A bit over a year ago my one-year-old daughter threw up all over both of us on a bus from London to Oxford.
We made a dripping, crying, unscheduled exit from the coach on the fringes of the university city, smelling strongly of banana puke. Passengers stared in unsympathetic horror as the bus pulled away for what would be a foul last stretch into town.
And I looked up and saw an enormous shark crashing into someone’s house. But, frankly, at that point I had other things to worry about.
Life went on. It lurked beneath the surface of my memory, this 8-metre-long shark smashing through a suburban home’s roof.
Then, the other day, in my Twitter feed came this: “Bill Heine, the man who in 1986 stuck a giant shark on the roof of his terraced house in Oxford, has died.”
And there was a picture of my spew shark, in all its spectacular enormity.
The shark is in Headington, a town absorbed into outer suburban Oxford. And the story of the man and his fish is legend.
This ordinary, semi-detached house belonged to Heine, an American who studied law at Balliol, ran an independent cinema and presented on Radio Oxford.
The sculpture is by John Buckley, who explained its inspiration on his website: “[In] Spring 1986 planes were taking off from [an RAF base in nearby] Upper Heyford dropping their load from the clear blue sky on Libya,” Buckley wrote.
“Our fears and vulnerabilities come this time from above.”
And so the £10,000 fibreglass sculpture Untitled 1986 was installed, witnessed by a small gathering of friends, neighbours, press, and a concerned council inspector, on the 41st anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb on Nagasaki.
Heine said the artwork was meant “to express someone feeling totally impotent and ripping a hole in their roof out of … anger and desperation. It is saying something about CND [nuclear disarmament], nuclear power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki”.
He had bought the house the day American bombs fell on Tripoli, and weeks before the Chernobyl meltdown.
“In both cases, ordinary houses that appeared safe and secure came under attack”, a council official later wrote.
“[Heine] wanted to ask people to look at just how safe they were, how isolated, how connected to each other … he wanted to encourage people to look at their hopes and fears.”
Heine’s son also reported his father wanted to “put up two fingers to bureaucracy and stand up for creativity”.
The local council hated it. First they sent engineers to check if it was safe (it was). They then ruled it in breach of planning laws and offered to put it in the local swimming pool.
Heine appealed all the way to Environment minister Michael Heseltine. The appeal rested largely on how dull Headington was, and explored the meaning and nature of art, taste and aesthetics, as you’d hope in an Oxford planning application.
It also cited precedent: a 1975 proposal to construct a 140m-high pyramid on Christ Church Meadow in the city centre. This was a construction that would have taken 3000 second-year undergraduates 24 years to build and required the Thames and Cherwell Rivers to be “frozen” for seven years. That application was refused.
The Secretary of State’s ruling, written on his behalf by a Miss A Gerry, is a masterpiece.
“[The] intention to shock people is irrelevant as far as planning issues are concerned,” she pointed out, going on to consider whether the shark’s “incongruity and lack of harmony” had harmed the visual amenity of the street.
“One must look at the relationship of the shark to the house,” Gerry said (tongue almost certainly in her cheek). “In the Secretary of State’s view, even though the shark is large, prominent and out of character with both the building and its surroundings, it is not gravely detrimental to visual amenity in this particular location.”
Quite the burn for poor old Headington.
But in the long run, of course, locals embraced the shark and its owner, an eccentric but lovable figure.
County and city councillor Roz Smith, who briefly lived opposite the shark and knew Heine for 20 years, said he was a “character” who would not be forgotten – not only for the shark but for his incisive journalistic skills on radio, and in his final years, chronicling his leukaemia in the local newspaper.
“He was a true one-off,” Smith said.
“He was witty, friendly and brilliant. It’s not going to be the same without him.”