Max Davidson laments a new survey showing that only one in 11 of us has ever put pen to paper to express our romantic feelings.
As statistics go, it is not just shocking, but terrifying. According to new research, only 9 per cent of people, or one in eleven, have ever handwritten a love letter.
Depressing, isn’t it? The days when Cupid’s arrow sent a man rushing to his writing-desk, in a delirium of emotion, his pen quivering as he spelled out 'delectable’ or 'ravishing’ or 'dearest bunnykins’, have passed into history, like spats.
That is partly, of course, because letter-writing itself is so old-fashioned. If John Keats had had access to modern means of communication, he might never have written to Fanny Brawne: 'The last of your kisses was always the sweetest, the last smile the brightest, the last movement the gracefullest.’ Instead he would have sent her a picture of himself on Facebook, with a cheesy grin and a pint of lager in his hand. But it is not just technology that has changed. People have changed.
Love letters, with their rich potential for hyperbole, used to offer an emotional escape valve for people who were otherwise models of restraint. The novelist Graham Greene was a dry-as-dust writer but, in his letters to his wife, was all ardour. 'O darling, please make the time go quickly till we meet... I get waves of impatience and excitement and an ache to make it real.’ To Englishmen of his generation, a love letter was a glorious opportunity to let one’s hair down.
Today, people are more tactile than ever, but when it comes to putting their feelings into words, they are as nervous as kittens. Almost anything that might be construed as over-demonstrative is taboo.
I got an extraordinary email the other day from a woman of my acquaintance, signed 'Mandy x’. Seconds later, I got a second email apologising for the 'x’ in the first email. Did she think I was going to sue her?
If love letters have become as rare as thank-you letters, it is because of a failure of imagination as much as a decline in manners. Not only have a mere nine per cent of the population ever sent a handwritten love letter, of that nine per cent a quarter admit they do not actually write their own scripts – they Google 'love’ or 'romantic quotations’ and trawl the internet for suitable epistolary bouquets.
We live in an indolent, prosaic age. Even those energetic types with the stamina to write a letter, put it an envelope, put a stamp on the envelope, then walk to the nearest post office, view the whole thing as a chore. They cannot see the romance inherent in the process – two sundered hearts having to trust in a humble postman to be their go-between.
In my youth, there were postmen I could have hugged for joy after they had delivered love letters of knee-trembling intensity. I like to think I swelled their postbags with some pretty fruity efforts of my own, torrid, adjective-laden, embarrassing to all but the recipient.
Writing love letters is no more risk-free than falling in love. I once inadvertently put a love letter in an envelope addressed to the gas company – and a cheque for gas in a letter addressed to my girlfriend. Relations with my girlfriend recovered, but I have never been able to stop blushing when the gas man comes to read the meter. Suppose my steamy love poem – it was a sonnet, I had excelled myself – had been passed around the office?
But whether you are the author of the letter, groping for the right words, or the recipient, giving a sigh of pleasure at some amorous sally, that little piece of paper, preferably tear-stained, is a document beyond price: raw, embarrassing, but utterly unique.
Forget the statistics telling you that you are a dinosaur if you write love letters. With St Valentine’s Day looming, there will never be a better time to show your lover that, far from being a text nerd, you have been touched by the muse of literature. Just remember not to send your droolings to the gas man.