With James Bowen. In 2007 James was a heroin addict struggling to get by, until he met a ginger cat who changed everything.
James was on a methadone programme, busking to get by and living in assisted housing, when he came across an injured cat. He took him in, nursed him back to health using his last £20 and named him Bob. The two became inseparable when Bob chose to accompany James busking and the rest is history. Their redemptive friendship has spawned nine books and two films. Sadly, Bob passed away last year.
I'm so sorry you lost Bob
Thank you. It’s been really tough, but I’m getting through it. It was the greatest job in the world looking after him and I didn’t know what to do with myself after he died. Working on his memorial is keeping me busy. A Bob-sized statue has been created by the Welsh artist Tanya Russell and it will be cast in bronze before being unveiled in Islington Green this July. That’s quite a poignant place for me because it’s around the corner from Angel where we used to busk. I’m also releasing a song dedicated to Bob. I’m in a band called Wild and Stray, along with my music partner Henry Facey, and we plan to release A Christmas Ballad for Bob later this year. Everything I do is in his honour and he will never be forgotten. We hit the zeitgeist together!
How did publishing the book change your life?
Bob and I had been selling The Big Issue and busking for so many years before the book, but I never realised how popular we had become until we shot to the number one bestseller position overnight. The publisher inadvertently chose my birthday as the release date, and it was the best birthday present I could have had. We did a book signing at Waterstones in Islington Green and there were hundreds of people queuing up to meet us.
How did you cope with the fame?
I had my moments, but I think I managed to keep myself grounded. It helped that Bob had already drawn a lot of attention to us, and I was used to being semi-famous. We had regulars who would chat to us every day as well as tourists who would come looking for us, asking, “where is the guy with the cat?” They would insist on buying only from us, which caused a lot of problems and animosity from other Big Issue sellers. Nowadays they are all happy that I’ve shed light on their cause but at the time it was a dog-eat-dog world, or should I say dog-eat-cat!
And how did Bob cope?
Bob was just Bob, and he was always by my side. He loved the travelling, particularly trains. He would settle himself by the window and watch the world go by. It was unreal to see him travel so much. Sometimes when we were flying, I would be able to get him out of the carrier briefly, before the air stewards came round, and he would look out of the window at the earth far below.
Did you have any other surreal episodes?
We toured all around the world – it was crazy! Oslo, Lisbon, Paris… all across Germany and all around the UK. We had a 50th floor corner suite in the Ritz Carlton in Tokyo. There are very few territories that we haven’t visited, and we’ve been published in over 40 languages. The film premiere in Mayfair was amazing too. Probably, the funniest thing I did was presenting the weather on Good Morning Britain using cat-related puns. ‘It’s raining cats and dogs, the weather won’t be pawsome today, we are feline like it’s going to rain,’ etc. To be honest, I often thought to myself – “how has this happened?” – but I’d just look over at Bob and say thank you. He was always very stoic.
Were you happy with the film adaptation?
There was a long process between what I lived and what was in the film. They changed a lot of things and added a love interest. But it’s a dedication to Bob and I and I was happy to have a film made about us.
Tell us how Bob came to be in the film?
Bob was only supposed to be in one scene, at the end of the film, crossing the Millennium Bridge on my shoulders. He did that great and then later we were in Covent Garden watching them film a busking scene. They had bought in seven cats from Canada but they all looked absolutely terrified. I said: “Bob won’t be like that because he’s used to it.” So, the director decided to give him another go. Bob sat down in front of Luke Treadaway and it went straight to action. An extra dropped change in front of him, Bob looked down at the change, unfazed, then he looked up as if to say thank you. He did this again and again and the director was amazed. They asked us to come in every day and the Canadian cats were relegated to second unit shots!
What is life like now?
I’m living in Surrey with my fiancé, Monika. We started chatting on Facebook because we have a lot of mutual friends, discovered we have lots in common and hit it off. Bob was a very good judge of character and he approved right away. It also helped that he got along very well with her cat, Madame de Pompadour. We got engaged a few months after meeting when I proposed on a whale-watching trip in Tenerife. The wedding was put on hold because of Covid, but in the meantime we have got ourselves two kittens, Bandit and Gizmo, and a puppy called Chewbacca.
What is your job at the moment?
I believe so much in paying forward, and I do that by working with charities, because if it wasn’t for them, I don’t know if I’d be alive today. I work with homeless and animal charities, like the Big Issue, Cats Protection and Centrepoint. I’m currently doing a documentary with the Blue Cross about their rehoming services and how they use a behavioural therapist to help them find the right animals for the right people and get them settled in. The Blue Cross is an amazing charity which enabled me to take care of my soul mate without worrying about money. My music partner and I are planning to write a Wild and Stray album and I am always streaming on my Facebook page – playing music, doing readings from my books, or answering fan questions.
What are your plans for the future?
My passion project is a documentary about homelessness and it’s finally starting to gather pace. It will involve me sleeping rough in cities around the world to see how governments tackle homelessness and how those same societies view it collectively. I want to talk to people from the governments as well as people experiencing homelessness. In general, homeless populations are rising, but homelessness is different everywhere. Some societies sweep it under the rug, some will tackle it but not necessarily in a good way. They might arrest people or, as in the case of Skid Row in Los Angeles, they might contain them in one area. In Tokyo I was fascinated to see that whole communities of homeless people go into the parks at night and set up tents, but before the break of dawn they pack up everything, clear every scrap of rubbish and disappear into the shadows, making way for the public to come through in the day.
What do you hope to get out of the documentary?
I’m genuinely interested in investigating what the best solution is to tackle homelessness and, as I am probably the only British person in the public eye who has actually experienced it, I thought I should use my position to do that. I know how it feels to be invisible but Bob was the catalyst to change that, he lifted my invisibility cloak. Now I want to put my spotlight on homelessness.
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This is a feature from Issue 5 of Charitable Traveller. Click to read more from this issue.