The Ox-idental Tourist: the shark in the roof, Headington

Art & Lit

If you’re looking for an amusing experience , go to Headington, stand at the end of New High Street, then wait for the traffic to pass. You’ll witness a series of double-takes, as commuters suddenly look left, reflect on what’s caught their attention, and then, by a reflex action, turn to look again.  They’ve seen something that doesn’t belong on dry land, let alone in Oxford; something that suggests the Oceans have decided to ignore gravity for the day, and have taken the opportunity to rise into space whilst discharging their unwanted occupants onto the Earth below.  They’ve seen something that belongs in the Tasman Sea, not residential normality, something that must prompt the same question in each new arrival to this part of Oxford: “did I just see a shark?!”.  The answer is equally absurd. Yes, you did. And it fell from the sky.

That’s not strictly true of course.  There is a shark in Headington, and it does appear to have crashed head-first into a terraced house.  Only this particular shark is made of fibreglass rather than flesh, and its gravity-defying illusions can be attributed to the sculptor John Buckley, who erected it in 1986, commissioned by the house’s owner, BBC Radio Oxford Presenter Bill Heine.  As I approach Headington the Shark’s tail slowly becomes visible above the rooftops, causing suburbia to feel like the entrance to a Salvador Dali painting rather than the residential quietness one would expect.  As I see the Shark for the first time, I smile at Bill Heine’s impudence, at the sheer effrontery of vandalising his own property whilst simultaneously tattooing the skyline with an artwork to which many have objected during its 25 years of existence.

There is, however, a fervent political point being made here, relating far more to tragedy than surrealist wackiness.  Headington’s Shark might not be as famous as that of Steven Spielberg or Damien Hirst, but its little-known role as a metaphor for nuclear war arguably makes this specimen far more important.  Unveiled on the 41st anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, the Shark represents the sudden destruction of suburbia; a fearsome message about how even residential Oxford has to live with the permanent threat of nuclear obliteration. The problem with such visual dynamics, though, is that, in the end, one has to question whether they can ever refer to anything beyond themselves…  Those double-taking commuters might perceive Disney-like eccentricity rather than symbols of nuclear war; Pythonesque humour rather than holocaust. One thing is for sure at least- as they traverse the Headington Road, they will still be asking themselves that most unlikely of questions: did I really just see a shark?!