A bronze statue of Street Cat Bob has been unveiled on Islington Green, north London, in tribute to the cat whose story touched the heart of millions worldwide.
“I know statues are very hot topic at the moment. But I think this is a statue that everyone can get behind,” said James Bowen.
The former Big Issue vendor found Bob, injured and abandoned, in 2007 and took care of the young cat – who in turn gave him a reason to get up each morning. The story of how they became inseparable, busking and selling The Big Issue on the streets of London, quickly became a bestseller.
It was a special day for James, for The Big Issue, for Islington and for everyone whose lives were touched by Bob’s story. James has channeled his grief into fighting to create a fitting, permanent tribute to Bob.
“It feels really cathartic,” he said, speaking to The Big Issue as he sat on one of the new benches next to the statue. “This is the place where it all started, where Bob and I used to come every lunchtime.
“All the effort to make it happen has been worth it. To get the funding, to get Islington Council on side, and to do it so quickly. It is so sweet. It shows that this is Bob’s spiritual home.
“And to be here now, in our spiritual home feels very special. Bob is forever part of Islington. We have made a mark here. I’m so proud of him.
“Bob is definitely here today. I brought his ashes so he could be part of the day.”
Bob has, of course, already been immortalised. The ginger street cat rose to fame, first becoming a local hero perched on James’ shoulders as he sold The Big Issue in London, and then as the star of James’ books. The series – which began with A Street Cat Named Bob in 2012 – has sold more than eight million copies in more than 40 languages.
There are also the two film adaptations, starring Luke Treadaway as James Bowen alongside Bob (as himself). And Bob is held in the hearts of so many who were touched by his uplifting tale of love, loyalty, hope and redemption.
But since Bob passed away last June, Bowen and a band of Bobites around the world have been fundraising to build a permanent memorial of Bob. After more than 100,000 donations, and months of preparation, the statue of Bob and a new seating area on the Green is now open to the public.
Covid restrictions meant many Bobites were unable to be there in person, although thousands tuned in via Facebook Live.
Among those in attendance was popular Islington vendor William Herbert, whose pitch is a stone’s throw from the new statue. He said: “I first met James and Bob a good while back when they were selling The Big Issue at Angel station. Bob was always such a friendly little cat. It means a lot to Islington that the statue is going to be here – the families and the kiddies can sit on the benches and it will be lovely.
“My pitch is just down the road. I’m hoping to sell a few more papers to the Bob fans when they visit the statue.
“I caught up with James earlier and it was fantastic to say hello to him. He’s done so well with the books and the films.”
“Bob certainly wasn’t like other cats,” said James. “And I’m pleased to say that you can see his character in the statue. When we went out to the Brecon Beacons to see the clay in [sculptor Tanya Russell’s] studio and we pulled into the car park area of her farm, I could see through the window of her studio. And I saw him in there. And I burst into tears.
“He is in that statue. So it’s amazing. Other than the whiskers and the softness of the fur, Bob is definitely there. Tanya’s done an incredible job.”
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The site of the statue, on Islington Green just in front of the Waterstones bookshop – where he first started writing the story of their life together – is a special one for James.
“The bench is right by the Waterstones where we started writing the first book,” he said. “We used to go in every day to chill out and read some books and graphic novels and browse the shelves to escape the monotony of everyday life. And they were always good with letting me take Bob in there on my shoulders or walking next to me on the lead.
“Islington Green is where the Blue Cross van would come every week to help people on low incomes take care of their pets. And being a Big Issue vendor, I could take him there to be microchipped and for other treatments. When we were selling the Big Issue there in the afternoons, we would have lunch there on the bench area, which is now Bob’s bench. So it’s such an appropriate place.”
Tanya Russell, a renowned sculptor who specialises in animals, was selected and after looking through hundreds of pictures and hours of film footage, a pose that would capture Bob’s special character was chosen. Tanya says the likeness will last for thousands of years.
“I knew about Bob,” she said. “But until you are actually part of it, I don’t think you can really appreciate the amount of love there is for Bob and James’s story and how much it means to everybody. It’s so powerful.
“The first thing I always do is talk to the person who knows the animal best. So the exact pose is very much how James remembered Bob and wanted him remembered. I think James wanted him looking really comfortable and happy and settled and composed. It’s such an amazing miracle that Bob could just sit there and be totally happy whatever was going on around them.
“I’m so honoured to be doing it. I have to say, it’s scary as well. I really, really want people to like it. It’s so important that people love this sculpture. I’m actually really pleased with the Bob sculpture. I think it’s come out really well. I really worked on it. I spent probably three times as long on it as any other sculpture I’ve done for ages. So I’m hopeful, but vaguely terrified. They love him so much. They know him so well. It’s really important for them that it does capture him for them.
“And art does have an effect on the community – on people who see it, on the whole environment of the place. It is really important. So what’s behind the art and the story of it and what it makes people think about is a big part of people’s lives. To have something like this and the amazing message of James and Bob’s story here – hopefully what it gives people is very important.”
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Leading Bobite Ester Inga Oppermann, from Hanover, Germany, was among those hoping to come to the statue’s unveiling before coronavirus restrictions made this impossible. Ester has been knitting tributes to James and Bob for many years – documenting the adventures of ‘Little James and Little Street Cat Bob’ on their own Instagram account.
She said: “I haven’t seen the complete statue of Bob but I saw the art of Tanya Russell and saw her great work on animal statues. It must have been heartbreaking for James when he saw Bob’s statue for the first time a while ago… like he was still there with him! The place for the statue is a fantastic choice: near Angel Station and the park they used to visit for breaks from work and for Bob and his business.”
Ester has already made her own artistic tribute to the statue, which she shared first with The Big Issue.
She is planning to make her own pilgrimage to the real Bob statue as soon as Covid restrictions allow.
“My biggest wish was to be at the unveiling but thanks to Covid-19 this is not possible for me,” she added. “As soon I can travel again from Hannover I will be in London and my first starting point will be Islington Green for the Bob statue.
“It will be a moment full of feelings, I think, with tears. But now London has a special place for all the Bob fans and other generations in the future to remember this special cat!”
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