DJ Taylor: Failing tradesman Maurice Leadbitter has a hard life but, alas, he makes it harder


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The Independent Online

In his brown nylon housecoat, thin, badgerish hair greased back over the crown of his head, chewed pencil-half lodged securely behind one ear, Mr Leadbitter looks a very old-fashioned kind of shopkeeper, so much so that you almost expect to find David Jason or the late Ronnie Barker lurking behind the counter of his small electrical shop and avid to exchange a little banter.

On the other hand, his conversation is remarkably up-to-date, consisting almost entirely of gloomy pronouncements on the state of the retail trade and the prospects of the people attempting to make a living out of it.

Mr Leadbitter's establishment adorns the high street of an Essex coastal town getting to grips with the 21st century. Once a butcher and a greengrocer occupied the premises on either side of him. Now the spaces are filled by a gallery and an expensive delicatessen. Twenty years ago, he made his money renting equipment to holidaymakers, but the letting agents have all gone stratospherically upmarket, and holiday properties are already kitted out with television sets and DVDs.

"No one's interested in the little man," Mr Leadbitter will sometimes bleakly remark, as another Range Rover containing a throng of well-dressed children slides into the parking bay outside the Essex Country Cottages office, three doors up.

And what could this little man do to improve his chances? Well, he could start by keeping his shop open all day, instead of closing for lunch between 1pm and 2.15pm and taking a half-day holiday on Wednesdays. He could spruce up the fading "Leadbitter & Son" sign first installed by his father in 1973. And even the local people who make up the town's population in the dead months between November and March would be glad to see the back of idle old Mrs Marjoribanks, the solitary assistant, who sits in her cubbyhole eating crisps and waits a month to send out the invoices.

A hard life, no doubt, but there is, alas, a way in which Mr Leadbitter makes it harder – by never stocking enough bayonet fittings, then wondering why people go to Tesco for them, or serving cronies first while the trippers queue behind. Two years hence, repainted and refurbished, the shop will be selling pots or batik wear, Mr Leadbitter will have retired to his bungalow at Frinton, and a further cycle in the town's retail history will be complete.