A young man plays guitar sitting on the ground. He strums a few chords, then adjusts his hair slipped in front of the eyes, smiles and looks at the people who pass in front of him, busy, nervous, taken in the whirl of daily life in a London with a sky gray and flat. But some people stop the walk, irresistibly attracted by the little fellow who is perched on the boy’s shoulder. A weird couple, strangely colored and peaceful in the urban chaos. We are at Covent Garden and they are James Bowen and Bob, the street cat, inseparable friend of the human to whom he “saved” the life. The cat, a red ginger tomcat with sharp eyes, has rapidly become a little phenomenon in London, to the point of having his own oyster card that was handed over by London Underground.
Their story begins in 2007 with a casual encounter, destined to change both their lives, as told in the book A Street Cat Named Bob, published in England by Hodder & Stoughton. The presentation in a bookshop in London, on March 15, was a real success: 400 copies have been quickly sold and the bookshop was full of people who wanted an autograph from James and Bob, that has just given the paw narrowing his eyes.
James, who is 33 today, divides his life into two distinct phases: before Bob and after Bob. Before encountering his little friend, he had led a hard life that had left deep scars inside him: after the divorce of parents, is forced to move to Australia with his mother and stepfather, a man who detests. In 1997, after an adolescence of school bullying, he returns to London and seeks help from his sister, but neither from her he finds a place to call home: thus begins a long period of moving in a downward spiral until the abuse of drugs and alcohol.
«It became a bleak haze for a while. It was a long, long trek — I spent many years in hostels and in cold-weather shelters. In the hostels, everybody was either a druggy or an alcoholic, so it was such an easy trap.»
He breaks the cycle with the help of a strong support network, including his on-off partner Belle (herself a former heroin addict), as well as charities. His life is not stable yet, and his body still struggles against drug addiction, but one night, after moving into a flat in Tottenham, a cat appears at his door, badly injured in a leg. James realizes he has to take immediate action and without wasting time welcomes the cat into the house and cares him. Since then, Bob hasn’t left him, following him on its own initiative even on the bus and the subway.
«We’re two injured souls looking for someone we can trust — and we trust each other. I still have a hard time trusting people. But one thing about Bob is that he never lies to me. Even if he’s not hungry, he won’t pretend to be, like most other cats do, just to be greedy.» James is not religious, but he does believe in karma. «I think I must have been doing something right for him to come along.»
The book, A Street Cat Named Bob, was written by James in collaboration with the writer Garry Jenkins in an Islington café: he got the book deal through a literary agent, Mary Pachnos, who used to pass him each day and was curious enough to ask about his life story. «It’s a pretty damn good story, isn’t it?» he said to her, «and it’s the truth, every word of it. Yeah, it’s a pretty interesting life Bob and I have led.»
The first thing he would do if he makes any money from the book, incidentally, is to buy Bob some pet insurance, that he can’t afford at the moment, but that is absolutely necessary because he himself does not dare to think what would happen if the cat needed expensive medical care.
«He is what I wake up for every day now. It will be horrible when he leaves me, cos I know cats don’t live as long as human beings … But he’s definitely given me the right direction to live my life.»
It’s like a love affair.
Bob is famous not only in London but also in America and even in Russia, where he has had a TV service, and gradually becoming known around the world.
You can follow the adventures of Bob and James on Twitter: @StreetCatBob