As for you, Lady Porter, could you see your way clear to sorting the outstanding milk bill at your home?

Four am. Battersea. Having loaded my milk truck, I drive to the West End. Later in the day, Battersea Park Road will be filled with families going to the dogs' home to find a new pet, but at this time of morning the dogs are restless and this is bandit country. Canines howl and silent young men, all Adidas and Nike, overtake me on mountain bikes.

I remember reading some B-list celebrity waxing lyrical about the power station in a Sunday supplement. He reckoned it was his favourite building in London. It always reminds me of the apparatchik apartment building in Moscow (I've travelled, you know). It has to be said that its columns are grander than anything Nash created in Regent's Park. Indeed, this is a palace fit for the ghosts of Stalin and Ceausescu. I can see their tormented spirits fluttering eternally around those fine pillars. Dear me! This is getting worse than the Sunday supplement . . .

On Chelsea Bridge the hallucinogenically challenged return to reality from Adrenalin Village, the trendy warehouse-turned-nightclub, in various stages of adjustment. Below, the river is high, the tide is coming in and if you fall in here they'll pick you out halfway to Reading.

Nearby, the black cab drivers sit in the back of each other's cabs next to the all-night cafe. The spirit of Alf Garnett is alive and well. They discuss the economy. The consensus is that we are heading for recession, but does the government care? The cabinet will be all right as they are all shirtlifters. No families to support, see? The euro? No, it's the pink pound that matters, innit?

Over the bridge we approach civilisation. Past the Lister Hospital and a few flats where junkies hang around scratching their Vim-laced veins. Heading into Belgravia and Victoria, it seems the Old Bill are everywhere, in an area probably even more heavily policed than the City. No young men on mountain bikes here, just a few drunken MPs, mooning and singing rugby songs.

Passing the Palace I wonder if the milko got a Christmas box there. A jobsworth probably pushed a pound coin into the poor milko's calloused fist. HRH and 'im indoors wish you and your nine children a happy Christmas. And by the way would you mind moving your vehicle? It's spoiling the view for the tourists.

Next time you see a milkman driving past, stop and reflect for a moment. This is no mere tradesman; this is an urban warrior, a guerrilla fighter. The war has been long, the fighting fierce. The milkman's allies - butchers, bakers, farmers - have long since thrown in the towel. The enemy - the local supermarkets - are confident of victory. The supermarkets' profit figures are reassuring, a recession looms, the sensible investors will hedge their bets and bank on the food retailers.

Soon their outlets will supply every possible service: accountants, banks, solicitors, pharmacists and doctors. A hip replacement, madam? Extra bonus points this week on your loyalty card. Colonic irrigation? Two for the price of one. A trip to Safeway will fulfil every human need and your monthly salary will be paid directly to the store of your choice.

No wonder the milkman has doubts and fears. But, Lord Sainsbury, he will fight to the bitter end. He's ready to wrestle with the alligators of market-driven capitalism until he can do no more.

As for you Lady Porter: I can understand that you had a lot on your mind when you fled the country, but if you could see your way clear to sorting the outstanding milk bill at your Gloucester Square home, I would be grateful.

Unfortunately, the vicissitudes of this trade war have been detrimental to our role as social workers. I have in my possession a book of which I'm very fond, called Milkman by John Huins. It's one of a series entitled "Choosing a Job", published in 1973.

Huins' milkman is a bit like Mr Milko in the Noddy series, except that he has an odd haircut, with long sideboards. He potters around, patting children on the head, being friendly and helping the old folk out.

His first call is at Mr Archer's, the tobacconist, who always has a nice pot of tea ready. (There's a picture of Mr Archer, surrounded by large jars of sweets.) Our friendly milkman helps people move furniture, posts letters for all his customers while managing to deliver 1,000 pints of milk. There are 50-60 pages like this. "If you enjoy meeting and helping people," John concludes, "there's no better life."

John, mate, come out on my round tomorrow. There must be a better life than this. I accept the book is a realistic portrayal of the job in 1973 but, if you're a school-leaver, I'd read something more up to date. John, most of us are self-employed now and, if there's a more cut-throat trade, I'd like to know about it. I'd love to go back to 1973 and be a social worker. In fact, I know very well what I want. I want Mr Milko's round: "Hello Noddy! Hello Big Ears! Isn't it a lovely morning? Anything for you today, Gobbo?"

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?