Opinion

John Bird: Bob’s story is worthy of the Coen brothers

There are many routes off the streets – those who move on from The Big Issue enrich us all.

James Bowen and Street Cat Bob

James Bowen and Street Cat Bob

A large tomato grabbed me in Oxford Street. Or was it some kind of onion? On second thoughts it was not red enough to be a tomato.

Anyway, a large vegetable – yes I know a tomato is a fruit – grabbed me on a cold day recently and insisted on shaking my hand. I was with my children and the large piece of vegetation told them about all the struggles on London’s streets 22 years ago to establish The Big Issue.

I have met some variously dressed former Big Issue vendors in my time, but never an unidentifiable vegetable.

I met a scaffolder who ape-like dropped from a great height down to the street level to talk to me. Or an impeccably dressed chauffeur who abandoned his car in the middle of the street, getting some honks for so doing, and embracing me. Or a chef in a restaurant who came out with his knives that had been purchased for him, along with the silly hat, apron and pants by The Big Issue.

Each had one thing in common: they were telling me that The Big Issue got them out of the sticky stuff. But the vegetable was surely the most dramatic. He had now given his life to raising money for children’s charities, and was a sure sign that though once a part of the problem, he was now a part of the solution.

Unfortunately for us we are not very good at gathering up the stories of former vendors and what happens next, good or bad. This is largely because our vendors often just ‘split’ when the time comes for them to graduate from street-selling to something else.

If only we could have an exit meeting with each and every one of them. But that is not the emergency of homelessness. It just does not work that way.

Each had one thing in common: they were telling me that The Big Issue got them out of the sticky stuff

I suppose one of the most well-known Big Issue vendors who graduated on to something big was the author of the book A Street Cat Named Bob. I have downloaded the book and it is a strong story. A man lost who finds himself through writing and singing and strumming, it would appear.

The book has turned into a number of books and also I believe a film. All because it would seem that a homeless person befriending a cat who joined him on his pitch became a grand story of love and reconciliation.

Also, though I have only seen the poster, a cat like Bob, looking just like the former homeless cat, joins the imitation Bob Dylan in the Coen Brothers new film, Inside Llewyn Davis. There, large as life hogging the poster if not the film, is Bob, ginger and curiously interesting with the bearded folk singer struggling to make it in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s.

Dylan of course took his name from the Welsh poet and well-known piss-head Dylan Thomas, dumping Zimmerman as not sounding folksy enough, and this new film kind of shows the rise from obscure middle-class Mid-West dentist’s son to hero of committed American youthness.

Yet most of the reviews I have read read like a paean to our own cat named Bob, transposed across the ocean to help the Coen brothers present a cute parcelling to Bob Dylan’s almost story.

There are many routes off of the streets, and my encounters with an unfathomed vegetable and Bob’s carer making it as a writer will always be some of the interesting stories that surround the work of The Big Issue.

Talking of good stories, next week I go to an uncle’s 100th birthday – a man who came to London from Ireland as a boy and worked in the post office most of his working life. What a story he will have to tell, born as he was half a year before the start of the First World War.

He has lived with the slums he moved into in the 1930s becoming the poshest part of London, Notting Hill, now full to the gunnels with wealthy media and acting types. And there among it all is my loveable uncle, squeezed into his Notting Hill flat just off Portobello Road.

My meeting with the vegetable who worked selling The Big Issue 20 years ago is a great story of a man who has lived many lives. And seen much as he rose from street poverty to helping people with life-threatening needs. Helping others to help themselves.

We are enriched by them. And well done to him who has used adversity to a higher end.

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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