The Curious Incident of Serendipity

Meeting author James Bowen and a street cat named Bob in Hampstead.

The power of a great story, narrative or visual, has always been compelling to me.

Since my childhood, reading a fascinating book would compress the whole story in a few images. Seeing a captivating image would work in the opposite direction. In my mind, the image would generate a whole new narrative.

This interchangeable way of transforming stories into images and images into stories is a vital part of how I create.

Where do I look for the stories? Some of my inspiration comes through sources like books and films, but mostly from life itself. I am passionately curious about people; their stories, their life experience, what did they do to become who they are. For a short period of time, my experiences absorb me in such a way that I feel I have lived hundreds of different lives.

I do write things down, and although I am not doing it for the purpose of writing a book, it does look somewhat like a chaotic collection of short stories already. It’s funny how, looking at this collection, I can clearly see the theme that attracts me the most — what makes ordinary people do extraordinary things — and how does an ordinary event becomes an extraordinary experience? And by extraordinary I mean something uplifting or even inspirational. I might as well call it my artistic attempt to find some alternative to a prevailing affluenza, an affluenza which makes most people in our society unhappy for pretty much all the time.

Perhaps because of my interest in unusual things, a good deal of serendipity and just plain, lucky coincidences seem to keep happening to me. One evening I was browsing online, thinking about how I wanted to find the ‘right now’ story with a strong element of hope. The next day, still short of the compelling story, I went out to meet my friend at our favourite meeting place.

On my way there I received a text about the place being busy, so I turned and headed in the opposite direction. It was a warm, sunny day in London and the high street was buzzing with people when I joined my friend at a table outside. Almost immediately, I started complaining about how impossible it was to find a ‘proper’ inspiring story online.

Just then, my attention was attracted by a large ginger tomcat wearing a leash, residing on a chair all by himself. Completely absorbed by making friends with the cat, I didn’t see that attached to the other end of the leash, the owner was trying to catch my attention. He needed to light up his cigarette, so I threw him a lighter, missing the cat by an inch. The cat seemed to be unabashed by all the activity going on around him, including the people who would stop to take a photo.

My first meeting with author James Bowen and a street cat named Bob.

I chatted to the owner — a tall friendly guy — when my friend kicked my leg under the table and whispered,

“Hey, didn’t you just say you wanted to find a story about hope? Well, it looks like it found you!”


“You are talking to it! Not to the cat, to the ‘story’, dammit!”

Indeed, it turned out that I was talking to James Bowen and Bob, world famous street cat. I recalled how a few years ago there was a story in Big Issue Magazine featuring a homeless guy busking on the streets of London with his cat. As it happened, James didn’t find the cat — the cat adopted him.

James had been struggling with his heroine addiction when he helped a street cat that was also in a bad way. When the cat recovered, he wouldn’t leave James. Whenever James had to take the bus to go busking in central London, Bob would follow him to the bus stop. One day the cat just jumped on the bus and followed James to Covent Garden, where he would just sit while James was playing. Naturally, because of the cat being there, they started to receive a lot of attention, then more money and gifts of toys and top notch cat food for Bob.

What happened then is best described in the book written by James, “A Street Cat Named Bob: How one man and his cat found hope on the streets”.

The book became a major motion picture, followed by a series of books about the busker who helped a cat to heal, and in return, the cat healed his life.

So there it was, the story I was looking for. If my friend hadn’t changed the meeting place, nothing of that might have happened — or perhaps it would have happened anyway. For now, I just had to ask whether James and Bob would come to my studio so I could paint them. James, with a twinkle in his eye, asked, “Are you any good then?’“

​ “The best you have ever seen!“ I replied, handing my iPad to him. Having swiped back and forth several times, he finally said, “Yes, you are! It wasn’t even a joke. We are in, mate!”

Now I had two models coming to my studio. On his first visit, Bob took a look around the premises. Having been less than impressed, he then found a quiet spot in the bathroom where he stayed put, regardless if someone had to visit or not. When it was time for him to pose, James would call for him to come out. Needless to say the ginger guy wasn’t all too happy to leave his spot and he would let out a couple growls and hisses on his way — just to let everyone know what he thought of it. Being a street cat, he never fully warmed up to the idea of staying inside the house. Once on James’ shoulder, he knew it was a work modus — and he would do everything James would ask. For a tasty reward, mind you — of which there was plenty.

Many faces of Bob — from the photo shoot

Having James at the studio, on other hand, was very much like having a visit from a large feline; very comfortable in his skin and finding his best spot to be in right from the start. He is an avid reader, and there are not many things he hasn’t read- so we would talk about our favourites as well as life, the universe and everything.

Although the experiences he’d gone through in his life are unimaginable for someone like me, he had the ability to convey a story in a way that it become vivid. But the most striking was the expression in his eyes. I am not a great believer in that you can see a person’s soul through their eyes. On the contrary, in fact; but the one thing you can see without failure is whether a person has empathy. It would be understandable if James’ experiences would leave him a callous, resentful young man with an aggressive attitude- but it wasn’t what I could see.

The challenge of this painting was to find the best way to describe their bond and their personalities. In essence, their relationship is very much like any relationship between cats and the people they own; but there was something else. Because both of them had gone through the experience of living on the streets, they really looked out for each other, like humans would do. And when it comes to humanity, I am still convinced Bob is the closest thing to a human being in a cat’s body.

I am certain that experiences we go through leave us with some kind of a damage imprint- from small disappointments and failures and to a broken heart and abuse. You know the eyes of a broken person when you see them — and it wasn’t James. The spark, the hope, the empathy was there — and that was the most important thing.

‘The Guardian’ by Natalie Holland, 70x64 cm, oil on Dibond

Looking at a somewhat grumpy Bob sitting on his shoulder, I couldn’t help thinking how this sturdy little guy is the very reason why his human companion has turned his own life around. Perhaps pets are so hugely popular with people because they provide something we often struggle to deliver, but never can have enough of — The Unconditional Love. On one condition that they are properly fed and treated nicely, that is.

Fulfill this condition, and your guardian might even save your life one day.

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I am a realist artist with a passion for writing.

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