The Hunting of the Shark


The Hunting of the Shark

In August 1986 a 25-foot fibreglass shark was ceremoniously lowered through the roof of a terraced house in Oxford, and triggered a quixotic battle of wills that dragged on for six exhausting years. Commissioned by the writer Bill Heine and made by sculptor John Buckley, the Headington Shark tested British wit and wisdom to its limits all the way to the Cabinet Office and back. ‘The Hunting of the Shark’ written by Bill and just published by Oxford Folio tells the blow-by-blow story of the shark’s journey from eyesore or work of art (depending on your point of view) to national treasure.

Bill intended the Shark to be a beautiful statement of outrage against institutionalised violence and the stupidity of authority, and to challenge those who commit acts of aggression in our name. It also called into question ‘safe’. How safe can safe ever be? The Shark’s installation marked the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, and from his home in New High Street – Headington, Bill could hear the US Air Force F-11 squadrons taking off from Upper Heyford to drop bombs on the roofs of Tripoli. A few weeks after the Shark’s arrival, Chernobyl exploded contaminating 100,000 sq km of the Ukraine and the citizens of Kiev with invisible radioactivity. And only 35 km to the south of Oxford, boffins at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston were busy manufacturing nuclear warheads for the Trident missile system. Throughout this book, Bill thinks out loud about quality of life, the greater context, and how art can help us get our preoccupations into perspective:

‘There was a feeling of unease, frustration, fear and fury that these things could have happened. There was an apprehension that something similar might happen in the comfortable leafy lanes of Oxford. The unthinkable might take place once again…perhaps right before our eyes in our own street…in my house.’

Sharks have long been symbols for our deepest subliminal fears and employed by artists to cut to the quick of the human condition. The skimming fin is often used by political cartoonists to indicate hidden threats, or carnivorous capitalism, or the impending doom of a ministerial career.

It’s no coincidence that the first JAWS movie (1975) was in production during the shocking revelations of the Watergate scandal. Satirical lampoons of the time showed President Nixon being shredded by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – the investigative sharks of the Washington Post. News of cloak & dagger conspiracies, illegal phone tapping, wiped tapes, hush money (and even a Deep Throat would you believe) revealed the White House in a meltdown of corruption.

We mythologize the shark to neutralise it through tales of miraculous escapes, and inebriated debates about precisely where to punch a shark to debilitate it. Shark’s grins used to be painted on the noses of fighter planes to boost pilots’ testosterone and give them that killer instinct, and powdered shark’s teeth are still prized ingredients for aphrodisiac potions.Five years after the Headington Shark’s appearance, Damien Hirst pickled a Great White in an armour-plated case of formaldehyde.

‘The Hunting of the Shark’ is a glorious saga of vociferous neighbours, media hysteria and squabbling councillors versus passionate fans who adored the sheer nerve of the Headington Shark. The phenomenon attracted support from artists, old age pensioners, social commentators, architects, school children, shopkeepers, influential columnists, university professors and even the Chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain. The writer Philip Pullman who is no stranger to shark infested waters for his criticism of religious propaganda and government encroachment on civil liberties said, ‘It is beautiful, it’s surprising, it’s funny; it cheers me up whenever I go past.’ The Shark captured the imagination of people around the world fed up with the generic mediocrity of the suburban environment. Factions divided roughly into three groups: Those who loathed its rebellious mischievousness and thought that a shark sticking out of a roof and civilised society were not compatible. Those who objected on the grounds that planning permission had never been applied for – or granted. And those who considered it to be an important political and aesthetic statement that was beyond planning permission.

Oxford’s building control officers and planning committees conspired to rid the dreaming spires of this unwelcome gatecrasher and writs flew. But parochial law was not designed to cope with anything like it, and the Shark became a hot potato that was passed from department to department hoping someone might find a neat way to dispose of it. The Oxford newspapers loved the controversy and kept the debate on fire through all the death sentences and stays of execution. Bill parried attacks with eloquent responses: an Enforcement Notice demanding the removal of the Shark and reinstatement of the roof was met with Flaubertian ruminations on the meaning of holes.

Oxford City Council eventually decided to prosecute on the grounds that the Shark was a ‘development’ and contravened planning regulations. Bill’s solicitor told the Magistrate’s Court that it was a sculpture over which the local authority had no jurisdiction, and moved that the case be elevated to Oxford Crown Court. Five months later Judge Peter Crawford QC dismissed Bill’s barrister’s defence that the Shark was a work of art and ordered Bill to pay fines and costs, and in 1990 planning permission was denied. The only recourse left to Bill was to request a Public Enquiry. His evidence to the bemused wigs and gowns reiterated the political origins of the Headington Shark, and argued that because of its overwhelming popularity and creative credentials it should be given special consideration.


‘This piece of sculpture is a fundamental transformation of the house into a plinth for an object that challenges the very idea of what we mean by home. We wanted to bring art into the public street where people could live with it, feel it and respond to the power of that art. We wanted art to become a part of everyday life, to make people look afresh at their environment and enhance it. The image has a sympathetic edge to it. One could feel respect for a beautiful powerful animal and sorrow at its absurd predicament of being caught in the jaws of this house.  Part of the power of the Shark is that it doesn’t answer questions but rather presents us with new ways of seeing things. People respond to this challenge with a wealth of reactions that often start with a smile.’

Bill borrowed criteria the council use to determine the appropriateness of planning applications to show that the Shark had been sensitively designed to blend in with the surrounding infrastructure. An unexpected ally at the Enquiry (an expert on gargoyles and grotesques) asserted that Oxford has a rich tradition of sensational sculptures and cited the 14th century strangulated Green Man in Merton Chapel, the squatting money urinating into the drain above the entrance to Magdalen College, and the celebrated gurning ugly-mugs adorning the railings of the Sheldonian Theatre. The fate of the Shark was eventually consigned to a decision by the Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Howard, who granted planning permission in 1992. ‘The Hunting of the Shark’ concludes with Bill’s wistful reflections on being a rebel, and the ominous promise of something even bigger to come.

‘The Shark odyssey started out with howls of outrage and abuse. The Headington Shark has been nominated as an icon of England and alongside Stonehenge, Coronation Street and the original Cowley built Mini. When I am walking home and see a robin perched on the dorsal fin, silhouetted against the sky and singing its heart out, I still get shivers down my spine after 25 years. 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.’



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