A bright afternoon in London’s Covent Garden and the cobbled streets are choc-a-bloc. Office workers rush to and from lunch, tourists mill around, and shoppers pop in and out of the smart boutiques.
In the middle of them all sits a cat wearing a jaunty Union Jack neckerchief. Surrounded by a crowd of 30 open-mouthed spectators, Bob, a tubby ginger tom, smiles beatifically.
Next to him, his owner James Bowen stands with his battered acoustic guitar, belting out a series of Oasis songs. Every now and then, he stops playing and bends down to Bob. ‘Come on, Bob, high-five!’ he says.
Bob twitches his whiskers, raises a paw, and taps James’s outstretched hand. The crowd coos. A smart-looking lady in a pink dress and jacket pops a £20 note in the cap at Bob’s feet.
It’s not every day that you see a cat sitting calmly in Central London, apparently unfazed by the blaring sirens, passing cars and general hubbub — but Bob is no ordinary cat.
Bob, you see, is a star. He has his own Twitter account (with 12,000 followers), his own Facebook page, even his own fan group, the Street Cats, who send him photos, scrapbooks and presents.
Oh yes, he also has his own bestseller and is in ‘talks’ with a Hollywood agent about taking his story to the big screen. Well, it’s Bob’s owner, James, who is leading the discussions, but he’s in no doubt that he owes it all to his cat.
James’s book, A Street Cat Named Bob, a feelgood story that chronicles how the 33-year-old busker and one-time homeless heroin-addict turned his life around with the help of his cat, has sold more than 250,000 copies and been translated into 18 different languages.
So far, the book has made James around £30,000 — a figure that is likely to rocket now there’s a film on the horizon.
Mary Panchos, the literary agent who discovered James and Bob selling The Big Issue, previously brokered the film deal for Marley & Me, a book about a mischievous dog who forms a special bond with his human family. The film version, starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, made almost $15 million on its first day.
Tripled his earnings: After Bob refused to leave Mr Bowen alone, he decided to take him busking and before long he was making almost three times his usual earnings as the pair attracted more and more fans
‘Owe everything to Bob’: Mr Bowen, who was recovering from drug addiction, said Bob helped him turn his life around after he refused to leave him alone, even travelling on public transport before Mr Bowen decided to keep him.
Fortune then, as well as fame, beckons for Bob and his friend. ‘I owe everything to Bob,’ says James. ‘We’ve been on quite a journey together.’
It all began five-and-a-half years ago, on a grey Thursday evening in March, when James found Bob, starving and wounded, on the stairwell of his block of council flats in Tottenham, North London.
‘He was hiding in my building — he had been attacked by another cat, or maybe a fox. He had a great big wound on his side, the poor thing.’
Struggling to wean himself off drugs, James was initially reluctant to take in the poor creature. ‘I assumed he belonged to someone. I asked around, but there was no one.’
After three days, James cleaned his wounds and took him to the RSPCA for a course of antibiotics, which cost £28. At the time, James was busking and earning just £25 a day. ‘It was pretty much the last money I had, but I didn’t feel it was too much to help something in need. I’ve always loved cats,’ says James.
Dependent on methadone and living in a small one-bedroom flat, James’s life had veered badly off course just a few years earlier.
When he was just three, his parents had separated and he moved from Surrey to Australia with his mother Penelope, a saleswoman.
There, they moved between Melbourne and various towns in Western Australia, at one stage moving back to the UK for six years before returning to Australia.
‘My mum was a product of the Eighties — she always spent more money than she could make. She’d start these businesses but she always ended up selling them, or they just collapsed.
‘I had to change schools constantly, which meant I was never really stable. I was bullied a lot, too. I felt no one really understood me.’
His mother remarried and James’s relationship with her broke down. He moved back to England, to London, with dreams of becoming a rock star.
‘I lived with my half-sister Simone for a while. The problem was I didn’t get on with her husband, so they asked me to leave.’
After a few weeks in squats and staying on friends’ sofas, James found himself on the streets. It wasn’t long before he tried heroin.
‘When you’re sleeping rough, you are surrounded by people doing drugs,’ he says. ‘They offer you some, saying it will help you sleep — which it does — or make you feel better. And before you know it, you’re thinking “Why not? I’ve got nothing else.”’
James descended into a drug addiction so severe that he almost died on several occasions.
After three years on the streets, he was given a council flat. By the time he found Bob, he was in the process of kicking his drug habit with the help of an NHS recovery programme.
Still, he was daunted by the daily routine a pet requires. ‘I didn’t plan to keep him — I thought he was a street cat. So after three weeks, I tried to set him free.’
Bob had other ideas, though. James recalls: ‘I’d take him outside, but he just wouldn’t run off. I would leave for a day’s busking and he’d follow me up the road. Then, one day, he followed me all the way on to the number 73 bus. He climbed on right after me!’
So James began taking Bob busking with him. ‘I got him a lead, but he likes to climb up on my shoulders. He just picked it up naturally. He’s a genius, really.’
The pair make quite a sight — the 6ft 3in James walking down the road with a ginger moggy draped around his neck. While James sings, Bob curls up on a blanket.
‘Before I’d even tuned up my guitar on that first day, the coins started dropping on the floor,’ says James. He took home almost three times his usual amount.
Soon passers-by were bringing Bob titbits of food, toys, even clothes. ‘Someone gave him a purple scarf. Then everyone wanted to give him one. He must have more than 20 specially knitted scarves, a couple of jumpers, ten blankets — mouse shaped-ones, cat-shaped ones. It’s amazing.’
For the pair’s first Christmas together, one lady brought Bob a miniature stocking stuffed with goodies, and James bought a cheap plastic tree to put it under.
‘On Christmas morning, Bob was sitting underneath it,’ says James. ‘He knew it was his!’
Twice, James thought he had lost Bob. Once, busking at Piccadilly Circus, the cat ran off after being startled by a man in fancy dress. Another time, he fled a rottweiler in Islington. ‘I was terrified that I had lost him, and felt bad that I hadn’t taken better care of him.’
Fortunately, Bob reappeared after a few hours.
All the while, Bob’s fame was growing, with videos taken by fans appearing on YouTube.
Even so, when James was approached by the literary agent Mary Panchos, he was surprised.
‘She said she had been walking past us for weeks, and wanted to know if I was interested in telling my story. Soon, we had publishers on board and six months later we had a book. It came out on my birthday. The best present of my life!’
The hardback edition spent six months in the top-ten bestseller lists, with the paperback now at number one on the non-fiction chart. Spin-offs including a sequel and a children’s version are planned.
The children’s book will leave out the more gruesome details of James’s drug-taking past and focus instead on his bond with Bob, while the sequel will be based on the life lessons that James says Bob has taught him.
Today, James says he’s drug-free and insists he won’t return to his former life. In a Sunday newspaper this week, he was clear: ‘I’ll never go back to drugs. I’ve learnt too much and grown up.’
For this, he thanks Bob: ‘It’s all down to him. For the first time, I felt like I had family. It gave me the determination to make my life more comfortable, to make his life better, too.’
He has certainly done that. James’s first royalty cheque for £30,000 will be spent settling debts, arranging health insurance for Bob and paying for a flight to see his mum in Australia over Christmas.
It’s an important trip for James, given his previous estrangement. Bob will stay at home in London and be cared for by a friend.
As for long-term plans, James hopes to get a mortgage, buy his own home and live a normal life, perhaps working for charity.
So what of Hollywood? ‘People say I could be played by Johnny Depp — but he’s too old, isn’t he?’ says James with a grin.
And Bob? ‘Oh, I don’t know. He’s the most famous cat there is!’
For now, though, James and Bob are back to busking, though only twice a week.
‘I still love busking, and so does Bob. We’ll always do it. I could never say I was his owner. We’re partners.’
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2227639/James-Bowen-Best-selling-true-story-busker-got-life-track-thanks-stray-cat-film.html#ixzz2BJYszXVv