Heart Searching: Go West, young woman: Joanna Gibbon on British men and their Czech mates

THE DYING art of letter writing is being revived in an unexpected quarter: among a small band of British men who, with the help of Czech Mate, an Anglo-Czech introduction agency, are seeking love and marriage with Czech women. Czech Mate insists that letter writing is a first step to happiness, or at least awareness, when sallying forth on an inter-continental liaison.

For Michael (not his real name), aged 53, the letters began in January 1992. A divorce of 20 years ago, his subsequent relationships with English women have not been entirely happy. He tried other introduction agencies before choosing Czech Mate. 'I wasn't interested in child brides. Czech Mate offered greater value and I felt I would find the type of woman for me in Eastern Europe,' he says.

Michael, it seems, is one of a growing number of British and American men disillusioned with Western females. 'I have had a number of lady friends who were in their mid-40s and who have been single for some years. They have grown too independent and have lost that little golden touch of femininity: they no longer require a man around. They know how to change light plugs,' he explains.

Bill Howard, president of the World Association of Introduction Agencies, of which Czech Mate is a member, echoes this depressing sentiment. 'For some strange reason British men, especially, seem to like foreign women, often after they have married and divorced a British woman. They think: 'Well, here is a Catholic girl, she will stay at home and she won't wander.' '

Mr Howard is in no doubt that most of the women see the agencies as a chance of escape to a better life. Numbers are growing on both sides. About nine agencies dealing with Eastern European countries have recently joined the WAIA.

Michael's first step was to visit Libby Babbage, Czech Mate's Czech founder who married an Englishman 22 years ago, for a rigorous interview. All the men who apply, wherever they live, must travel to Luton, Czech Mate's headquarters. Mrs Babbage keeps 100 men on her books and, with a lengthy waiting list, she is able to refuse anyone who says he is too busy to visit Luton.

Mrs Babbage says she can usually sense when someone is not genuine: 'Men who ask if all the girls are young, or who tell you they are a boob man. I just put the phone down.' Hers is a no-nonsense, and absolutely no-smut, business; most of the men are aged between 30 and 50 years and come from professional, if not well-paid, jobs. The annual membership fee for a limitless number of introductions is pounds 375.

Afterwards, Michael was shown a brochure of photographs of over 1,000 Czech women and, a recent addition, about 1,000 Russian women. Mrs Babbage says the Czechs are more difficult to find nowadays - partly because there are more agencies working in Prague - but the Russians are desperately keen.

The brochure, taken out of context, seems horribly like a cattle market catalogue: there are pages of strikingly pretty women, mostly head and shoulder portraits, with the age range of the man of their dreams written beside each picture. A few have gone the whole hog and done a full-length number, wearing only a swimsuit.

The Czech women do not receive a similar brochure of British beef-cake, but instead wait for a man to write to them. His photograph must be included with the very first letter and if the would-be swain forgets he is unlikely to receive a reply.

Czech girls are highly selective, says Mrs Babbage, who describes them as bright - many are qualified doctors, university lecturers and lawyers - and defends her convoluted system, which in the last four years has worked well. 'The letter writing makes people take better care than a casual meeting in the pub and so that by the time the two meet, after telephone calls, they are quite firm friends,' she says.

A man can write to any number of women but everything hinges on the strength of his prose. And the woman's prerogative is first refusal after just one letter. Some men have found this difficult and Mrs Babbage now has a master letter - written by a young man who has had astounding success with all his letters - to help the less confident.

Michael wrote to four women, one of whom had been less than truthful with the date of a photograph ('she had put on three stone since then, she was hardly recognisable') before concentrating on Petra, a 38 year-old divorcee who works in catering, with whom he exchanged 30 letters over four months. 'I found what I was looking for in Petra's letters: sincerity and warmth,' he explains. Her English was, and still is, poor; there is much resorting to dictionaries. Michael says he has no intention of learning Czech.

By the time they met - Petra came to Britain for a two-week holiday - neither was too nervous, although Petra was fearful of people in authority. 'She was more suspicious. Most of her life has been spent under communism: the Czechs have only had their freedom for two-and-a-half years,' explains Michael. Petra's Brownie-point rating shot up after she hit it off with Michael's mother. 'I was well taken by her, she came up to my expectations,' he says, very pleased.

Even so, Petra took longer to warm up. When she returned to Prague she and Michael telephoned each other frequently. A year later she came to stay with Michael for two months and they had a wonderful time: 'She gets on very well with my friends and I am amazed that we are so compatible: we like the countryside, nature, going to films and watching TV.'

Now they are planning to marry. Czech Mate boasts 85 marriages so far, but Mrs Babbage tries to be as realistic as possible with both sides without putting herself out of business. Myths abound: 'Czech girls no longer think all British men wear slippers, smoke a pipe and resemble Sherlock Holmes, but they do think they are the most faithful and polite, far above other Europeans,' she says.

And similarly, the Brits, who prize faithfulness highly too, are going to be in for a surprise if they think their Czech girl - most of them come and live in the UK - will be happy staying at home all day.

'Some of the men think that if the girl has kids immediately then she will be less likely to pursue a career. I tell the men that they have careers now, and that even if it is difficult for them to find jobs in Britain they will find it very hard to become a housewife. Also, at the beginning the man will be the only person she knows and that will be hard - she will be very demanding,' Mrs Babbage warns.

Czech Mate, 3 Ludlow Avenue, Luton, Bedfordshire LUI 3RW, tel 0582 25960.

The WAIA has names and addresses of other agencies working in Eastern Europe: tel 071-937 9144.

(Photographs omitted)

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