A few years back, Bill published a book about his adventures with the Headington Shark. I wrote a review of it, but unfortunately, someone else beat me to it, so my review was never published. It seems like a good time to fish it out and put it up here.
The Hunting of the Shark – The story behind the tale that crash landed on an unsuspecting suburban street by Bill Heine. Pbk. 144pp. Oxfordfolio Publications. ISBN 978-0-9567405-2-6. 2011
I’m sure we all know what the Headington Shark is and I suspect some will say this is not a folly but a prank or an artwork, but no matter, it’s something that will bring a smile to most of our faces, partly for what it looks like but mostly because- he did it and got away with it. For all of us who would love to build something huge and outrageous but are too afraid of the neighbours, the planners or the dent in our bank balances , we must surely admire someone who had the gall to just chop a hole in his roof and have a huge shark lowered in at crack of dawn without a word to the neighbours. And really if you have yen to do something like this, there’s really no point in asking permission as the answers will range from a straight no to complete confusion at the question. Only by putting it there first and then waiting to see what the response is, can you really gauge what people think. In fact the reaction varied from initial fear and outrage to a general fondness, then to an almost wholesale acceptance, culminating it in being added to the official town tourist map.
This book is not really so much about the shark itself as about people’s reactions , the working of local government and mostly about the strange psychology that leads people to make huge unfounded assumptions based purely on their own feelings. Heine was dragged through numerous council meetings and court cases over many years before he finally got approval, and along the way there were several points at which he thought he’d gone as far as he could go and would have to remove it. But somehow there was always just one more argument he’d try or another helpful academic or neighbour who would speak up for him and the case rumbled on. The length of the proceedings was helped by the fact that none of the various council committees could decide if it was a good thing or a bad thing and consequently decisions were passed on to a higher committee who then couldn’t decide and so threw it back to another committee and so on. While many councillors and planners , aided by a growing number of the public and the press expressing their love of the shark, gradually change their minds, only John Power , chair of the planning committee, continues to doggedly oppose the shark at all turns and continues to peddle various false arguments such as ‘ if we let this one through it’ll open the floodgates to others’ (despite the fact that the shark has now been there for 25 years no other rooftop sharks or other objects have sprung up); ‘it’ll cause property prices to slump in the area’ (shortly afterwards a survey showed prices in the same street had risen more than Oxford in general and estate agents were using the shark to promote houses ‘with excellent views of the shark’); or that ‘life is hell for the residents of the street’(again a petition of support signed by over 3,000 people including 51 residents of the street is ignored and some local people say they enjoy chatting to strangers who walk down the street to take a look and it brightens up a dull area). This attitude of ‘ignore all evidence if it contradicts what I think’ is prevalent to the point that a man who complains that he lives opposite and has to look at the hideous thing all day in fact rents out the property and lives ten miles away. The lady at the public enquiry who makes an impassioned plea on behalf of the elderly residents of an old people’s home at the end of the street that makes them sound so upset and distressed that Bill seriously thinks he has gone too far, until the following day when one of said residents staggers to the stand with a zimmer frame and says that she and many of her fellow residents like the shark and that they have been bullied by the owner into signing a petition against it, to the extent that some signatures are forged. Human psychology in all its peculiarities is on display here and it’s all down to one basic premise –the shark isn’t normal, it doesn’t fit, there is no category for it and so it must go. Thank goodness for the various artists, architects, academics and generally imaginative people who stood up and defended the unusual. There is certainly enough material for a stage play here.
A most enjoyable book which has parallels with the court case that tried to stop the Forbidden Corner from opening. The best part is his closing line “The sculptor John Buckley and I have something else up our sleeves, and if we pull this one off, it will make the Shark look like small fry.” Sadly this never came to pass.