Bill’s Excellent Adventure

The voice of our third castaway will be familiar to anyone who listens to Radio Oxford. His phone-in programme every weeknight includes the great and the good and the boy or girl next door. Maybe his American origins give him the easy manner that makes him so approachable.

Bill Heine’s life journey brought him from the plains of Illinois to the hub of power in Washington DC. He marched with Martin Luther King, worked in the home of Robert Kennedy and spent three years in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua and Peru. He studied law at Balliol and built a media career in Oxford.

“I love sand and sea. I would enjoy being on a desert island away from TV, radio and gadgets. I grew up in a small town. It was a place where you knew everybody. I knew, for instance, that the chief of police relaxed doing crochet.

“It gave me a childhood of wonderful freedom but could be claustrophobic. I would sometimes escape up a tree and read Shakespeare. So, I think I would be all right on my own for a while but I would like my object to root me in a time and place.

“My choice must enhance the time I spend on the island. I want something a little quirky and unexpected. I hope that if it is washed up on the beach it will be indestructible.

“My first thought was to have something that would link me to my life in Oxford. One thing that will capture a time and a place is the shark in my roof. The shark dominated a significant part of my life before Michael Heseltine, who was the environment secretary at the time, gave it the green light to remain,” Bill said.

“The council, when battling with me for six years, suggested I put it in a swimming pool. On the island it could float in water like Damien Hirst’s shark floats in formaldehyde, but that is not the point of it. The house and the shark are a whole thing. They can’t be separated. They came together at the time of the bombing of Libya.

“As well as the shark, Oxfordshire artist, John Buckley has created other memorable images in my life. He installed the can-can legs, emerging from a petticoat on my cinema The Moulin Rouge and the hands resembling Al Jolson’s on my cinema in Cowley Road, The Penultimate Picture Palace.

“I decided I would like to take a piece by him but felt the whole thing, the house and shark, might be too much.

“I admire his Albion in which a naked man has a bath in place of his head. It represents the height of domesticity.

“We carry all of this junk around, literally and in our heads, to make our lives and our families’ lives seem real but it is his nakedness that is real. It is also a fountain. The bath fills up with water which keeps running over and leaking out. I love its quirkiness. It would give me plenty of amusement on the island.

“As I can take only one piece, I have decided to take John’s sculpture The Embrace. It is a monumental but intimate piece. Are these two people caught or are they choosing to be there bound inseparably together?

“Do they want to be bound together or do they want the opportunity to break free? It has love, it has hate, but also vulnerability because they are caught up in an embrace. It is about protection and yet it is also a little claustrophobic. Do they want to cut the bandages that bind them?

“For a while I would enjoy life on the desert island, but I would also think about escaping. Embrace is about the hope of escaping and also the contentment of being where you are. The tension will encapsulate my life as a castaway.

“Conversations play a large part in my life and work and looking at it would remind me of some long conversations with John.

“We imagined this sculpture on top of the Berlin Wall. It was an arid, frightening and disturbing place. There was nothing natural and green. Mounted on top of the wall, it would have represented the people of the two halves of Germany, the love between them and the lack of freedom the wall represented.”

BILL HEINE Bill Heine grew up in Batavia, Illinois. At the entrance to the town was a sign which read No steel wheels and no lugs’. In 1963 he left for George Town University in Washington DC where he worked as an intern for senator Paul Douglas, a professor from the University of Illinois.

He spent a short time in the home of Robert Kennedy at Hickory Hill in Virginia, helping with social functions including everything, from helping set up the piano for Roberta Flack in the garden, to lifeguarding at the family swimming pool, before becoming involved in the war on poverty campaign. He also joined the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Bill came to Oxford in 1967 to study law at Balliol College but his studies were interrupted by conscription.

He opted to join The Peace Corps and was sent to Nicaraqua. After spending about six months in Nicaragua he wrote a letter detailing what the Peace Corps Volunteers were supposed to be doing on paper and what they were doing in practice – which was to help shore up the Somosa regime.

“I came to the conclusion that the best thing the Peace Corps could do was to pull out of this arrangement altogether,” Bill explained. “Since I worked in the US Senate I knew the senators who could make a difference in this debate and sent them courtesy copies.

“As a result, the Peace Corps administration in Washington interviewed me for a week to see whether or not I was a subversive element in this august institution. They decided I was a straight talking guy’ and offered to send me almost anywhere in the world that I wanted to go.”

Bill was subsequently transferred to Peru where he worked in a communal hacienda before returning to Balliol to complete his degree.

He remained in Oxford, opening two arthouse cinemas, The Penultimate Picture Palace in Cowley Road and The Moulin Rouge at Headington. Bill has left his mark on the landscape of Oxford with John Buckley’s Shark sculpture which protrudes from the roof of his house in Headington.

The six-year dispute with Oxford City Council which followed its erection in 1986 was eventually resolved by the then Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine who ruled that it could stay. The Shark rapidly became an alternative tourist attraction rivalling the city’s dreaming spires – and is currently being restored.

A three-month contract with the BBC in 1988 has extended to more than 19 years. For most of that time Bill has presented a daily phone-in programme on BBC Radio Oxford.

By |March 5th, 2008|Categories: Oxford Castaways|Comments Off on Bill’s Excellent Adventure