Sunday, 24 February 2008


There was a wicked little article on British eccentricities in last month's Vanity Fair that - xenophobe that I am - made me itch to suggest that a pretty damn good article could be written on American dottiness...

However, one man's eccentricity is another man's individuality and the British are, if nothing else, highly individual!

I was reminded of this the other week when, on our way to Oxford, we stopped at one of my favourite monuments to the eccentricity...

If you're thinking that that thing, under the scaffolding, looks a bit like a shark, that is because it is, in fact, a ----- SHARK!

If you haven't come across this wonderful oddity, I ought to explain that it should properly be described as a sculpture by John Buckley entitled 'Untitled 1986'!

Made out of painted fibreglass, the shark weighs 203 kilograms, is 25 feet long and is embedded head-first in the roof of 2 New High Street, Headington, Oxford, the home of local radio presenter, Bill Heine.

Mr Hine has been quoted as saying: "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." Which explains why the shark went up (or came down) on August 9, 1986 - the 41st anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

Oxford City Council - discovering that Mr Hine didn't have the necessary planning permission required for the installation of a roof-shark under Section 22 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, did their best to get it removed and even offered to relocate the shark elsewhere - possibly at a swimming pool!

That sage commentator, Bernard Levin, wrote an empassioned article in The Times in which he argued: "There is nothing about smiling in the analects of the planning committee of the Oxford city council, and that august body ruled that it must come down, giving as the reason that it had been put up without planning permission, or more likely just because it was delightful, innocent, fresh and amusing — all qualities abhorred by such committees."

Meanwhile Peter Hine had appealed to the Secretary of State for the Environment (at the time, Michael Heseltine) who sent his inspector, Peter Macdonald, down to Oxford to fish out the facts. Mr Macdonald, a man of perspicacity, duly reported...
The case should be decided on its planning merits, not by resorting to 'utilitarianism', in the sense of the greatest good to the greatest number. And it is necessary to consider the relationship between the shark and its setting .... In this case it is not in dispute that the shark is not in harmony with its surroundings, but then it is not intended to be in harmony with them.

The basic facts are there for almost all to see. Into this archetypal urban setting crashes (almost literally) the shark. The contrast is deliberate ... and, in this sense, the work is quite specific to its setting. As a 'work of art' the sculpture ('Untitled 1986') would be 'read' quite differently in, say, an art gallery or on another site. An incongruous object can become accepted as a landmark after a time, becoming well known, even well loved in the process.

Something of this sort seems to have happened, for many people, to the so-called 'Oxford shark'. The Council is understandably concerned about precedent here. The first concern is simple: proliferation with sharks (and Heaven knows what else) crashing through roofs all over the City. This fear is exaggerated. In the five years since the shark was erected, no other examples have occurred... But any system of control must make some small place for the dynamic, the unexpected, the downright quirky. I therefore recommend that the Headington shark be allowed to remain.
And so it has, celebrating its 21st birthday in August 2007. But as for it's being eccentric, well.....

To read more visit the Headington Shark web-page.




Boll Weavil said...

special guest has to be Buttons right ?

Brian Sibley said...

Er... it was joke, Boll... Just a little one... and not that funny, but then Buttons is a very little bunny!

And quite serious - when you get to know him... :-)

LisaH said...

Of course you can't be at the Oscars because you're too busy appearing on Radio 2 today at 11am (plug, plug).
As to the shark, I've long since come to believe that it's a Mad Mad Planet we live on and nothing has made me change that view.

Boll Weavil said...

saw the picture on your website Mr I'm totally convinced it was Buttons :-)