Only a few years ago James Bowen was sleeping rough on the streets of London. Now he can’t walk down them without being mobbed by fans.
The former Big Issue vendor turned bestselling author has just released his sixth book, For the Love of Bob, and is preparing A Gift From Bob, which will be ready in time for Christmas. In the space of two years he has sold more than one million copies in the UK. James and his scarf-wearing, high-fiving, streetwise cat Bob are in high demand.
“I’m working with several charities and celebrities including Brian May [pictured below] and Rick Wakeman,” explains James as The Big Issue catches up with him on the way to a photo shoot. “We share the same opinions, not just about animals but the way that humans are treated like animals in certain circumstances.”
Up until 2007, James was homeless, selling The Big Issue and busking to make ends meet. After moving into supported accommodation his life was transformed by an injured stray cat that turned up on his doorstep. James called him Bob, after the character in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, and the pair became inseparable as they sold The Big Issue together outside Angel tube station in London.
Their antics attracted the attention of commuters and tourists. Videos appeared online and a literary agent got in touch. Their debut novel, A Street Cat Named Bob, was published in March 2012 and more than 150 people turned up at James and Bob’s first book signing in Islington. James was overwhelmed by the turnout.
Just from having this little man Bob on my shoulders so many eyes have been opened
He told The Big Issue at the time: “All the attention is a bit scary but so is sleeping rough on the streets of London for the first time. You just adapt. This is an amazing opportunity to show the world how life is on the streets.”
Little over two years later James’ life has been transformed. Back then he could have had no idea about the global celebrities he and Bob would become.
A Street Cat Named Bob has been translated into more than 35 languages and topped charts in the US, Brazil, Portugal and Turkey, while in Germany, Bob, der Streuner held the number one spot for 27 consecutive weeks. He has more than 50,000 followers on Twitter and 200,000 fans on Facebook.
“It’s absolutely blown my mind,” says James today, as Bob, perched on his shoulder, meows his agreement – though James explains in fact Bob is expressing his desire to find somewhere to do his business.
“I never expected to find a following,” he continues. “It’s so great to have a voice. So many people don’t have one, and the same goes for animals. Homeless people and Big Issue vendors, we all get chucked in the same boat.
“In my new book there will be a whole chapter about when I was a child flying on a plane. The division between economy and business and first class is almost a microcosm of the way the world treats people. You draw a curtain and pretend the people behind you don’t exist.
“I couldn’t believe how many people had never actually realised Big Issue vendors have to buy magazines first and micromanage their own money and all of that stuff. It’s amazing that just from having this little man Bob on my shoulders so many eyes have been opened.”
Beyond reading his books, hundreds of people gather for book signings, while others write fan mail and paint pictures of the pair. Such affection means a lot to James, who was born in Surrey before moving to Australia. He became homeless on his return to the UK and struggled to overcome mental health and addiction problems.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
“Every time we get a fan picture we frame it and put it up on the wall,” he says. “I try to respond to as much fan mail as possible. To anyone who hasn’t received a reply let them know that in my heart I love their messages.”
Devotees call themselves Bobites, a term coined by Martin Pickett. A 44-year-old delivery driver for Tesco by day, or by night depending on the shift, the rest of his time is spent administrating Bob’s Facebook fanpage and organising Bobfest meet-ups for fans.
“My wife and I are cat lovers and after I read A Street Cat Named Bob I thought I’d start a group on Facebook just to see if people would be interested,” Pickett explains. “For the first couple of months we had 20 or 30 people then I got in touch with James on Facebook and he put a link to the page and suddenly we had 700 people in two days.”
Now there are more than 3,000 members on his page and Pickett organised the first Bobfest in May. Attendees came from as far away as Brazil and Japan with the main focus of raising money for Blue Cross, the animal charity where James first took Bob.
To date, Bobites have raised £8,080, while becoming advocates against homelessness and ambassadors for The Big Issue.
“I can vouch for that,” Pickett says. “When I used to see a Big Issue seller I’d think to myself, what are you doing? Get a job… but the book explained to me that it is a job and I had this wrong all along. When I see a Big Issue seller now I will buy a magazine and so will most of the group.”
The story will reach even more people when a planned film goes into production next year. But what is it that captured the imagination of people all over the world?
Monday is going to be a very proud day for us. Bob is on the cover of next week's The Big Issue, the magazine that…
“I think personally it’s a story of hope coming out of absolute despair,” says Pickett. “It was like they were both in the same position. The cat was homeless and injured and James was in sheltered accommodation and injured in himself because he was a recovering heroin addict. And James needed Bob and Bob needed James.
“There’s more to this than meets the eye. I’m not a spiritual man but in that respect is there something else that we don’t fully understand? They saved each other’s lives.
“And it will have a lasting legacy. It has made a lot of people prick up their ears and look at the world around them and the people around them.”