Earlier this month, a former homeless heroin addict walked the red carpet in London’s Mayfair, in a crisp white shirt and expensive suit, his once scruffy hair cut and styled. Just a few years ago, after much time on the streets, James Bowen, now 37, would have been ungraciously turfed from this scene by security. Now, the bright lights, paparazzi flashbulbs and star-studded guest list are here because of him, at the premiere of the heart-warming film about the friendship that changed his fortunes.
Well, actually, the real star of the show is sitting on his shoulder – a plump ginger tom cat, Bob, a former flea-infested stray, now equally chic in a hand-knitted red scarf, his tail gently curled around Bowen’s chest in a sign of affection. Now the most famous cat in the country, Bob radiates charm, and few who meet him can fail to be won over by his sweet nature. Celebrities attending the first showing of A Street Cat Named Bob include Kate Middleton, who beamed as she stroked the coolly composed cat, sitting regally on a red cushion, unflappable in the face of all the attention. And despite not having any dialogue in the film, it’s Bob who steals every scene.
“Does he look like a normal cat to you? You can see the intelligence in his eyes.”
Rarely have the fortunes of one man been changed so drastically by a chance encounter with a cat. “I feel that Bob saved my life,” says Bowen. “He knows he changed my life. And he certainly expects me to hold up my end of the bargain.”
The film is based on Bowen’s international best-selling book of the same title, published in 2012, and is the true story of how the busker and recovering drug addict was transformed by meeting the ginger stray. The tagline is “Sometimes it takes nine lives to save one.” And indeed, Bob needed a home and someone to look after him, and Bowen needed Bob to find the strength to save himself.
“It feels that we were always destined to meet each other,” Bowen says, adding that he had hit “rock bottom” and was living in sheltered accommodation in north London in 2007 when he noticed a stray cat in the building. “I found him on the ground floor of the flats where I was living. On the third day of him sitting there, I knocked on the door [of the flat he was sitting outside] and said: ‘Your cat’s been sitting here for three days.’ And the guy said: ‘That’s not my cat.’ So I said to the cat: ‘Do you want to come with me?’ And he followed me upstairs.”
Bowen saw that the cat had an abscess on his leg and was covered in fleas, so took him to the RSPCA, which gave him antibiotics. He nursed him back to health, expecting him to be back on the streets in no time. “After I’d given him the full course of medication and he was healthy again, I tried to encourage him to go on his way, but he wasn’t having any of it. He just kept following me about. One day he got on the bus with me and I just thought: ‘What the hell?’”
Since then, the pair have been inseparable. “He goes where I go. He likes to be by my side.” The cat, who he named Bob, would follow Bowen to his spot in Covent Garden, where he busked, playing guitar, and later sold The Big Issue. Bob would sit next to Bowen as he played, quietly getting the attention of passers-by. More and more people stopped to talk, to stroke Bob or have their picture taken with him. Soon, clips of them began appearing on YouTube, and an agent approached Bowen about writing a book. A Street Cat Named Bob went on to become a bestseller, and more followed, including The World According To Bob, For The Love Of Bob and the Christmas story A Gift From Bob.
Success took Bowen by surprise. “Even after the first book, I thought I’d still be selling The Big Issue and someone would occasionally come up and say: ‘Can you sign my book for me?’ I never thought I’d be able to stop selling The Big Issue, that I’d be able to save up to buy my own home, or that I’d have written so many sequels – eight or nine books and counting.”
It’s not just the success that’s a shock, it’s the change of pace. “I don’t have the same routine I used to have. It’s different. Instead of a daily routine, I have a yearly routine: writing the book, editing the book. Then it gets published, then touring, then holidays, then it starts all over again.”
Now there’s the film and all the promotion and merchandising to go with it. “It’s crazy. I pinch myself every morning. I can’t believe it.”
Bowen’s days of hoping to catch the eye of a generous stranger in order to buy milk or stay warm are certainly over. “Over four years, Bob and I probably made just under half a million pounds, I’d say, after tax. It wasn’t all there at once. Every six months or so I get a royalty cheque. It’s a pleasant surprise when it comes through the door.”
Bowen is the first to acknowledge that being on the streets, busking for money, is tough. “Life is a lot easier now, I have to say.”
Despite the reversal of his fortunes, Bowen is baffled by the suggestion that Bob, now around 10 years old, is little more than a moneymaking accessory. The pair have a deep connection. Bowen took the stray cat in and nursed him back to health, and spent money on food for him at a time when he didn’t have enough to feed himself. Bowen sees Bob as his best friend. “He sleeps by my side and wakes up when I wake up.
“There’s no exploitation between Bob and I. We do get people saying I exploit him. But it’s not that I take him on the bus – he follows me onto it.”
Bowen acknowledges that there will always be naysayers. “Somebody tried to call the RSPCA on me and Bob once.” But the RSPCA was very supportive. “The woman took one look at Bob and said: ‘The cat clearly wants to be there.’”
Besides, says Bowen, who could tell a cat to do anything it doesn’t want to do? “Dogs have masters, cats have servants,” he smiles. But it’s fair to say that Bob’s not your average cat. “Does he look like a normal cat to you? You can see the intelligence in his eyes. He’s fully aware of what’s going on.”
The cat looks over as if on cue and offers a haughty stare. “He knows we’re talking about him now. You can see it by the tail going. He knows he’s the star attraction.”
Over time, Bob learnt a trick or two, like raising a paw in a high-five gesture. “I’d give him a treat when he’d done it and that was it.” And he responds to being told to sit, like a dog. Bob’s behaviour may be unusual, but it can’t really be taught, Bowen insists. “You can’t train cats – cats train you.”
You can see that Bowen isn’t always comfortable with the trappings of this new, unexpected existence. “Fame has been a blessing in some ways – it’s definitely made my life more comfortable, I won’t deny that. And it’s amazing how much charity awareness Bob and I can generate. But with it comes its curses. I can’t go out these days without being stopped every two minutes.”
And has fame changed Bob? “He’s definitely more of a diva than he used to be, that’s for sure. He knows that every parcel that comes through the door is for him – toys and scarves from around the world. I can fill big bags with knitted scarves made by his fans. Bob is the Imelda Marcos of scarves,” Bowen laughs, referring to the former first lady of the Philippines, who was known for her extravagant collection of shoes.
So why does Bowen think the cat has been so insanely popular? “He’s a very social cat. And there’s something about cats that people just can’t get enough of.
“People have made offers to buy Bob from me in the past, when I was on the streets. I think someone offered me a couple of thousand pounds once. But I’d never sell him. It would be like selling your children. There’s no amount that I’d take. If someone had offered me a million pounds, I still would have said no.”
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