'I FIND you utterly captivating, enchanting, intelligent, practical, determined, overwhelmingly beautiful and desirable,' wrote Sir Peter Harding, now famously, to Bienvenida Buck. 'Your body is incomparable and your face utterly beautiful,' he went on. 'You move like a gazelle, dress like a queen, and have impeccable taste.'

Like many people my initial reaction to this episode was incredulity that such an intelligent and distinguished chap could behave like such a twerp. And then I fell prey to feelings of an entirely different kind - overwhelming, heart-crushing, gut-twisting envy. Lucky old Bienvenida, I thought bitterly, getting letters like that. How I longed for someone to call me an impeccably-dressed gazelle.

I have to confess that thus far I have not received what I consider to be my fair share of love letters. I've done quite well in obscene phone calls, but when it comes to rose-scented, tear-stained, fountain-penned epistles declaring undying admiration and devotion I feel that I have been somewhat short-changed. The last one I got was when I was in the sixth form at a boys' public school.

Shortly after I arrived a boy a couple of years younger than me, and from a rather wealthy family, began to inundate me with presents and declarations of love. A bouquet of plump, yellow roses arrived one day, an expensive box of chocolates the next; all acccompanied by letters peppered with intriguing French phrases super-praising my parts. 'Le livre s'ouvre seul aux feuillets souvent lus,' announced one rather enigmatically, while, in another, my admirer expressed the desire to 'caress that schoolgirl complexion'.

I accepted all the letters and perishables but felt duty-bound to return the hardware; I was worried that his pocket money would run out.

'It's extremely generous of you,' I said, as I handed him back the gift-wrapped Cartier pen and the flagon of Chanel No 5, 'but I really don't think you should give me any more presents.'

He looked slightly red-faced and a little crest-fallen but he quickly recovered.

His name was Nicholas Sokolow, and he is now married to Bienvenida Buck.

Apart from that episode, I have had to make do with the chancy business of St Valentine's Day. But I was rather cheered by Sir Peter's purple prose since it disproved what I had long feared - that the love letter was well and truly dead, killed off by high technology.

Why bother to write when you can whisper sweet nothings down miles of telephone cable, fax the beloved in a flash, or send them a risque message on a computer terminal? Thanks to the Americans, you can even buy ready-made love letters in the form of greeting cards with a variety of italicised, saccharine inscriptions: 'Happiness is not just loving you, but being loved by you'; 'Thinking about you always brings a smile to my face'; 'You are always there. You are always on my mind'; 'I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you'.

But there's nothing like getting the real thing - especially if you're keen on the sender. Edith Wharton described the thrill of receiving a love letter. 'The first glance to see how many pages there are,' she wrote; 'the second to see how it ends, the breathless first reading, the slow lingering over each phrase and word.'

Dame Barbara Cartland claims to have received 'millions' of love letters and has very distinct views on the writes and wrongs of penning a passionate epistle. 'It's fatal to start off saying: 'I love you' and end 'I had the most ghastly day at work yesterday', ' she warns. 'It's totally unromantic.'

She cites a letter sent by Napoleon to Josephine as a perfect example of the form: 'A thousand kisses on your eyes, your lips and your heart. Most charming of your sex, what is your power over me? Adieu, my happiness, my love, everything that existed for me on earth.'

Beginnings are very important. 'My own dear boy,' wrote Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas; 'My own dearest Wifie,' wrote Charles Parnell to Katherine O'Shea, while John Ruskin was rather more long-winded in addressing his beloved, Effie Gray. 'My own Effie - my kind Effie - my mistress, my friend, my queen, my darling - my only love . . . '

Endings can be peculiar - Parnell pompously signed himself 'Your King'. But they can be touching. In her anthology of wartime love letters, Forces Sweethearts, Joanna Lumley included a letter from a sergeant to his wife. 'Goodnight, Darling and God Bless You, and keep you safe for me, always. I love you Loads and Loads and Loads and Loads, Ever and Ever. Ad infinitum. Your loving husband, Tommy.'

Sir Peter can perhaps take comfort from the fact that he is not the first British forces Big Shot to be caught writing soppy letters. In fact, I rather wonder whether he had not in fact read Nelson's missives to his married mistress, Emma Hamilton. The style is remarkably similar: 'No separation, no time, my only beloved Emma, can alter my love and affection for you,' wrote the Admiral in 1800. 'It remains for us to regret, which I do with the bitterest anguish that there are any obstacles to our being united . . .'

Not surprisingly, the Romantics were enthusiastic senders of love-letters. 'I see nothing in life but the certainty of your love,' Keats wrote to Fanny Brawne in 1820. 'Convince me of it my sweetheart. If I am not somehow convinced I shall die of agony . . . my loveliest, my darling] Goodbye] I kiss you - O, the torments]'

And, at about the same time, Byron naughtily wrote to his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. 'My dearest love . . . I have never ceased nor can cease to feel for a moment that perfect & boundless attachment which bound and binds me to you - which renders me utterly incapable of real love for any other human being - what could they be to me after you?'

Poets ought to be at an advantage when it comes to epistolary passion. 'I love you so much, I'll never be able to tell you,' Dylan Thomas wrote to Caitlin Macnamara in 1936. 'I'm frightened to tell you. I can always feel your heart. I love you body and soul.'

What strikes one most of all about anthologies of love letters is how many of them, in the past, have been written by men. It was the classic way for a man to get to know a woman - the flirtation, courtship and seduction were to some extent conducted on the page.

Today, of course, things are rather different. 'My boyfriend used to write me love-letters,' says Sarah Fitzpatrick, an advertising copywriter. 'But he'd try and disguise the fact that they were love-letters, as though he was ashamed of it. He'd write something quite romantic, like 'You've got lovely eyes', and then in the next sentence he'd tell me something really banal about his car, like the big end had gone or the clutch was slipping. It was a bit sad really.'

David Morison, an interior designer, says: 'I do think men find it much harder than women to write love letters these days. I've tried, but I just can't get the hang of it, I find it all a bit embarrassing. I suppose I'm much too English really. But my girlfriend, Emma, writes me love letters practically every day, and she lives with me]'

Absence or separation are a great begetter of love letters. Two years ago the travel writer Nicholas Crane set off alone on an 18-month mountain walk from Spain to Istanbul, leaving behind his wife of 15 months, Annabel.

He wrote to her at least once a day, and sometimes two or three times, and she would reply poste restante. Some of their letters will be published in his forthcoming book about the journey.

'My letters were rather romantic,' he says. 'There was quite a high mush content I'd say. I used to really look forward to sitting down and writing them - it was a wonderful way to let off emotional steam.'

Crane points out that in many respects writing a love letter is a risky thing to do. You are committing your feelings to paper and sending them in the post. There's no going back. It's all in black and white.

'I used to find that moment when I dropped the letter in the post box incredibly exciting,' he says. 'The knowledge that it was now irretrievable and that I couldn't just say, 'Oh, I didn't really mean what I said just now', as one can do over the phone. I also loved the fact that the letter was going on a journey, and that it would get to Annabel by road, by train or by air. I found that in itself a terribly romantic notion.'

'I loved getting them,' says Annabel, who has tied them all up with red ribbon in the time- honoured way.

'It was a great compensation for our separation. In a way I feel very lucky because I have literally hundreds of love-letters from my husband - and I suppose that's rather unusual these days.'

(Photographs omitted)

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