The last time James Bowen saw his beloved cat Bob was at 11pm last Saturday night in the kitchen of his Surrey home when he gave him dinner as usual.
Half an hour later when it was time for bed — the ginger tom usually slept on a blue fleecy blanket on top of his owner’s duvet — James couldn’t find him.
‘I went outside and called him but he didn’t come,’ says James. ‘I didn’t go to bed that night, I was back and forth between the house and the street looking for him and calling for him with my fiancée Monika.’
But the next morning the cat, who for 13 years was always within calling distance, was still nowhere to be seen. A terribly sad, but not uncommon occurrence in suburbia where free-spirited cats often vanish without trace.
Never has a cat been so loved — not just by James — but by millions of people, worldwide, who know him as A Street Cat Named Bob
But Bob was no ordinary cat. Never has a cat been so loved — not just by James — but by millions of people, worldwide, who know him as A Street Cat Named Bob, star of a bestselling book and film of the same name.
First and foremost, however, the former stray was James’s best friend, whom he credits with rescuing him from living rough on the streets of London and catapulting him from the depths of drug addiction to international fame and a clean, good life.
Lockdown had meant that the inseparable duo had seen more of each other than ever. Having finished filming the sequel to the award-winning film adaptation of James’s book earlier this year, Bob was enjoying life at home, lying in the sun inside his purpose-built outdoor ‘catio’ or in his customary position on James’s shoulders.
‘He just enjoyed being with me,’ says James. ‘It didn’t matter to him whether he was sleeping on concrete cuddled up to me in a sleeping bag, or crashing on a sofa at a friend’s place, or in a hotel room, or in our own bed. He just wanted to be with me. There was an extraordinary bond between us. We knew each other so well.
‘I knew one day I would lose him,’ James says. ‘But I didn’t think it would happen so soon, or like this . . .’
The next morning James and Monika carried on looking for Bob, James calling out his name as he paced the streets, knocking on neighbours’ doors and phoning the vet and every nearby animal charity and shelter to see if Bob, who had been micro-chipped, had been handed in.
At first, James felt certain that the street-savvy feline would return home safely. After all, if any cat knew how to take care of itself on the streets, it was Bob. But by Monday morning, James was beside himself with worry and his anxiety steadily increased until he felt certain that something terrible had happened.
Racked by grief, the 41-year-old is barely able to speak without sobbing. He has struggled to sleep since Bob first went missing
‘On Monday at about 5pm all of a sudden I felt this terrible nausea,’ he says. Less than an hour later, the vet called.
Breaking down in tears, James struggles to get the words out. ‘They said: “We’ve got Bob here, but it’s bad news,” and I said: “Please don’t say it. Don’t say it.” And they said: ‘He’s been in an accident and he’s passed away.” ’
As the Mail can reveal, Bob had been hit by a car, the blow to the head causing a haematoma that killed him instantly. He was handed into the vet by a member of the public who was not the driver of the car. Unable to know the exact sequence of events around Bob’s undignified death, a devastated James can’t help but imagine the worst.
‘Did the driver stop? Did they even know they’d hit him? How long was Bob lying there before the passer-by saw him?’ says James, his voice shaking with emotion. ‘I just can’t believe it. I thought we would have more time together. He was getting older but I’ve no doubt he still had years left in him.’
Racked by grief, the 41-year-old is barely able to speak without sobbing. He has struggled to sleep since Bob first went missing. Above all, he cannot believe the animal who has been at his side day and night for more than a decade was taken from him in such cruel circumstances. ‘I find myself looking around and expecting to see him and when I realise he’s gone, it feels as if I can’t breathe. It’s a nightmare. He was my best friend.’
It was an utterly unfitting end for an animal who brought joy to millions. But for James, who met Bob in 2007, the pain of his loss is unimaginable. He goes over in his head what was, unbeknown to him then, the last time they played together on Saturday evening.
‘He had this spinning feather toy which he loved. We played with that and then I cuddled him and told him how proud I was of him,’ says James. He certainly had a lot to be proud of.
The extraordinary cat was believed to have been about a year old when he wandered into James’s life. At the time, James was at rock bottom, living in supported housing and enrolled in a methadone programme as he tried to wean himself off heroin.
A fractured relationship with his parents, who separated when he was three, and a battle with drug addiction had led to a ten-year period of homelessness.
When Bob appeared, injured, in the hallway outside his one-bedroom flat in Tottenham, North London, he had no idea his life was about to change for ever.
After failing to trace his owner, James spent his last £30 on a visit to the vet to treat the injured cat’s leg and, once he was well, tried to free him, thinking he’d find his way home. But refusing to leave his side, Bob began following James around, jumping on the bus with him when he went to sell The Big Issue or to busk outside the Angel Tube station in London.
It was, James explains, the sudden realisation that he was responsible for another living creature that forced him to turn his life around, once and for all. ‘I’m not sure that I’d even be here today if I hadn’t met him,’ he whispers.
‘Bob gave a direction and purpose to my life that it hadn’t had before. From that moment on, everything changed and all the positive things that happened after that can be traced back to him. His influence on my life has been extraordinary. He made me believe in myself.’
James and Bob became a popular sight outside Angel Tube station and on the streets of Covent Garden, where passers-by were stunned by the sight of the cat — often wearing his trademark knitted scarf — sitting so placidly next to James in one of the busiest parts of London.
In 2010, a literary agent who passed the duo every day suggested he write a book, and in 2012 A Street Cat Named Bob — the first of eight ‘Bob’ books — was published. It went on to sell nine million copies in more than 40 languages, topping best-seller lists everywhere.
The book led to an award-winning film in 2016, in which actor Luke Treadaway played James. But when the producers assumed that another cat could ever live up to Bob, they were mistaken. Luckily, Bob was around to pick up the pieces.
‘Bob saved the day on the film set,’ says James. ‘They brought in six acting cats who were great at following their cues, but once they were taken to film in the middle of the city, they looked terrified. They kept looking left and right at all the people around them. They weren’t as cool as Bob.’
In the end, Bob played himself in many of the scenes, coolly stepping from James’s shoulder to actor Luke’s whenever required
In the end, Bob played himself in many of the scenes, coolly stepping from James’s shoulder to actor Luke’s whenever required.
His big screen appearance catapulted him to even greater stardom. During the years that followed, James and Bob travelled to Norway, France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal and even Japan where the human-feline duo stayed in a 50th floor corner suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Tokyo.
‘Every time we walked into a hotel room when we were on tour, he walked around and inspected it,’ James recalls. ‘He’d find a favourite spot and then go and check that his litter tray was in the bathroom. He loved travelling.
‘Bob had to go in a cat carrier under the seat on the plane but I used to sneak him out during the flight. He liked looking out of the window at the world below and wherever we went, he was curious about the smells of a new city and about meeting new people.’
When they reached each destination, thousands queued to see the ginger cat who sat happily purring next to James during book signings and interviews, unfazed by the attention he received.
‘He was happy wherever we went so long as he was with me,’ says James. ‘We were soulmates and best friends.’
Bob also starred as himself in the film’s sequel, the poignantly-titled A Gift From Bob, about James and Bob’s last Christmas spent on the streets, which finished filming last autumn and has yet to be given a release date.
‘Luke Treadaway called to check on me when he heard about Bob passing. It meant a lot. He really bonded with Bob.’
Seeing the film for the first time when it is released will undoubtedly be a bitter-sweet occasion.
‘It’s going to be emotional seeing him again on screen,’ says James. ‘But I will because I want to celebrate Bob’s life. Everything I do now will be about celebrating him.’
The film will no doubt also be poignant for Bob’s millions of fans. This week there were outpourings of grief on social media as thousands paid tribute to the remarkable cat. ‘You’ll always have a special place in our hearts. You’ll never be forgotten,’ wrote one.
Another wrote: ‘So sad to hear that Bob has passed away. I went to a book signing years ago and he was doing what cats do best, napping. He looked so adorable. Rest in peace little angel.’
This week there were outpourings of grief on social media as thousands paid tribute to the remarkable cat
It’s too soon for grief-stricken James to think about what the future will hold without him. He is being comforted by Monika, 37, who works as a team leader at Marks & Spencer. The pair were planning to wed in a couple of months’ time, with Bob as their ring-bearer, but have decided to postpone the ceremony now that he will not be with them.
Since Bob’s death, Monika’s female cat Pom Pom has been sitting at one of the windows at their four-bedroom detached home looking out for her feline pal. For James, the sight of Bob’s toys sitting untouched on the floor is utterly heartbreaking.
‘I can’t take it in that he’s not coming back,’ he says, choking on his tears in order to get the words out.
But he believes that Bob’s spirit is with him. Since the cat’s passing, James says he has felt the brush of his tail against his leg and has caught a flash of ginger going up the stairs.
When Bob passed away, James was in the middle of recording four songs with his band James Bowen with the Wild and Stray. He has also written a proposal for a documentary series, in which he would sleep rough in cities around the world to see how different societies deal with homelessness.
His main concern now is to carry on fundraising for homeless and cat charities or, as he puts it, to be a voice for the voiceless. When the shock of his precious pet’s death subsides, he is planning to set up a trust fund to help raise money for the homeless in Bob’s name.
Above all, he is determined that Bob’s legacy will live on. His ashes will be placed in a wooden ‘sleeping cat’ urn and will remain with James at home, in one of the places where Bob liked to lie in the sun, in James’s bedroom or on the landing. He also intends to hold a memorial service and Bob’s fans have already launched a petition for a statue, possibly in Covent Garden, where James and Bob first found fame.
‘We saved each other,’ says James. ‘All these dreams came true — not just for me, but for so many people whose lives he touched. He really was the best. There’s never been a cat like him. I just hope he can live on in people’s hearts.’