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Opinion

John Bird: Best issue to date! Bob’s yer (feline) uncle

“It is the sense of mutual self-help between James Bowen and Street Cat Bob that has touched so many”

Twenty three years of surprises and wonderment over homelessness did not prepare me for Bob The Big Issue cat.

I first saw some local papers some years back declare that a Big Issue vendor called James had adopted a street cat. And sold his papers at The Angel with the cat sitting on his shoulders.

I looked at the photograph with a kind of light interest. Whatever next? Perhaps next a vendor would bring a well-trained puma to work with them, and then there would be another light article in a free local paper.

In the meanwhile James Bowen had struck a publishing deal. And had begun with Bob to win the hearts and minds of hundreds, then thousands and now millions of people throughout the world. One book followed another book, and soon James was published in 35 languages, and a Hollywood film was in the offing for the year 2015!

You will have seen last week’s issue. It had a smiling Bob on the cover. The issue number was significant: 1111. But it was more significant in that James Bowen’s article with matching cover has been probably the most popular issue we have ever issued.

James and I had met, briefly, a few years back when The Big Issue Foundation Night-Walk set off from Waterloo around a dark London. He remembered the event but it had slipped from my mind.

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But last week I met James and his steadfast sidekick Belle in a restaurant for lunch. The lunch was too short, for James is now on a treadmill with a book that has just come out and a new book that comes out at Christmas.

James is certainly the most renowned and successful of all people who have sold The Big Issue. But more than anything, he is determined to stay real, not to abandon his homeless friends. Not to forget what a stepping stone The Big Issue was. And to work with charities and support groups that put homelessness and animal welfare paramount.

James is certainly the most renowned and successful of all people who have sold The Big Issue

I had a piece of dressed crab and James and Belle tucked into scallops. But the food was incidental. We talked about the immense amount of people who have taken to Bob and James. About the 1000 emails that blocked and clogged our office when people got wind of Bob being on the cover of last week’s issue who wanted a copy desperately. Email requests from all over the world, proving that it is not just the English-speaking world that is obsessed with animals, cats in particular.

James’ books stayed at the top of the German book bestseller list for 27 weeks, half a year at number one. Followers flock, like a more humane form of the Harry Potter phenomenon, to see Bob and James. To get signed books, to get photographed, to just be near the pair of them. And this summer there has been a festival just around the Bob and James phenomenon.

“I did not realise how big this was going to go,” he tells me. “How can such a thing as me rescuing a cat from the street turn out this way? Don’t ask me. But it has brought millions of people to know about homelessness. And that can’t be a bad thing.”

One thing that reading the books shows you, is that having a cat was good for the cat Bob. Bob got fed, got warmth and affection. But Bob also gave James, passing through troubled times, order and discipline and responsibility. It gave James the chance to develop and grow in a way that was necessary in his life.

Often a complaint levelled at street people was the fact that they had dogs, mainly on a bit of string. Some people complained that a dog could do better with someone with a proper home. But others said why would anyone look after a dog when they were not able to look after themselves.

These rather jaundiced views of animals and people have been overturned with Bob and James’ story. For the story shows how Bob and James needed each other. And that for James to turn Bob away because he had to handle his own desperation first may have appeared the obvious thing.

But in fact Bob helped ‘humanise’ James; helped James through difficult times. And perhaps it is that sense of mutual self-help that is the story that has caused this mass migration of people towards Bob and James and their storytelling and sharing.

It took me a long time to come to Bob and his human protector. But they have certainly enriched and improved our work. And issue 1111 may well prove in terms of popularity to be the highpoint from which we measure all others.

John Bird is the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Email him: john.bird@bigissue.com or tweet: @johnbirdswords

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