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With the Spitalfields Milkman at Christmas

December 29, 2010
by the gentle author

Yesterday was the first delivery after Christmas for Kevin Read, the heroic milkman who delivers the milk to Spitalfields and a whole expanse of the East End stretching from the Olympic Park in the East to Hoxton Square in the West. After a heavy downpour, on such a damp occluded morning, while the rest of the world were still dozing in their warm beds, it was my pleasure to join Kevin on his round to offer some companionship in his lonely vigil.

The temperatures have risen since last week’s freeze that sent Kevin tumbling off an icy step with an armful of milk bottles in Mile End. “The worst thing about this job is when people don’t clear the snow off the steps. You hold onto the rail and hope you don’t fall.” he declared with admirable restraint. No milk was spilt, but Kevin has a sore back now and – although he insists he takes it in his stride – even after three days off, there is a stiffness to his gait as he hurries from door to door with bottles in hand.

“I worked Christmas Days in this job back in the nineteen eighties,” Kevin recalled without sentiment, cheerful that those times are behind him as we sped along in the heated cabin of his diesel-powered float.“When I had the electric float with the open cabin, I used to be white down one side of my body by the time I arrived at my first call on snowy mornings,” he added with a shudder.

As we drove up through Hackney from Spitalfields in the darkness of the early morning, I spotted a few souls shivering at bus stops, cleaners and service workers reluctantly off to work, and we passed several beaten-up vans of totters cruising the streets to salvage abandoned washing machines and other scrap metal discarded over Christmas. The road sweepers were out too, muffled up in hooded windcheaters like fluorescent Eskimos, dutifully cleaning up the gutters in the night.

“With so many people away, it’s difficult to keep track,” said Kevin, rolling his eyes crazily as he scrabbled through his round book, “I should save time, but I have to keeping checking the books – so I don’t, I just lose money.” With an income consisting entirely of commission on sales, Kevin is used to seeing his earnings plummet at this time of year when offices are shut and customers go away, reducing his weekly delivery from eight thousand to two thousand pints.“After buying diesel for the van, I’ll be lucky if I see twenty pounds for today’s work.” he admitted to me with a shrug, squinting through the windscreen into the murky depths beyond. Yet in recognition of his popularity in the East End, Kevin takes consolation that his Christmas tips were up this year. “People are getting to know me, I’m becoming part of the family!” he reassured me with a cocky smirk, before he ran off into the dark with a wind-up torch and a handful of milk bottles.

“How are you supposed to read a damp note in the dark?” he asked, as he returned from the rain, playfully waving a soggy piece of paper between two fingers, “It’s like being down a coal mine with your eyes shut out there.” The note read “No Milk till Tuesday,” but today was Tuesday. Kevin and I looked at each other. Did the note mean this Tuesday or next Tuesday ? “You need to be mind reader in this job!” observed Kevin, with a wry grimace – though, ever conscientious, he elected to leave milk and make a detour to discover the outcome next day.

For four hours we drove around that cold morning, as the sky lightened and the streetlights flickered out, to deliver two hundred pints of milk, twisting and turning through the streets and housing estates, in what appeared to be an unpopulated city. And Kevin seemed to loosen up, overcoming his stiffness, and constantly checking the pen which was the marker in his round book, dividing the calls done from those still to do, as he made sharp work of his scattered deliveries. In some streets, Kevin makes one call and in others a cluster. It is both inexplicable and a matter of passionate fascination to Kevin – trying to discover the pattern in this chaos. Because if he can unlock the mystery, perhaps he might restore the lost milk rounds of the East End and go from one door to the next delivering milk again, as he did when he began over thirty years ago.

At the end of his short Christmas round, Kevin could go home and have a nap, but he seemed dis-satisfied. “I sometimes think I’d like just this round, without the extra pressure of the office deliveries.” he brooded, envisaging this hypothetical future before dismissing it, smiling in recognition of his own nature, “I’d work three until seven, be done and dusted, and home by eight in the morning – but I’d be so bored.”

The truth is that Kevin provides a public service as much as he is in business, and while it may not make him rich, he shows true nobility of spirit in his endeavour. Renowned for his humour and resilience, it is a matter of honour for Kevin to go out and deliver the milk, working alone unseen in the night for all these years to uphold his promise to his customers, whatever the weather. He takes the rigours of the situation as a test, moulding his character, and this is how he has emerged as an heroic milkman, with stamina and dreams.

There is a myth that it is cheaper to buy milk in a supermarket or shop than have it delivered, but this is false. So why not consider having Kevin deliver to you in the New Year ? – because it is a beautiful thing to discover milk in glass bottles on your doorstep in the morning.

If you want Kevin Read to deliver milk or yoghurt or eggs or fresh bread or even dogfood to you, contact him directly by calling 07940095775 or email Kevin says, “You don’t have to have a delivery every day,” and “No order is too small.”

You may also enjoy On the Rounds with the Spitalfields Milkman

8 Responses leave one →
  1. melbournegirl permalink
    December 29, 2010

    What an heroic effort, especially in the cold and dark. Kevin’s delivery book must read like an alternative map of the East End. How cheering to hear of this micro-journeying through the city.

  2. Kevin the Milkman permalink
    December 29, 2010

    Thanks Melbourne Girl. It is always hard to be cheerfull on the first day back at work after enjoying three days off, and with the weather to contend with as well. I cover quite an area these days, approx 50 miles a day, depot to depot, when all the customers are back from their break, but in the past some rounds I have done you may be in a road delivering for up to 4 hours, and when you look back down the road you feel you have got no-where in all that time!! Happy New Year!!

  3. December 29, 2010

    I think southern California is a wee bit far to add to his rounds, but I wish we had such a service here.

  4. Ros permalink
    December 29, 2010

    even a bit further west in London is too far – I’d have milk delivered by Kevin if I could because some of the status of his heroic endeavours would surely transfer itself to each bottle. It’s great to read about him again.

  5. December 29, 2010

    I didn’t know milkmen doing deliveries still happened.

  6. melbournegirl permalink
    December 29, 2010

    Thanks Kevin and Happy new year to all from Melbourne! The weather bureau tells us that the temperature on NYE will be around 38 (c. 100 in your scale), so we will be raising a glass in a slightly different environment from London!

  7. melbournegirl permalink
    December 30, 2010

    oops, belatedly realised that you use the same temperature measurement as we do! Having just returned from London, you would think I would not make such a mistake! Point is … a very, very warm NYE in store for us.

  8. Alan Racheter permalink
    November 23, 2014

    While I was living in Spitalfields during the 1950s the Express Dairy had a depot in Fournier Street.

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