the sunshine at the Abingdon Arms, in Beckley, and he told me of his intention, two days later, to surprise the world with an enormous fibre-glass shark crashing through the roof of his Headington home.
I returned to the office that afternoon clutching John Buckley’s drawing of what Jaws — as his 25ft sculpture had yet to be christened — was going to look like. As can be seen (below), it bears a remarkable similarity to what was soon to become one of the city’s most famous — for some most infamous — landmarks.
So bizarre was the image, however, that my bosses — to whom I obviously showed it — did not believe the thing would come to be in real life. Their scepticism was perhaps surprising considering that John had already given Oxford the bizarre black-and-white striped can-can legs adorning Bill’s Not the Moulin Rouge Cinema on the opposite side of New High Street.
They learned soon enough that when this pair say they’ll do it, they do it. As a chilly Saturday dawned (and it was at dawn, or just after, that the big fish descended through the tiles) the roofscape of Headington was altered in a way at once surprising and spectacular.
I was there to witness and to report. The sight of the shark for me brought instant delight as had, some years before, my first glimpse, in situ, of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which likewise causes mirth, even as it startles.
My photographer colleague George Reszeter rushed back to the office with pictures that were recognised at once to eclipse in news value the other big story of the moment — the decision of a local Conservative club to deny membership to five Chinese restaurant workers.
The front page of the Oxford Mail was cleared and my story awaited, rather anxiously. These were days, remember, not only of casual racism but of journalists obliged to work without an invaluable tool of the trade still to be invented, the mobile telephone.
With plenty of time to spare, though, my copy was filed from a call box. By mid-morning the Mail was on the streets with a banner headline welcoming A FRIGHT ON THE TILES! Similar headlines, similar stories, were soon being printed around the world.
But, of course, this was only the start of the tale as far as Jaws was concerned. What one Headington neighbour rather cleverly referred to as “a short shark shock” soon transformed into “a controversy that will run and run”, in the words of an Oxford Times editorial.
The reason for this, simply put, was the determination of a number of members of Oxford City Council to have the shark removed as an blatant infringement, as they saw it, of the local planning laws.
The story of this persecution is told — and told brilliantly — by Bill in his splendid new book The Hunting of the Shark (oxfordfolio, £14.99), published to coincide with the 25th birthday of the shark. Copies are available (in that odd phrase) ‘in all good bookshops’ and online (www.oxfordfolio.co.uk).
I read the impeccably produced and superbly illustrated 144-page volume at a sitting, revelling both in the strangeness of the story — many twists of which I had utterly forgotten — and in the wit and style of the writing (both qualities, I might add, that also apply to the shark as a work of art).
The clashes between two forces implacably — often comically — opposed reminded me of those involving the mayor and the religious authorities, over the matter of a controversial public urinal, in Gabriel Chevallier’s Clochmerle. With this classic French novel — unjustly rather forgotten these days — I have no hesitation in comparing Bill’s fine, hugely recommended book.
The shark’s most implacable hunter, styled ‘Captain Ahab’ by Bill, was the former chairman of the city council’s planning committee, my old friend John Power. He proved adept at dishing abuse, telling the Oxford Mail: “I am against a narcissistic Disneyland fantasy and I will fight with every drop of my blood to see that it is torn down from the roof.”
In turn, he was also obliged to take flak, including some from the country’s sharpest master of journalistic invective, Bernard Levin. He saw John’s behaviour as an illustration of a noticeable phenomenon in public life: “The less the power, the greater the desire to exercise it.” (Were Levin alive today he might observe the same in the attitude of local councils which, having been steadily stripped of authority in so many areas, now set out to persecute the public in matters over which they still exercise control — say, rubbish collection.) Another of the shark’s ‘big name’ supporters was novelist Philip Pullman. He said: “It is beautiful, it’s surprising, it’s funny, it’s poetic; it cheers me up whenever I go past it.”
At one point in the long debate over Untitled, 1986, the sculpture’s official name, its creator John Buckley reminded us that sharks were “one of our most feared and mysterious beasts”. This opinion has been underlined as a consequence of the recent death of honeymooner Ian Redmond in the Seychelles.
There is also a curious synchronicity in the book’s publication at a time when General Gaddafi is again so much in the news. The bombing of his Tripoli home by American aircraft in April 1986, with the death of his daughter Hannah, was one of the inspirations behind the commissioning of the shark.
As Bill said in his very first interview with me on the subject: “The day I signed the contract [to buy 2 New High Street] the Americans bombed Libya and a few weeks later [came] the Chernobyl disaster. Both showed houses were no longer safe, and I though I would underline the point by having a shark crashing through the roof of mine.”