Formerly homeless busker James Bowen has sold 500,000 books about his life on the streets. Kate Youde finds out how a cat named Bob helped him turn his fortunes around
The word ‘cat’ doesn’t quite do Bob justice. The scarf-wearing ginger tom gives high-fives, has his own Travelcard (specially provided by London Underground) for the journeys he takes by Tube or bus, and can open cupboards with his bare paws.
Add in the fact he is the subject of a bestselling book, A Street Cat Named Bob, and it can come as no surprise to learn Hollywood is sniffing around. Bob is not your average moggy, and his burgeoning fame is helping to change public perceptions of homeless people.
In 2007, street musician James Bowen found Bob, an injured stray, in the hallway of his supported housing accommodation, run by Family Mosaic, in Tottenham, north London. Then a recovering drug addict living hand-to-mouth, the responsibility of looking after a cat was, as Mr Bowen says in his book, the last thing he needed.
But the pair soon became inseparable, with Bob accompanying his owner on a lead when he went busking in Covent Garden and, later, when he sold copies of The Big Issue outside Angel tube station.
While Mr Bowen previously felt invisible playing his guitar on the streets alone, Bob pulled in the punters and made people want to stop and chat.
In 2011, Mr Bowen and Bob were approached by a literary agent who suggested their story would be a good one to tell. Since its release a year ago, A Street Cat Named Bob, the uplifting tale of the pair’s adventures, has sold more than half a million copies in the UK and been translated into 20 languages. A children’s version, Bob: No Ordinary Cat, was published last month.
Now living in a one-bedroom flat in Tottenham, rented from housing association Peabody Trust, Mr Bowen says life has become a lot easier on the back of his success. He and Bob, ‘the boss of the house’ and the reason his kitchen cupboards and refrigerator have child locks, only busk a couple of times a week now and enjoy a ‘more stable lifestyle’.
Thanks to the book sales, Bob and Mr Bowen are now serious business - potentially for the homelessness sector as well as their publishing company. It is difficult, of course, to pinpoint whether or not A Street Cat Named Bob is having a positive impact on donations to homelessness charities, but Matthew Wilk, head of marketing and communications at one such organisation, Centrepoint, says it is helping to raise awareness.
Mr Wilk says the book will reach a wider audience than people who might already give to homelessness charities and is useful because it is ‘not your typical [street] homeless story’, but addresses issues such as sofa surfing.
So what do one man and his cat make of life as a publishing sensation? And does the man behind it think his success can help improve the lives of other homeless people?
Mr Bowen says he is pleased to know he is opening the eyes of ‘loads of people’ to the issues around homelessness he raises in the book. ‘They say, “I never understood about The Big Issue, about [vendors] having to buy it first”,’ the 33-year-old explains, sporting a T-shirt bearing the slogan ‘Real men love cats’. ‘[They say] “I never understood that’s how the ladder works for getting back into a flat and getting off drugs”.’
We meet in a café near the Islington Green branch of Waterstone’s bookshop where Mr Bowen and his co-writer Garry Jenkins have been working on the next book, The World According to Bob: The Further Adventures of One Man and His Street-wise Cat, which is being released in July. Bob has retreated to the ‘Bob-mobile’ - a mini-bus - for a catnap after posing for photographs.
Before he found his ‘diva’ pet, Mr Bowen spent about three years sleeping rough in London’s west end, bedding down wherever he could find a warm place. ‘You remember each day as it’s happening but then the memories are quite cold and bitter,’ he says. ‘It’s not very nice but you do what you have to do to survive. It’s either that or give up and curl up and die, which I’d rather not do. That’s a different time in my life.’
During that period, he received help from the charities Centrepoint, The Connection at St Martin’s and St Mungo’s, and believes outreach workers ‘do a good job with what they’ve got’. But he says the government should provide more outreach workers and more funding to day centres, and that cold weather shelters should not be shut down at the end of the cold weather.
‘There’s so much empty property and now they’ve revoked the squatters’ rules, which could have given people a roof over their head, even if it’s only a temporary measure while they get moved by the court,’ he adds. ‘They [the government] are just making it worse.’
The author believes the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who had pledged to end rough sleeping in the capital by 2012, ‘needs a good kick up the arse’. The Conservative politician has definitely not got his vote. ‘It is broken promises all the time from [Mr Johnson],’ he says.
Mr Bowen feels the public is often ‘misinformed’ about homelessness, with many thinking it must be a person’s choice to be on the streets. ‘It’s a bit of a loaded thing: it can be their choice but it can also be because they don’t have the facilities,’ he says.
There are ‘loads of things’ the government could do to tackle homelessness, he adds, but it has other priorities. ‘They go, “let’s sort out all the joblessness”,’ he explains. ‘You can’t sort out all the joblessness until you’ve sorted out the homelessness, but, no, joblessness is a priority first. But you can’t do that until you’ve got somewhere to live.’
He is speaking from experience: in his book, he recalls how an employer sacked him from his job as a kitchen porter when they found out he was homeless. ‘It’s a catch 22,’ he tells me.
Our interview comes less than a month after two Big Issue sellers were stabbed to death in Birmingham. Mr Bowen does not seem surprised by the attacks, but then he has first-hand experience of violence on the streets.
‘It often happens with drunken people, let’s be honest,’ he says. ‘They get rowdy and lairy and they think it’s funny to pick on somebody who can’t fight back. They look at these vulnerable people, who can often be mentally ill and that’s why they’re homeless, and they see them as an easy target so it becomes a little game for some people. There is no need for it but it just happens.’
He was physically attacked ‘all the time’. ‘If you were begging or something or selling The Big Issue they’d just go, “get a job!” and bam, whack you, and walk off and things like that, not understanding that The Big Issue is a job: you have to buy it to sell it.’
Mr Bowen has a thing or two to say about some of the homelessness sector’s big hitters as well. He says The Big Issue does not do enough to raise awareness among the public of how it works and the fact that sellers have to buy the magazines. Vendors are initially issued with a number of free copies. Once they have sold these magazines they can buy further copies for £1.25 each. He also argues that the revenue the magazine generates from advertising should mean it does not need to charge ‘such a ridiculous cover price’ - currently £2.50.
It is a price a spokesperson for The Big Issue hopes readers consider ‘a fair price for a fantastic read’. She says the business strives to highlight the fact vendors are running their own small businesses and that a new advertising campaign, designed by vendors, which launched earlier this month has ‘this message at its heart’.
She adds of Mr Bowen’s success: ‘We would hope that any positive publicity about a vendor or an ex-vendor would serve to raise awareness of the challenges our sellers face and highlight that they are working, not begging, thereby encouraging members of the public to speak to and support their local vendor.’
Mr Bowen, who moved home a lot as a child in the UK and Australia with his mum, started sleeping on friends’ floors and sofas after being kicked out by his half-sister and brother-in-law. ‘Then when I ran out of floors I moved to the streets,’ he recalls in the book.
Mr Wilk says that when Centrepoint has carried out education work in schools, 12 and 13-year-olds have thought of homelessness as an ‘old man with a bottle of cider and beard who smells a bit’. The book will help break down this stereotype, he adds.
For now, Mr Bowen is taking things one day at a time, but he would like to become a homeowner in the future. ‘If everything goes well, that is my ultimate plan: to have my own place, to be on the property ladder,’ he adds.
In the meantime, his profile is continuing to grow. Street Cat Bob has more than 27,000 followers on Twitter and fans post photographs of their copies of the book in exotic locations on the blog ‘Around the world in 80 Bobs’. Even before its release in the US, there is talk in Hollywood of turning A Street Cat Named Bob into a film - although Mr Bowen says there is nothing specific planned at the moment.
Does Mr Bowen feel a personal responsibility for getting the message out about homelessness as a result of his success? He says he is happy to do what he can for charities to raise awareness, but adds that he is ‘not a saint… just an ordinary guy [who’s] had the opportunity to express how I feel’.
‘I do what I can, but I am only one man and his cat,’ he claims. So, of course, was Dick Whittington - and just look what happened to him.