— April 29, 2017

A Man and His Cat

  • How James Bowen reclaimed his life with the help of a ginger tom named Bob.

If there was anyone who really needed a reboot, it was James Bowen. A lonely childhood spent shuttling with his divorced mother between England and Australia. A defiant adolescence. A would-be musician. Finally, a heroin addict, playing for loose change, and sleeping, on the London streets. By his late 20s, Bowen was trying to turn things around.

He got into a methadone program and was assigned a flat in a poor area; it was in the building’s hallway where Bowen first saw a ginger cat with “a quiet, unflappable confidence about him.” A few days later Bowen saw the cat again, this time with an injured leg. The last thing Bowen needed “was the extra responsibility of a cat.” But there was no one else. So the recovering addict made what would be the biggest decision of his life: He took his new pal to a low-cost vet clinic and then home for a short stay before the cat—now named Bob after the character Killer Bob on the old TV show “Twin Peaks”—would return to the streets. That didn’t happen. As Bowen relates in A Street Cat Named Bob (St. Martin’s Griffin), “Maybe he’d spotted a kindred spirit in me.” Bowen busked in central London’s Covent Garden district. One day, Bob followed him to the bus stop. He tried to shoo Bob away but the cat wound up in his lap. The conductor asked if Bob was his. Bowen answered, “I guess he must be.”

As a street person, Bowen was generally invisible. But as he reached Covent Garden and began to play, Bob’s charm paid off: A steady stream of people stopped to admire the cat curled up in the guitar case—and pitch in their cash. By the time Bowen and Bob were finished, they had more than three times the money Bowen normally made alone. It was the beginning of an unbreakable bond between a broken man and a remarkable cat. And with every picture one of Bob’s growing band of admirers took, the tabby’s fame would grow. Not that Bowen was aware of it at the time. After an arrest for illegal busking, he started selling the Big Issue (part of a jobs program for the homeless and near-homeless). After run-ins with other sellers, he had to switch locations. A frightened Bob ran off twice, leaving Bowen shaken. Despite the setbacks, Bowen felt himself being transformed by his love for his cat. “He’d make me clean up my act in more ways than one,” he writes. “I was becoming a person again.” That would include getting off methadone—and finally leaving addiction behind.

From the streets to the stars: One day a friend of Bowen gave him a picture of Bob that she had gotten off the Internet. Bob on the Internet? It was true. Many of the pictures that had been taken of Bob, plus a couple of videos, had gone online unknown to Bowen, who didn’t have computer access at the time. Eventually, Bowen and Bob’s story came to the attention of editors at St. Martin’s Press. The book he would write became a bestseller and, eventually, a film of the same name, released in late 2016 and coming out on DVD this May. It is directed by Roger Spottiswoode, who seems to have a soft spot for stories like this—he co-directed 2014’s “The Journey Home,” in which a boy tries to reunite a polar bear cub and its mother—and stars Luke Treadaway as Bowen. Bob plays himself for much of the movie, and many scenes include shots from his point of view. As is often the case, the writers for A Street Cat Named Bob” gave the story extra punch. It’s more dramatic, for example, to have Bowen creep through his cat at night after hearing an intruder, his defense a raised shoe, only to find an orange cat in the kitchen scarfing down cornflakes. And since much of the book involves Bowen talking directly to the reader, the movie needs to transform his thoughts into words spoken by other people, as when one character tells Bowen that Bob “came to you for a reason.” But some scenes feel all too real, such as the hellish sequence in which Bowen shakes, sweats, screams and vomits his way through methadone withdrawal with no one but Bob by his side.

One reviewer appreciated that “A Street Cat Named Bob” doesn’t endow Bob with “any mystical or magical powers,” noting that the cat depends on Bowen as much as the other way around. But Bowen should have the last word on his relationship with Bob, who “just needed his companion: me.” In return, “All I needed was Bob…for as long as I had the privilege of having him in my life.

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