Meet Bob the street cat and the homeless man he saved
When James Bowen rescued a cat named Bob, he also found his own saviour. Chrissy Iley meets the duo who are the subject of a new movie.
Bob the cat is possibly the world’s most famous feline – at least, he’s the only street cat to have had his chin stroked by the Duchess of Cambridge. He’s a Londoner who also has a special connection closer to home, since his best friend, James Bowen, was raised in Australia.
He is the subject of James’ best-selling book,
A Street Cat Named Bob, which has sold more than five million copies and been made into a film – in which Bob plays himself – and it is a gorgeous movie, not so much cutesy, but gutsy.
It’s the story of James Bowen, recovering heroin addict, homeless street busker and street-seller of The Big Issue magazine, whose life changed when the stray ginger cat befriended him.
James spent his last £28 on antibiotics for a wound on Bob’s leg and Bob repaid him a hundredfold. One day, he jumped on the bus to follow James to his busking spot at London’s Covent Garden Piazza, where James would sing Nirvana songs to bored passers-by. Once Bob was in on the act, the punters were enchanted by his endearing tricks. Then James and Bob were spotted by a literary agent who had worked on Marley & Me and, with the sales of the book,
Bob bought James a house.
Today, we meet in London’s Soho Hotel. James is shy and gentle, wearing combat trousers and lots of bracelets and beads. Bob is wearing a miniature Dr Who scarf, which someone knitted him and he wore in the film.
His ginger coat is lustrous, his fat cheeks adorable and his piercing green eyes mesmerising. He’s fearless, prowling around his suite. You can’t take your eyes off him – he really is a special cat.
Bob sits on his cushion. He’s a well-practised interviewee, no stranger to publicity. The book literally changed their lives, “from day one with the book really,” says James. “The popularity of Bob when we were selling The Big Issue meant that we had to move out of central London because we were killing it for the other vendors.
“We moved to Angel [Tube] station and if we hadn’t moved there, you wouldn’t be talking to me now because that’s where I met my agent.”
Since the film came out, Bob has been accused of starting a ginger cat kidnapping racket. Ginger cats are now so popular, you can’t find them. “He’s so intelligent, a little man in a ginger suit,”
says James. Bob nods and then gives me a piercing stare. “The Duchess of Cambridge was very excited to meet him and very lovely, very down-to-earth,” says James. “She was attending [the movie premiere] in support of one of her charities, Action on Addiction. Bob was a bit tired that day, but he didn’t mind her giving him a little scratch behind the ears. He was sort of grumbling and purring at the same time, but he’s very gentlemanly and would never let on to a royal that he was tired.”
For James, the film shows the real side of addiction. “I said to the director, I don’t want this played in a satirical way like Trainspotting
– no silly hallucinations. There are so many other aspects to it and I wanted to get over the fact that the pain is relentless.” Indeed, the film shows the gruelling side of James using methadone to kick his heroin addiction. The story is how man saved cat and cat saved man.
So how did Bob get to play himself in the movie? “He was never supposed to be involved in the film,” says James. “But they wanted to do one scene of the real Bob, so they shot him on one of Luke Treadaway’s [who plays James Bowen] shoulders. I kept Bob’s attention to the lens as they walked with the Steadicam and he was really good.
“Then, later on, Luke was shooting busking scenes and the director asked if Bob could sit on his shoulders and be there for the busking. Bob knew the busking regimen. A few coins were already in front of him. He sat on the jacket, listened to the guitar and, as more coins were being thrown down, Bob would look up as if to say, ‘Cheers, thanks.’ And the look on the director’s face was priceless.”
The director, Roger Spottiswoode, couldn’t train actor cats to do this as they had no knowledge of busking or shoulder riding.
“It’s a Hollywood first,” says James.
Was it weird for James being on set and watching Luke Treadaway play scenes from his own life? “We went round to Luke’s to spend an hour talking about what it was like being me, but six hours later, we were still jamming and chatting. It was strange for him to be me, but somehow it felt quite natural for me. We have become really good mates.”
Bob does have a passport, but he won’t be going to the Australian film opening (the movie opens in New Zealand on March 9) because of the strict quarantine laws.
James was born in England, but his parents split when he was three and he moved to Australia with his mother, where he spent his childhood years.
“My uncle directed Home and Away for 15 years,” James says, proudly, so he thinks the film business is in his blood. He moved around a lot, from Perth to Melbourne and Bridgetown, Western Australia, but never felt he fitted in.
So, at 18, he returned to England, but it was harder than he expected and that’s how he ended up on the streets and addicted to drugs.
James’ life has completely changed now, but he doesn’t take anything for granted. He and Bob have been invited to Japan and South Korea. I tell him that I’m worried about Bob travelling but he says Bob can hold his own. “He can be a very defensive little man. Once, I had someone trying to rob me when I was busking. He sensed him coming up behind me and, as soon as this guy reached into my rucksack, Bob turned around and went wham – slapped him across his face, big stripes across this guy’s face. I don’t have to worry about that any more. Bob rescued me. I didn’t know it at the time, but he took me from existing to actually having a life.”
What lessons does James think that he and
Bob have learnt from each other? “He gave me a reason to live,” he says. “I was 27 when I met him and sick of life. He gave me that second chance. I’ve never had kids, so he is my baby, really, and I taught Bob to trust in me. He has also learnt that Daddy takes care of him because he takes care of me. He’s certainly got us where we are today.”
Bob rescued me. He took me from existing to having a life.
ABOVE: Bob the street cat, “a little man in a ginger suit”, with his best friend, James Bowen.
BELOW LEFT: Bob making friends with the Duchess of Cambridge at the London premiere of the movie in November. RIGHT: James and Bob at Islington Green, London, where they used to sell The Big Issue.