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The Headington Shark, Oxfordshire, England

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The Headington Shark.

Many people think of erecting satellite dishes on their houses to pick up extra television channels, while others install solar panels to create energy to use in their houses, but who would think of putting up fibreglass constructions of a pair of legs, hands and a shark on their buildings? Oxford Radio presenter Bill Heine, that's who.

Causing Controversy

Bill Heine grew up in America and worked in Washington DC, before moving to Oxfordshire where he studied law at Balliol College. He bought two cinemas in East Oxfordshire: the Penultimate Picture Palace, in Cowley, which he adorned with a fibreglass structure of white gloves like Al Johnson's; and the Moulin Rouge near his home in Headington, where he had a pair of legs doing the Can-Can embedded in the building. When Oxford City Council accused him of being in breach with the development regulations and asked him to therefore remove the legs, Heine refused and changed the name of his cinema in Headington to 'Not the Moulin Rouge' so as to imply that he wasn't using the fibreglass legs as advertising. The legs only moved once, and that was to Brighton in 1994, after the cinema in Headington had closed down.

The Shark is Born

Despite Heine's run-in with Oxford City Council regarding the fibreglass legs on his cinema, he was determined to prove a point with his own Victorian house and commissioned the same artist who had done the other fibreglass constructions, John Buckley, to come up with a piece for it. On turning to his sketchbook that he used during his travels along the coast road from Egypt to Sudan, Buckley soon had an idea. The sketchbook was a true reflection of how he saw his journey. On one side there was the Eastern Saharan Desert and on the other the Red Sea with its mass of sea life, including sharks. When he returned from his trip in the spring of 1986 he became aware of military planes from Upper Heyford in England taking off and dropping their bomb loads on Libya. In juxtaposition to this, the sharks in the Red Sea were seen as a threat coming from below. Therefore, it is interesting to note that the shark in Headington appears to have dropped out of the sky and landed head first in Bill Heine's Victorian, terraced house.

On 9 August, 1986, the 41st anniversary of dropping the atom bomb on Nagasaki, Buckley's artwork was lifted by crane and erected on Heine's house: with the owner's permission, of course. In an interview with The Times Heine said that he had commissioned this piece as it appeared to be 'Saying something about CND, nuclear power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki'. Whereas 'Buckley tells me more modestly that he just liked doing tiger sharks, and enjoyed the idea of expressing the fragility of plaster and tiles . . . all that protects the Englishman's castle'. Buckley was also pleased to have achieved something after his struggles with other projects over three years.

The shark structure, which weighs 32 stone1 and is 25 feet (7.5 metres) long, made world-wide news. However, not everyone has been impressed with the structure. For example Oxford City Council, who questioned whether it was safe to have the structure installed in an area where it may one day fall on someone; but engineers deemed it to be safely installed. Unhappy with this result, the council deemed the construction to be in conflict with development rules and regulations and should therefore be removed. They also proposed an alternative place for the shark, a leisure centre. However, Heine had specifically commissioned Buckley to construct the artwork called 'Untitled:1986' to put on his house as it was in keeping with the notion that quiet suburbs could also be at threat like the innocent people in the Nagasaki bombing and the Jews in the Holocaust. Like before, Heine stood his ground and wrote to Michael Heseltine, who in 1991 acted as Environment Secretary. Heseltine sent out an inspector, Peter Macdonald, who was in favour of the shark continuing to reside at Heine's home and the shark has been in residence in this very place ever since.

More About the Area

Headington lies in East Oxfordshire and is surrounded by neighbouring districts Cowley, Risinghurst, Elsfield, Horsepath and Oxford City Centre. The district is easy to reach by people by wahtever means they wish to travel into the county, and a main road from Oxford runs through Headington to London. Along this appropriately named road (London Road) are a myriad of shops, mainly charity shops but there are a number of supermarkets, banks and newsagents. Headington also plays host to many of the hospital buildings in the county, Oxford Brookes University and Headington Hill Hall, which was once leased to the publisher Robert Maxwell. Some famous writers once resided there too, such as CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien.

1That's 200kg.

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