Wednesday 4 April 2007

"The hunting of the shark," by Bernard Levin

[What with various rooftop activities going on around Christchurch's Lichfield Lanes district, I felt duty bound to post this celebration from Bernard Levin of a similarly fun-loving lark in the dour Britain of a decade-and-a-half ago -- and a victorious fun-loving lark to boot. Read on to find out why there is a shark here pictured plunging through an Oxfordshire roof. . .] I start unkindly, I fear, by saying that Mr John Power, who is chairman of the planning committee of Oxford city council, might do well to go and boil his head in a light stock with a bouquet garni and perhaps a teaspoonful of sherry. This discourtesy is provoked by Mr Power sounding off in no uncertain manner: ". . . a victory for anarchy. . . a slap in the face for the decent and respectable people. . . seeking legal advice. . ." And what has brought him, in his municipal character, to such a state? Has someone opened a brothel next door to Balliol? Has the Sheldonian been taken over by meths-drinking dossers? Or has a band of undergraduate scofflaws had the impudence to debag Mr Power himself and paint his bottom purple? No such luck. What has brought Mr Power to the very edge of bursting is the decision of the public enquiry into the Hunting of the Shark. Over the six years of battle, you must have seen photographs of the famous fish which adorns the roof of the Oxford house of a Mr Bill Heine (to whom goes the Diamond Star and Sash of the Order of They Shall Be Mocked and With Good Reason); made of fibreglass, it is sited to look as though the shark dived headfirst at the roof-tiles and crashed through up to its gills. It makes a delightful, innocent, fresh and amusing sculpture, and people come from far and wide to see it, to admire it, to photograph it, and to smile at it. [That's her there, on the right.] But 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. Mr Heine (if he is descended from Heinrich Heine, it is another reason for me to shake his hand) fought heroically through the years as the battle swayed this way and that, with the authorities getting more and more indignant at the impudence of a mere person defying the might of a planning committee. It had to go to a public enquiry, and eventually did, whence the sound of corks popping at 2 New High Street, Headington. For not only did the planning inspector of the Department of the Environment, Mr Peter Macdonald, rule that the shark can stay where it is, but the decision was couched in language so human, so intelligent and so wise that it ought to be painted in enormous letters on the pavements (both sides) of Whitehall. Here are some of his conclusions: “I cannot believe that the purpose of planning control is to enforce a boring and mediocre uniformity... Any system of control must make some space for the dynamic, the unexpected and the downright quirky, or we shall all be the poorer for it. I believe that this is one case where a little vision and imagination is appropriate.” Whereupon, Mr Power made it clear that he would “try to challenge the decision”, a threat that brought from Lord Palumbo, chairman of the Arts Council, this mild but appallingly true comment: “Most politicians do not know how to lose graciously.” When I am Ruler of the Universe, one of my earliest decrees will lay down that anyone who uses the words “What if everybody did it?” will be fed to Sirius, the dog star. It is the last resort of the fun-killers, the oriflamme of the pursed lips brigade, the buttress of those whose motto is “Go and see what Johnny is doing and tell him to stop it.” Anyone but a prize nana would have seen that Mr Heine’s splendid lark (I pause here to commend the sculptor, Mr John Buckley) was an exact definition of delight, particularly Shakespeare’s kind “that give delight and hurt not.” But it hurt the planning committee no end, whence the six years of battle and the preposterous comments (". . . a slap in the face of the decent and respectable people . . .") of its chairman when the battle was finally lost and won. It is not difficult to see how people get things so devastatingly out of scale; indeed it is one of the most thoroughly studied of human frailties. I poked fun at the Oxford council planning committee and in particular its chairman, but that was largely because I had a measure of that body — useful but nothing more. Now suppose you have worked hard and honestly at your job (useful but nothing more), and you dream, or once did dream, of making a mighty stir, of climbing to the heights, of being Someone. What is the inevitable knowledge that goes with what has happened to those dreams, and what can be done about it? The knowledge, of course, is that the dreams have not come true; what can be done about it is to exercise that tiny corner of the world in which you do hold sway. Man, proud man, dressed in a little brief authority... Shakespeare knew humankind, and knew that the briefer the authority the greater the vigour with which it is employed. The chairman of the Oxford council planning committee does not have the power to have anybody’s head cut off, nor to have anybody exiled to Outer Mongolia, nor even to compel anybody to do penance in a white sheet for seven days and seven nights. But he and his council do have the power (exercised, I am sure, only in strict compliance with the law) to order a man with a 25 ft fibreglass shark on his roof to take it off. And when he finds that higher authority has overruled him, he is fit to burst — whence the slap in the face for the decent and respectable people — because even that little authority has been, at least for some time, taken from him. Shun power, shun it fiercely, if you want to sleep soundly in your bed. If it is real power, the power to compel others to do your bidding, your dreams will be haunted ones. If it is the mock power of the chairmanship of a municipal committee in Oxford, you will wake to disappointment. I am not going to quote Acton, but here is Hazlitt, who in this context is even more apposite:
The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves.
You do not have to be a bad man to want power. Our chairman is plainly an honest and scrupulous man, certainly to be numbered among the decent and respectable people who have figured so largely in this story. But he has forgotten the old and tried proverb: “A man with a stuffed shark on his roof is eccentric, and quite possibly in breach of the planning rules; a man who tries to take the shark off will run no danger of being bitten, but will almost certainly make a fool of himself.” [Christchurch bureaucrats, take note.] Bernard Levin, The Times, 11 June 1992


Rebel Radius said...

Excellent article.

Oh and such a lovely day - perfect for "basking on the roof"

Anonymous said...

What a great way to start the day!

Thank you.

Peter Cresswell said...

It's delightful, isn't it. I hope you can see why I enjoyed Bernard Levin's columns so much.

And with MIGs and Mini Coopers parking themselves on buildings around Christchurch, it seemed so perfectly timely. :-)

Anonymous said...

Ignoring councilors has been going for quite some time it would appear: