OIn April, April 1986, Bill Heine was sitting on the stairs opposite his newly purchased terraced house in Oxford, drinking a glass of wine when he turned to his friend and asked a simple question: "Can you do anything to brighten it up? "
His friend, the sculptor John Buckley, gave an answer in the form of an eight-meter (25ft) shark that would sit on its roof and constantly look as if it had just crashed into the house from the sky. The fiberglass fish, known as the Headington Shark after the suburb of Oxford, led Heine, a local journalist and businessman who died last week, in a six-year legal battle with the city council.
The process turned a relatively unremarkable street into a beloved local landmark and resulted in one of the most remarkable triumphs of British eccentricity over the small bureaucracy.
"You could see the Americans getting up outside Oxford to bomb Gaddafi in Libya," Buckley said. Both Buckley and Heine wanted to make a powerful statement about the barbarity of war and the feeling of vulnerability and total helplessness when fate struck.
Heine also loved sharks, Buckley added.
The connection with war was more vague. Buckley said he was once forced to swim in shark-damaged waters after breaking a canoe in Mexico. "I expected the bomb to come out of the water. I was ready for the big bite. It's just as bad as looking at the sky and expecting something to come through your roof," he said.
The artist started working immediately after his discussion with Heine. He worked with a group of volunteers – mostly students and other anti-war activists – to build an artificial roof to keep the shark outside of his studio. He told none of them where he intended to place the sculpture. It took exactly three months and on Saturday, August 9, at 5 pm, Buckley brought the sculpture of the shark into a position on a tractor. A large crane was waiting for Heine's house.
"The crane just dropped it straight in and it went in nicely when the postman passed," Buckley said. "That first morning was great. By Sunday it was worldwide and it had been like that for 30 years."
The Oxford city council immediately opposed the installation of the shark. In the beginning they said it was dangerous for the public, but engineers and inspectors declared it structurally safe.
Heine, an American who moved to the United Kingdom in the 1960s to study at Oxford University, then submitted a planning application that was rejected by the council. He appealed to the environment secretary and then to Michael Heseltine.
The council held public forums that allowed residents to speak in favor of or against the sculpture. Patrick Gray, now 71, an economist who lived in Oxford all his life, was one of many who was in favor: "People have only heard of it because the planning committee made this ridiculous decision to have it removed," Gray said. "An inspector came down and had a public hearing. I gave a short speech to what I felt like municipal absurdity. & # 39;
Bill Dufton, the former director of Southern Arts, whose regional art council office was based in Winchester, said: "It was our policy to support public works of art of many kinds. This must have been one of the most striking. & # 39;
Others came from further afield to defend the art. Peter Bibby, 70, traveled from London to speak in favor of the sculpture during a hearing. "The council said there is no historical or artistic value to it, that it is no different than a hamburger sign at Christ Church College," Bibby said. "I said it was of artistic value, it doesn't matter if you approve the art or not."
Heseltine's planning inspector, Peter Macdonald, investigated and eventually came to the preservation of the sculpture, with an official statement that has gained legendary status among city planners for his defense of art.
"In this case it is not certain that the shark is not in harmony with its environment, but it is not intended to be in harmony with them," Macdonald wrote in his official statement.
"The council is understandably concerned about the precedent here. The first concern is simple: shark proliferation (and heaven knows what else) crashes through rooftops all over the city. This fear has been exaggerated. In the five years since the founding of the shark there have been no other examples … every control system must make a small place for the dynamic, the unexpected, the downright quirky. I therefore recommend that the Headington Shark remain. "
A few years ago it was reported that the shark threatened to be removed and the bank threatened to take back the property. Heine's son, Magnus, stepped in and bought the property to ensure that the beloved shark was not destroyed by "another set of bureaucrats unable to tackle something that would not fit into a standardized form" .
After Heine died of cancer, at the age of 74, last week, tributes flooded in from many residents, including city councilors.
Gray described Heine as a & # 39; colorful character & # 39; that inspired people. He said: "We once had a 12-year boy's visit from America. He was miserable and unhappy when he arrived, so we took him to the house. He left with a very big smile on his face. & # 39;