View attachment 33807 LADIES and gentlemen, you join me at what must be the pinnacle of my career. At long last, the absolute dream assignment. I’ve been sent to interview a cat. James Bowen says beloved feline friend helped him go from a nobody to a somebody - and he's now the subject of an international bestseller.
Obviously the cat in question is pretty extraordinary. He’s Bob The Street Cat, subject of an international bestseller and about to make his first foray into Hollywood movies in the film of his own eventful little life.
Bob has trained himself to use a loo instead of a litter-box, gives high fives, fought off a mugger single-pawedly and travels on buses and Tubes so regularly he’s been given his own Oyster card. As I said, extraordinary.
The book A Street Cat Named Bob and sequel The World According To Bob, out this week, were written by Bob’s human, 33-year-old James Bowen.
James had been a homeless heroin addict for more than a decade when he found stray, injured Bob. The inspiring tail (!) of their unlikely friendship has now sold 750,000 copies in the UK alone, and been translated into 27 languages.
As James tells it: “Our story seemed to connect with people who were facing difficult times in their lives. Hundreds of them wrote to me or contacted us via social media. I was immensely proud.”
Bob and I are introduced close to Islington’s Angel Tube station in North London, where he and James used to busk and sell The Big Issue. He eyes me with suspicion – par for the course when it comes to celebrity interviews. He then insists on doing a wee under a bush, which is actually something of a first when it comes to celebrity interviews.
I ask James, in a whisper so the cat doesn’t hear, whether Bob has changed since finding fame. “I’m afraid he’s become a bit of a diva,” he admits.
Bob now counts Brian May, Anita Dobson, Rick Wakeman and Barbara Windsor as close personal friends.
“Bob doesn’t like a lot of people stroking his belly but he let Paul O’Grady do it,” James reveals.
View attachment 33808 Paul McCartney’s also a fan – he stopped when James and Bob were busking, admired Bob (obviously) and told James to “take care, man, and keep it going”.
Boris Johnson once bought The Big Issue too, dropping some loose change into James’ hand, saying: “There you go, more valuable than British pounds.”
James waited until BoJo had gone before checking what he’d been given – a handful of Swiss francs. Obviously Boris wasn’t aware banks only exchange notes so the coins were as useful to James as magic beans.
Bob and James met in 2007. I ask Bob to tell me the story but he flops down at my feet and closes his eyes. Others may have been bored by my interview technique in the past but no one made their feelings this clear. Luckily James takes over, telling me that he’d been sleeping rough and had contracted Hepatitis A and ended up in hospital.
“Heroin is all about escapism,” he tells me. “When you’re on it and it’s in your body, everything’s great. It’s like being wrapped in cotton wool, you don’t care about anything in the world. But when you’re sick, you’ll rob your grandmother to pay for the next fix. The truth of it is it’s nasty, it’s evil.”
While in hospital, James was visited by someone from the Margarete Centre, in Camden, which provides medical services for homeless people and those with substance misuse problems.
It was suggested he go on a methadone programme. “It was either that or be a sick junkie lying in a bed, not able to do anything,” James says honestly.
When he first came across Bob, James was “still trying to get my head together”. He’d moved into supported housing and was busking and selling The Big Issue to make enough to heat his flat and eat.
A lifelong cat fan, as all people should be, James went over to say hello to the scruffy moggy sitting on a doorstep in his block. “He was very friendly,” remembers James, “He was like, ‘Hello, who are you?’ Very inquisitive.
Three days later he was still there so I asked everyone around if he belonged to them and they all said they didn’t.
View attachment 33810 “I invited him up to my flat and that’s when I discovered he had a big abscess leaking pus on his leg. The next day I took him to the RSPCA.”
The man to moggy connection was instant. “I was drawn to him and he was obviously drawn to me,” James smiles.
“After I nursed him back to health he kept following me around. Whenever I came home he’d be on the doorstep so I’d let him stay.
“Then after a week or two of him following me a little bit further up the road each day, he jumped on the bus with me, and that was when the story really started.”
Yes, you read that right – a cat travelling by bus.
“I just thought, ‘Oh my goodness, he’s amazing’. He’s incredibly intelligent,” boasts James, proudly. “He sat down on the seat next to me like, ‘It’s just a normal day, here we go into town’. So I made him a little harness up, so he didn’t get run over in the West End.
“When I got my guitar case out he sat on it, made himself comfy, and that was it.
“Busking all of a sudden picked up, people were taking pictures, it went crazy. People interacted with me differently.”
Suddenly James was half of a celebrity duo and he was overwhelmed by the support and love they began to receive. Oh, and the scarves. Strangers began knitting for Bob in droves and he is now “to scarves what Imelda Marcos had been to shoes”.
I ask Bob how the first book came about, but he’s now pretending to be fully asleep. He’s honestly worse than J-Lo. Again, James picks up the slack.
I was approached by a lovely lady who said she was a literary agent. I just thought, ‘Here’s another nutter with a crazy idea’, because there’s been a lot.
“So I put it to the back of my mind. But a week later she got back in touch and hooked me up with someone who could help me write the book.”
James knew straight away that he wanted it to be warts and all.
“I was truthful, I haven’t lied about anything. When you tell a story you can ramble off into different subjects, so my mate Gary helped me put it into a structure so it was chapter by chapter. He helped me tell my story properly.”
View attachment 33809 When James told his dad he had a book coming out, he asked if it was going to be a long-term thing. “I said, ‘No, I’m not going to become the next JK Rowling, Dad. It’s a nice windfall, and no more’.”
James couldn’t have been more wrong. “I still pinch myself,” he says. He’s now saving up to get a mortgage. He’s no longer on benefits, or drugs.
“I’m getting a bit of money but I’m not commanding millions in advances. But I’m happy because I no longer have to worry about bailiffs banging on the door, everything is good now.”
There are downsides though – and not just Bob’s starry attitude. “Now I pay this crazy thing which is really not nice called income tax,” he grins.
And when he’s not writing, James helps the charities that used to help him.
“The wonderful thing about all this is I have a purpose now. I can help with The Blue Cross, with drug rehabilitation programmes and homelessness programmes. I am able to do all this, just from my voice, just from saving one cat. It’s amazing to be able to give back.”
3 The World According To Bob by James Bowen, (£16.99, Hodder & Stoughton) is out in shops from Thursday.
By Polly Hudson
1 Jul 2013
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