If you've never noticed James Bowen playing Nirvana songs around Covent Garden, or selling the Big Issue in Angel, or minding his own business on the 73, thenyou’ve probably noticed his pet. It’s a ginger tomcat. On a lead. (Or sometimes James’s shoulders.) His name is Bob — and he has entranced London like no feline since the days of Dick Whittington.
The first thing you notice about Bob is he’s not like other cats. Dogs do notfaze him; police sirens do not startle him; he’s cool with the Tube (in fact, he has his own Travel card). “It makes you wonder what he did before I found him,” says Bowen, who first met Bob five years ago, when he turned up as a stray on the threshold of his flat in Tottenham. When Bowen tried to leave the house, Bob followed him onto a bus. “I thought,‘My goodness, what is going on here? Somebody’s decided they like me.’ Isn’t that right, Bob?”
Bob says nothing, just twitches his whiskers.
“He knows we’re talking about him,” says Bowen.
The second thing you notice about Bob is that he’s irresistible. Curled up on a chair outside a Covent Garden café he attracts a steady stream of admirers. Paul McCartney once stroked him, apparently. Today, a young Swedish couple say,‘How you doing, Bob!’ while an Australian girl wants to take a picture of his tiny scarf. “People bring him presents from all over— and he doesn’t mind wearing them,” says Bowen.“That’s the thing. He really thinks he’s a person. When I put his scarf on, he gets all proud, he’s like ‘Great! We’re going out!’ He’s one of the boys for sure. Aren’t you, matey?”
Bob keeps his counsel.
He hopes that his new book, A Street Cat Named Bob, which he wrote in collaboration with the writer Garry Jenkins in an Islington café, will challenge some misconceptions. He got the book deal through a literary agent, Mary Pachnos, who used to pass him each day outside Angel station and was curious enough to ask about his life story. “It’s a pretty damn good story, isn’t it?” he says. “And it’s the truth, every word of it. Yeah, it’s a pretty interesting life Bob and I have led.”
Bowen was born in England but after his parents divorced he moved with his mother and stepfather to Australia. He loathed his stepfather and, with the family moving regularly, he found it hard to settle. He was often bullied at school, becoming a “tearaway kid” with a glue habit — and was diagnosed with ADHD, schizophrenia and manic depression.
In 1997, he escaped Australia for England, where he moved in with his half-sister in south London, but her husband did not take kindly to having a volatile teenager hanging round in black clothing and he was eventually asked to leave. He spent the next few years in a spiral down, from friends’ floors, to squats and finally to the streets, where he spent the best part of the next 10years.
“It became a bleak haze for a while, until I got my s**t together. It was a long, long trek — I spent many years in hostels and in cold-weather shelters, Centre point, St Mungo’s, all that sort of stuff.” It wasn’t long before he started using heroin. “In the hostels, everybody was either a druggy or an alcoholic, so it was such an easy trap. Once you’reon that path it becomes a real Catch-22.”
Bowen broke the cycle, he says, with the help of a strong support network, including his on-off partner Belle (herself a former heroin addict), as well as charities, including Connections at St Martin-in-the-Fields. He has developed a philosophy of self-responsibility. “People who go to these NA [Narcotics’Anonymous] programmes and say ‘I am powerless, God has made me like this’ — I don’t believe that. I believe everybody is in control of their own destiny,” he says. Still, it was touch-and-go until he moved out into the Tottenham flat, which he found through the Peabody Trust and Family Mosaic. The cat showed up on his doorstep a few months after he moved in. Bob (whom Bowen named after the psychopath in Twin Peaks) was injured— a nasty-looking wound on his leg was leaking pus — which meant Bowen had to take immediate action.
“We’re two injured souls looking for someone we can trust — and we trust each other. I still have a hard time trusting people. But one thing about Bob is that he never lies to me. Even if he’s not hungry, he won’t pretend to be, like most other cats do, just to be greedy.” Bowen is not religious, but he does believe in karma. “I think I must have been doing something right for him to come along,” he says.
As he describes in the book, Bob changed his life. “I believe it came down to this little man. He came and asked me for help, and he needed me more than I needed to abuse my own body.”
Although the recession has made life far harder for street performers, Bowen discovered that when Bob accompanied him, he picked up a lot more money from busking. More than that, however, it is his pride in the animal that helped restore him. But the is at pains to point out — often pleading — that he has not exploited the animal. “There is nothing you can do to force a cat to do anything. You have to make that clear.”
Bowen still lives in the flat in Tottenham — it is the longest he has ever spent in any one place — and it has been six years since he used heroin, though he still relies on “scrips” (prescription drugs) to deal with his mental health problems. Despite the turn-around, his relations with his family remain complex, while Belle’s family refuse to speak to him.Whatever pain remains, Bowen is as optimistic as he has ever been.
“It’s nice to know people will be able to sit down and read the story in black and white instead of just assuming things in their mind,” he says. “And also, with the money that I’ll be making from it, it will be nice to make up my flat nicely. It’s not a hell of a lot of money, but it’s enough so that I won’t have to work seven days a week, I can work five days a week. That’s the plan. To have, you know, a normal lifestyle.”
He’s busking at the moment (his signature song is Hurts by Nine Inch Nails, in the Johnny Cash version) as it’s easy to fit around promoting the book. Eventually, he will return to his main source of revenue, which is selling the Big Issue. As for the future, he is thinking of registering Bob as a Care in the Community animal, so he can take him to old people’s homes and care centres. “Animals are great for calming the spirit when you’restressed,” he explains. “He certainly helped me in that way, and I’d like to help other people in that way. Maybe I’d have to take some courses in community care or something like that.”
The first thing he would do if he makes any money from the book, incidentally, is to buy Bob some pet insurance. “I can’t afford it at the moment, I’d love to be able to do that.”
I shudder to think what he would do if anything happened to that cat. “He is what I wake up for every day now. It will be horrible when he leaves me, cos I know cats don’t live as long as human beings…” he drifts off. “But he’s definitely given me the right direction to live my life.”
It’s like a love affair, I say.
“You could say that,” he says, half-laughing, through gritted teeth.“Are you my lover, Bob? You little secret lover? What’s your answer to that?”
Bob’s response is inscrutable.
“He is special. You’ve got to make that clear — that he’s a special little man.”
Article from http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/lifestyle/london-life/bob-the-busking-cat-7573094.html
Such a wonderful story of how two lost souls found each other in by doing that found their direction and love for life again. I hope it gives you a little spring in your step as you think of little Bob, and if you walk the London streets you might just see him and say hello.