The actor David Niven once explained how he was able to turn his talents to the written word by finding a secluded spot in his garden that would shield him from distractions; more dedicated scribes like Dickens and Dahl famously had glorified sheds erected in their gardens to guarantee privacy whilst Virginia Woolf emphasised the need for ‘a room of one’s own’. A conducive environment for jotting down one’s thoughts certainly helps the process of jotting them down, and speaking personally I can’t really complain in that the desk upon which I write faces a large, spacious window that gives me considerably more natural light when working than the gloomy ground-floor flat I used to know as home, one with a grim, grey wall to look at when opening the curtains on a morning. The wide windowsill that divides desk from window at one time served as a convenient platform for my late lamented cat to requisition as a handy sunbathing spot in the summer, but still cried out for a permanent purpose. I eventually made use of the windowsill space by mentioning to a friend with horticultural leanings that I’d quite like to acquire a couple of rubber plants.

Why rubber plants, I’m not entirely sure; childhood memory assured me the residence of Minnie Caldwell on ‘Coronation Street’ boasted a few in a hangover of that cluttered Victorian style, and I recall it always looking homely, so why not? What arrived as tiny, malnourished cuttings have subsequently become wannabe Triffids, courtesy of the abundance of sunlight and weekly watering; the two plants have outgrown more than one pot and now reside in huge ones designed for outdoor patios. Unless their flamboyant foliage is routinely trimmed, the plants tend to hog the sunlight I’d become dependent upon, but they do keep me in touch with nature; and nature is something that otherwise exclusively inhabits the world outside the window, a world that recent events have conspired to detach me (and many others) from. The plants were picked-up free of charge from a website – the name of which escapes me, but one that was set up so people could basically get rid of unwanted possessions fast without the need to wait for a buyer on eBay.

The site could have been Gumtree, though money tends to exchange hands on there. In case you weren’t aware, Gumtree is essentially an online version of the old newspaper classified section; it was established around 20 years ago by antipodean expats in London – probably, I should imagine, in the neighbourhood of Earls Court. The name was taken from the colloquial Aussie term for the eucalyptus tree, and like many websites that sprang up at the turn of the millennium and avoided crashing and burning in the dot-com bubble, Gumtree has spread its wings beyond its original remit of connecting Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans in the Mother Country to becoming an international operation, freely accessible in mainland Europe and North America. In the UK, it has an average of 200,000 motor vehicles on offer in its ‘goods for sale’ section; with stats like that, it’s no great surprise the Yellow Pages was discontinued and ‘Exchange and Mart’ ceased to be a physical publication.

However, one area that Gumtree would be wise to steer clear of in order to retain goodwill on the part of the public is the sale of animals. Whenever one is told the story of Christian, the famous lion owned by a pair of Swinging Londoners in the early 70s, the fact the beast was purchased as a cub from Harrods often seems as hard to believe as the truth of an actual lion living in a basement off the King’s Road. Yes, Christian’s status as a bona-fide wild animal adds to the surreal nature of the story of how and where he grew up, but that today’s domestic pets can be bought and sold on Gumtree with little in the way of animal welfare involved appears no more enlightened half-a-century later. With a paltry minimum fee of £2.99 (to meet the requirements of the Pet Advertising Advisory Group), Gumtree is allowed to flog cats and dogs with the barest safeguards in place for the goods being sold. The Gumtree pet policy specifies that a seller can only post two pet ads a year, though this hardly prevents sellers indulging in the piss-easy operation of opening new accounts under different names as many times as they see fit. Home visits to the sellers by Gumtree representatives to check on the condition and ownership of the animal for sale are not part of the process, so the system is unsurprisingly open to abuse.

Courtesy of our old friend Lockdown, there has been a huge increase in the sale of dogs and puppies in particular over the past few months, the price of which has gone through the roof; this in turn has led to an alarming rise in the upsetting trend of dog thefts, stealing beloved members of the family and flogging them at an extortionate rate online. It’s heartbreaking enough when a furry friend has to be put to sleep; the thought that they’re still around but have been taken from you when your back was turned has to be every pet-owner’s worst nightmare. I used to know an old lady whose cat once disappeared and didn’t come home again, despite the lady’s nightly expeditions to locate her feline sidekick; by her own admission, she never got over it. That might induce a sneer in some, but to her – she lived alone – the cat was her sole companion, her only company and dependent, the significance of which is easily overlooked by those who have always shared their lives with other people or have never known the unique bond man/woman can share with a domesticated animal. I feel sorry for them to have missed out.

Any organisation that turns a blind eye to the profits being made from inflicting upset on others – not to mention causing emotional distress to the animal – deserves a dressing down, and Gumtree needs to get its house in order. The opportunities for unscrupulous, unregistered breeders and runners of illegal puppy farms – vile canine concentration camps where the welfare of animals is the last concern – are abundant thanks to the lax policing of classified websites; moreover, stolen cats and dogs are sold in similar fashion to stolen cars, often bought by those who do so in good faith, unaware they’re purchasing someone else’s property. In many cases, the ease with which sites like Gumtree make such criminal practices painless for professional and amateur alike demands either some form of new regulation, which would probably be difficult to enforce, or should prompt Gumtree to cease allowing animals to be sold or re-homed via its site.

The removal of such ads from Gumtree would be a step forward when there are reputable shelters, charities and certified breeders that sell animals which have received full health check-ups and are sold to those who themselves have to prove their credentials as responsible pet-owners beforehand. Animals are not cars or inanimate objects that can be bought and sold indefinitely just for the sake of a fast buck with no care for the consequences. Sure, my home benefitted from the acquisition of two rubber plants-cum-Triffids that brought a little piece of Mother Nature into an abode bereft of a garden, but plants should really be the only living things one is able to purchase on sites like Gumtree. Perhaps the decline and fall of one-time go-to sources such as newspaper classified ads and the aforementioned Yellow Pages – both of which were far more regulated than their online successors – has its downside (one that goes beyond mere nostalgia) after all.

© The Editor