John Bird: Even for me, A Street Cat Named Bob was an eye-opener

"That cat seems the wisest of us all, incapable of duplicity or wastefulness"

Last week I went to see A Street Cat Named Bob, the ‘James Bowen meets nature in the poor streets of London’ story. It is based on James’ runaway successful book called A Street Cat Named Bob. Unlike dogs, cats rarely can be preened and disciplined into accepting that they are appendages to the human world.

“A cat is a cat is a cat” as is said by a character in another great cat book called Dickens the Socially Mobile Cat.

Dated from the last days of Thatcherism – 1990 – it was full of salient points about the growth of capitalism, and set in the 1820s.

But A Street Cat Named Bob is really about a cat and his unlikely shepherder, James. A cat that once found, although let’s be honest – a cat is never truly lost, attaches himself to James; who as well as being a busker is a Big Issue vendor.

Bob takes James through an odyssey of self-improvement unlike any other. James is a user, on a methadone script from a sympathetic doctor, and struggling to get off addiction.

The cat, lovable in a thoughtful way – as is shown in the book from which the film extends – shows that people can be humanised by animals. That cats seem the wisest of us all, incapable of threatery, duplicity or wastefulness.

The grown-up cat shows James how to grow up.

Whilst selling The Big Issue at The Angel, Islington, a historical Big Issue site if there ever was one, James and Bob attract the attention of a local newspaper.

Bob takes James through an odyssey of self-improvement unlike any other

From hence comes acclaim, a book and a kind of redemption for James. All, it would seem, while the inscrutable cat continues being the ginger he is.

I was deeply caught. Though a founding father of The Big Issue, knowing street grief at first hand, Bob was an eye-opener.

Not about the miserableness of a troubled and broken life but because in the storytelling you can sense that personal struggle writ large. James does struggle before your eyes. Does make you feel that enough is never done. That without major reforms this will continue on ad infinitum.

That broken and failing families produce the garbage-strewn life of the user. It was not a political film. This was not a Ken Loach film about how the wheels of capital grind you down. It was about how a cat restored the bounce in the life of one individual. Enough bounce in fact to get out of the grief he was in.

One of the most moving and troubling incidents is when James finds a fellow user dead. Then the state jumps in, providing the ambulance, but it really is a case of a little too little and a lot too late.


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The smell of death haunts the living world that the Bob film shows. But it does also show how important such lives as James’ are for us to try and save. That we, ourselves, must never give up on people who turn to the outrage of drugs. That it is a mental illness issue and should be treated as that.

James and Bob

No one is handsome in this film, except the cat. The doctor who administers to James is as tough as nails, and needs to be as she continuously holds James to the regime of getting off drugs. Even The Big Issue staff are painted similarly nail-like, although with the earned for warmth attached. Getting the distressed to earn Brownie points is one of the most decent things you can do for someone who needs help. It can never be a one-sided job. For recovery you need the recoverer in on the act.

Quibbles? James riding a bike with a basket and Bob in it, from the Tower of London to Portobello Road, slightly annoys my ex-mini cab driver’s view of the capital. That is an odyssey in itself.

Aside from that I liked the way it made a story about two characters: one a distressed child of our streets; and the other a cat looking for some human love. And giving it and getting back.

The reference to my cat book was just a cheap way of getting a mention of it in. But my cat is definitely a Ken Loach cat: loaded down with politics.

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