If the last three years of my life have taught me anything, it is to expect the unexpected. It has been a pretty easy lesson to absorb. Since swapping my Big Issue vendor’s vest for life as an author in 2012, it has felt like every day has been a source of surprise. Barely a day has gone by when I haven’t spent a moment pinching myself at what has happened to me.
So when I travelled to Germany a week or so ago on my first ever overseas book tour I was fully prepared for the unpredictable. I wasn’t disappointed.
I had known that A Street Cat Named Bob, the book I wrote about my life-changing friendship with a ginger tomcat I met eight years ago, has been a huge bestseller in Germany, spending more than a year in the bestseller list and selling more than 1.5 million copies. But I had no idea of the impact the story had made there.
Bob at the Brandenburg Gate during the Berlin visit
The first clue came in Berlin when I was walking through a quiet park with Bob and heard voices shouting. “Bob, Bob!” I saw that it was a group of children, sat in a circle in the distance, and simply assumed they were playing some kind of game. I shrugged my shoulders, thinking Bob must be a German word.
But then the same thing happened as we strolled around the city’s most iconic landmarks, the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag. Yet more schoolchildren appeared and this time they approached us, all eager to meet Bob. It was only when a teacher told me they recognised us from the classroom that I realised what was happening. To our amazement, we learned that a version of A Street Cat Named Bob is being used by German schools as a standard textbook for learning English.
A version of A Street Cat Named Bob is being used by German schools as a standard textbook for learning English
The surprises kept coming as we travelled around the country in a specially chosen people carrier where Bob could rest and sleep quietly. Crowds of up to 900 people turned up at signings in Cologne, Berlin and Brunswick. Many had queued for five or more hours just to say hello, get an autographed copy of one of our books and, of course, get a glimpse and a hurried smartphone snap of Bob. It was a wonderful experience, one that I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams. To know that so many people have been touched by our story was truly humbling.
Yet there was one moment that proved more unexpected – and powerful – than any of these. It came during the second of these signings, in Berlin. It was then that I came face-to-face with my past.
James and Bob with fans in Germany
To be honest, the evening had been a bit of a whirl. Bob and I had been rushed into the giant shopping centre like rock stars, weaving our way through subterranean corridors before emerging into a large bookshop where vast lines of people were eagerly waiting to meet us. I’d been signing books for about an hour when I looked up into the queue and was drawn to a face in the crowd. At first I couldn’t quite believe it. But as she drew closer and closer to the front of the line, I realised that it really was her. I don’t want to identify her, so let’s call her Hannah.
Around eight or nine years ago, Hannah’s life had been as much of a mess as mine. She too had been homeless and addicted to heroin. We had often slept rough in the same places in London and had become really close friends. More than that, we had been partners in crime, quite literally. In the depths of my heroin addiction I used to steal from supermarkets. I would steal joints of meat which I would then sell in pubs so that I could feed my habit. It was a pretty desperate time.
Hannah and I used to work together. Our plan was very simple, it wasn’t the stuff of an Ocean’s Eleven movie. One of us would dress in the closest thing we could find to rags and cause a commotion in the store. The other would dress smartly and, while the staff were distracted, fill our bags with as many haunches of ham and joints of beef as we could manage.
Hannah had, I knew, hit rock bottom around this time. She had a really bad heroin addiction and ended up being jailed for attacking someone with a knife. She had been given a couple of years in Holloway Prison. I hadn’t seen her since. Now, to my utter amazement, she was standing in the queue. I asked my German publishers whether we could have a brief moment together and, in a small area away from the signing, we exchanged a few all-too-brief words.
She told me that after being released from Holloway she had left London and her past to make a new life for herself here in Berlin. She told me that she was clean and in a relationship. Her face positively glowed with health and happiness. I found it hard not to cry out loud but thought better of it. It wasn’t a great look in front of several hundred fans. As she slipped off we swapped numbers and email addresses. We promised each other that we would see each other again. We already have plans to do so.
I was soon sucked back into the madness of the signing. It was only in the days and hours that followed that the significance of the moment hit home. My encounter with Hannah stopped me in my tracks and made me take stock. I suddenly felt myself overcome with gratitude. Thanks to very different circumstances both Hannah and I have been able to escape the horrendous situation in which we had found ourselves.
We are, of course, both on journeys that aren’t quite over. Like Hannah, I know that the battle against addiction is a daily one. It doesn’t go away. It never will. But we have both found hope. And we can see the way ahead. Many of those with whom we shared those dark and distant days on the street were not so fortunate. We were the lucky ones that got out alive.
Both Hannah and I have been able to escape the horrendous situation in which we had found ourselves
The encounter also reminded me of something else. It made me realise, once again, I have a responsibility to capitalise on my good fortune. I must try to seize the amazing opportunities life has presented and, if I can, use them to do some good. I returned from Berlin more determined than ever to do so.
The opportunities before me are actually beyond belief.
We are now, for instance, a matter of weeks away from filming – beginning on a movie based on the book and its sequel, The World According to Bob. Former James Bond director Roger Spottiswoode is making the movie with the brilliant young British actor Luke Treadaway (pictured below) playing me. It is beyond surreal to imagine that I will soon be walking on to the set of a movie which will depict Bob and me sitting on the streets of Islington and Covent Garden, where I used to busk before selling The Big Issue.
We are obviously in the hands of the production team, and Roger Spottiswoode in particular, but there’s a strong possibility that Bob and I will make cameo appearances in the movie. Bob is not a trained ‘actor’ and the demands of being on a busy film set for seven intense weeks would be too much for him. I would not put him through it. He is also too old to play his younger self in the film, which is set when we first met back in 2007, eight years ago.
So a group of Bobalikes have been specially trained in Vancouver, Canada, for the past few months. Each of them can apparently do Bob’s now-famous high five. Each of them will have to perform stunts such as the moment when Bob jumped on a bus to sit alongside me. I can’t wait to see that particular scene.
More importantly, however, I hope that the film allows me to continue giving something back to the people who have helped me and Bob. I work regularly to support homeless and animal charities, from The Big Issue Foundation to Blue Cross and smaller causes – but I have also started my own project.
I have raised more than £150,000 via a crowdfunding platform so that I can attempt to open a café where I also hope to run educational courses on caring for cats and animal welfare in general. It has been incredibly gratifying to see people’s support and enthusiasm and I am currently working hard, trying to get out the thousands of ‘perks’ of books, mugs and T-shirts that reward people for their donations. I am even delivering a few of them myself.
Getting the project off the ground has been incredibly hard, a really steep learning curve, and the next phase – finding, obtaining and opening premises – will be the hardest. I am looking at potential sites but there are so many obstacles, from property prices to the red tape of planning, health and safety regulations.
I am determined to give it my best shot, however. Regardless of what hurdles lie ahead and whether I can bring my plans to fruition, running the project has given me a purpose and a direction in life that I could never have dreamed of five years ago. I’m determined that the charities I care about most will benefit from it in one way or another.
That life remains a busy and exciting one. I will be back ‘on the road’ again this autumn and winter. A new children’s picture book, Bob to the Rescue, has just been published and I will be travelling around the country doing signings for the paperback edition of our Christmas tale, A Gift from Bob. Appropriately, the first, at lunchtime on Thursday, October 22, will be held at Waterstones in Islington, near Angel Tube station where I used to sell The Big Issue with Bob at my side.
If the signings we have done around the UK in the past are any indicator, Bob and I can expect hundreds more friendly faces in the queues in the coming months.
Who knows what surprises they may hold in store?
Bob to the Rescue (Red Fox Picture Books, £6.99) and A Gift from Bob (Hodder, £7.99) are both out now in paperback.