It’s now six years since, while still working as a Big Issue vendor at the Angel in Islington, I first began sharing the story of my life-changing friendship with my ginger cat Bob. It’s been one heck of a ride. We’ve achieved things beyond my wildest imaginings; but it’s been the unexpected aspects of our success that have meant the most to me.
One of the most rewarding has been our story’s surprising popularity with young children. I say surprising because, when I initially set out to describe how Bob helped turn around my life as a reformed addict and rough sleeper, I thought the story was far too dark for a young audience. I didn’t think parents would want their children exposed to some of the tougher truths contained within the book. Some of it wasn’t pretty.
But, to my surprise – and I have to say, delight – our story has touched a nerve with younger readers too. What has been particularly gratifying has been the way parents have embraced the books as a way of communicating some difficult messages to their young children.
We’ve met many mums, dads and children not just here in the UK but around the world. Everywhere we go parents tell us that our story helps them to broach subjects that, otherwise, they might have found hard to tackle. In particular our two children’s picture books – My Name is Bob and Bob to the Rescue – have helped mums and dads explain a range of issues.
A few parents, for instance, have told us they like the fact Bob has helped to raise their children’s awareness of rescue cats and the role we can all play in helping them. My Name Is Bob imagines Bob’s life before he met me and portrays him living rough through no fault of his own. He is treated badly by almost everyone he meets. Several parents have told us how, inspired by poor Bob’s imaginary plight, their children have taken in cats from charities such as Blue Cross, Cats Protection and Battersea Cats and Dogs Home.
What’s really interesting is that, as time goes on, many parents tell me they use this as a stepping stone to explaining how people too can end up sleeping rough, again through no fault of their own. They use Bob as a means to explain the potentially upsetting and confusing sight of men and women sleeping in doorways and on pavements. What’s really inspiring about this is that many say they use this as an opportunity to teach their children how to deal with such encounters – and the underlying problems which have placed these people in this situation.
Some parents use it to simply teach their children to be kind. But others say it helps teach the importance of empathy, of not judging people on appearances and giving everyone a chance in life. I am overjoyed to think that we are helping to create a generation that views homelessness and social alienation more sympathetically. As someone who has experienced both, I think it might be our books’ greatest achievement of all, to be honest.
Which is why it seemed natural to build on this success and to connect more directly with a wide young audience by creating a children’s animation, featuring Bob.
The project was created and written by leading children’s TV producer and consultant – and early voice of a character in Peppa Pig – Debbie Macdonald with Garry Jenkins who co-wrote A Street Cat Named Bob and the Bob children’s books with me. It has been animated by the award-winning King Rollo Films and produced by Shooting Script Films, the company behind the movie version of our story.
I acted as an executive producer on the project and, from the beginning, knew that one of our biggest challenges would be to present Bob in a way that is appropriate and appealing to a young, pre-school audience. So I have – literally – faded into the background while the animation is set in a different – less dark – world to our adult books.
Bob lives with his animal friends in an inner-city park – aptly named Bowen Park! – where he sleeps in a battered old bubble car – The Bobble Car.
Bob is always trying to help people out. It doesn’t always go smoothly, of course. He has many an adventure – and misadventure – on the way. But ultimately he always tries to save the day.
In one episode he rescues a squirrel that has been trapped in floods by turning an umbrella into a parachute and then a boat.
In another he helps a delivery man when a supply of tuna cans roll down the hill towards him. We won’t give away how he does it, but it does also teach children a lesson in how their toys and playthings can sometimes be put to good use. It’s not a completely altruistic act, of course! Bob fancies tucking into a tin of tuna himself.
In another episode he is being irritated by a bee. But then he finds the bee trapped in a spider’s web. Bob is too good-hearted a soul to leave him there. But how can he rescue him?
The animation also aims to promote the idea of friendship and community. Don’t worry. It’s not all philanthropy and do-gooding. It’s a pre-school animation series, after all. So Bob and his pals – especially a pair of naughty squirrels called Nutty and Crunch – are pretty mischievous too.
I feel it is time for Bob to take it a little easier, to enjoy the new life he has with me living in a new house in south London
The project, along with a new website – streetcatbob.world – is, I hope, the start of a new chapter in our story. One that will achieve more positives. It will also, I hope, help me achieve something else. Bob and I have been together now for 11 years. He’s had an amazing decade. He has travelled the world and made dozens of TV appearances. He’s even appeared at a royal film premiere.
In cat years he must be well into middle age so I feel it is time for him to take it a little easier. To enjoy the new life he has with me living in a new house in south London.
Don’t panic. He’s not going to retire completely. He enjoys meeting people too much for that. Besides, we’ve got a new book – The Little Book of Bob– coming out this winter and he will make a few appearances at bookshops to help promote it. We will also continue to support the animal and homeless charities closest to my heart. But at the same time I hope the flame will increasingly be taken up by the animated Bob, who will – with luck – carry the spirt, joy and, above all, the positive and hopeful message of the cat that inspired him into a new era. And to a whole new audience too.
To get your paws on a back issue of any Big Issue magazine featuring Bob, visit The Big Issue Shop.
With thanks to Garry Jenkins