On the rounds with the Spitalfields milkman
Dawn has broken over the East End and there goes Kevin, the agile milkman, sprinting down the street with a pint of milk in hand. With enviable stamina, Kevin Read gets up at two thirty each morning, six days a week, and delivers milk in a round that stretches from the Olympic Park in the East to Hoxton Square in the West, doing the whole thing on the run.
The East End is a smaller, more peaceful place in the morning, before all the people get up, and I was inspired to see it through Kevin’s eyes, when I joined him on the round yesterday at four thirty. As we careered around the streets in the early sunshine, travelling effortlessly from one place to another down empty streets that are Kevin’s sole preserve for the first three hours of daylight at this time of year, landmarks appeared closer together and the busy roads that divide the territory were quiet. Kevin’s East End is another land, known only to early birds.
“I never look at it as a job, it’s my life,” admitted Kevin, still enthusiastic after thirty years on the rounds. “Born in Harlow. Educated in Harlow. Top of the class at school. Bunked off at fourteen. Failed all my exams. Moved to London at fifteen. Started as a rounds boy at the Co-op Dairy, just at weekends until I got a proper job. Left school at sixteen. Junior Depot Assistant at Co-op, swept yard, parked milk floats and made coffee for the manager. Don’t know what happened to the proper job!” said Kevin with a shrug. It was the prologue to the story of Kevin’s illustrious career, that began in Arnold Circus, delivering milk to the Boundary Estate in 1982, where he ran up and down every staircase making a long list of calls for each block. Today, Kevin still carries his vocabulary of Bengali words that he picked up then.
In the intervening years, an earthquake happened. The Co-op Dairy was bought by Express Dairies, then Kevin worked for Unigate until that was sold to Dairy Crest, next working for Express Dairies until that was also sold to Dairy Crest, and finally working for Hobbs Cross Farm Dairy until they went out of business. Quite a bumpy ride, yet Kevin persevered through these changes which included a dire spell in the suburbs of Chingford. “They complain if you put the milk on the wrong side of the doorstep there!” he revealed with caustic good humour, outlining a shamelessly biased comparison between the suburb and the inner city streets that were his first love.
While we drove around in the dawn yesterday, Kevin told me his life story - in between leaping from the cabin and sprinting off, across the road, through security doors, up and down stairs, along balconies, in and out of cafes, schools, offices, universities and churches. No delivery is too small and he will consider any location. Yet it is no small challenge to work out the most efficient route each day, taking into account traffic and orders that vary daily. Kevin has two fat round books that describe all the calls he must do, yet he barely opens them. He has it all in his head, two hundred domestic calls (on a system of alternating days), plus one hundred and thirty offices, shops and cafes. “A good milkman knows how to work his round,” stated Kevin with the quiet authority of a seasoned professional.
Setting a fierce pace, always quick, never hurried, he was always thinking on his feet. With practiced dexterity Kevin can carry six glass bottles effortlessly in his bare hands, with the necks clutched between each of his fingers. He makes it all look easy, because Kevin is an artist. The wide chassis of Kevin’s diesel milk float permits him to cross speed bumps with one wheel on either side – avoiding chinking milk crates – if he lines up the float precisely, and during our seven hours together on the round, he did it right every time.
Yet, before he embraced his occupation, Kevin rejected it. When the industry hit a bump, he tried to find that “proper job” which haunted him, working in a kitchen and then a bakery for three years. But one day he saw a milk float drive by the bakery and he knew his destiny was to be in the cabin. Taking a declining round on the Cattle Road Estate, he built it up to hundred calls, and then another and another, until he had five rounds with four milkmen working alongside him. A failed marriage and an expensive divorce meant he had to sell these rounds, worth £10,000 a piece, to Parker Dairies. But then in 1999, the dairy offered him his old territory back – the East End. “I realised the only time I was happy was when I was working for myself,” confided Kevin with glee, “It was my favourite round, my favourite area, my favourite pay scheme, commission only – next to my first round Arnold Circus! The best of everything came together for me.”
But, returning to East End, Kevin discovered his customers had become further apart. Where once Kevin went door to door, now he may have only one or two calls in a street, and consequently the round is wider. Between three thirty and eleven thirty each morning, Kevin spirals around the East End, delivering first to houses with gardens and secure locations to leave milk, then returning later to deliver milk to exposed doorsteps, thereby minimising the risk of theft, before finally doing the rounds of offices as they open for business. During the day Kevin turns evangelical, canvassing door to door, searching for new customers, because many people no longer realise there is a milkman who can deliver.
Kevin is a milkman with a mission to rebuild the lost milk rounds of the East End, and he has become a local personality in the process, celebrated for his boundless energy and easy charm. Now happily settled with his new partner, whom he met on the round, he thinks he is delivering milk but I think he is pursuing life.
If you want Kevin to deliver milk or yoghurt or eggs or fresh bread or dogfood, or even compost, to you, contact him directly by phoning 07940095775 or email firstname.lastname@example.org