James Bowen with Bob the cat – as pictured in Islington Tribune news story in September 2010
Published: 26 July, 2012
by OLIVER GRUNER
Those who see cats as just a bunch of lazy, manipulative, extra-dinner hunters – willing to sell you out at the faintest whiff of next door’s chicken – have had to rethink their opinions of late.
From the Angel Islington and Covent Garden to America, the story of James Bowen and his faithful feline accomplice has gone global in the book, A Street Cat Named Bob.
The inspiration for the work began after literary agent Mary Pachnos from Highbury spotted the story about Bowen and his amazing pet in our sister paper the Islington Tribune two years ago.
Bowen, who gives the paper a mention in the story, had been selling the Big Issue outside Angel Tube.
This year, newspapers, television shows and magazines heralded the release of his book with a firestorm of celebratory coverage.
The book has been in the Sunday Times top 10 for more than 13 weeks and it has just been published in Italy, with another 10 countries to come.
A paperback is due out next year, along with a children’s version, plus negotiations over film rights.
Not bad for a bloke who says he still enjoys busking in Covent Garden.
The memoir reveals how a musician, who had fallen on hard times, turned his life around thanks to the love and loyalty of a stray cat.
Chronicling years spent in and out of sheltered accommodation, as well as the trials of kicking a drug habit, it shows a young man battling against the odds.
And with the added sweetener of Bob’s pussycat charms, it is perhaps unsurprising that it has pawed its way up the bestseller list.
On one hand, the book works as a hymn to unconditional love.
Toward the end, Bowen writes that: “Bob is my best mate and the one who has guided me towards a different – and a better – way of life.”
Parallels are drawn between himself and another famous cat-lover-cum-success-story, Dick Whittington. Fairy tales, folk tales, Hollywood movies: we all like a happy ending, and this book certainly obliges.
On the other hand, however, Bowen avoids over-sentimentality.
Throughout, he steps back to reflect on his relationship with the public. “People seem to be fascinated to learn how some members of society fall through the cracks.” He suggests that this could be because it “makes people feel better about their own lives. It makes them think, ‘Well, I may think my life is bad, but it could be worse, I could be that poor sod’.”
And it is hard not to detect the occasional note of cynicism when Bowen recounts his own back-story, or discusses the financial rewards of busking and selling the Big Issue with a cat.
“No one was quite as interested in stopping for a talk as they did when Bob was around. I may not have liked it, but I accepted it. That was the way it was.”
Comments like these take the book beyond sweetness and toward a more critical interpretation of London life. Bob may be a spiritual guide, but he is also a nifty and, it seems, necessary, marketing hook. Without Bob, Bowen is just another “invisible” busker or Big Issue seller – ignored, avoided and even insulted.
Product differentiation is the first law of the market. There are the have-nots and the have-cats.
Such moments of reflection provide as much in the way of emotional resonance as the “feelgood” climax.
Indeed, perhaps the book’s greatest strength is that it shows the real struggles behind what could so easily have remained a cheap YouTube gimmick.
• A Street Cat Named Bob. By James Bowen. Hodder & Stoughton £14.99