A couple of generations ago most marriages were either arranged or shotgun. Among the upper classes a spouse was selected within the extended family circle - for in those days people were routinely in touch with 40 or 50 relations - or in the wider orbit of the Season. (Even two centuries ago, people advertised in the Spectator as a last resort.)
Everyone else married someone local, finding a life partner in the nearest streets or village. Either way, relatives and friends would try to steer two suitable young people together, or separate an ill-assorted pair. This resulted in tragedy if young love was needlessly frustrated, but it also founded many lifelong and happy marriages.
Times have changed. Families quarrel, fragment or lose touch. Neighbourhoods are no longer fixed and stable, and the young migrate to the cities in search of work or excitement or freedom. Even if they do manage to meet and fall in love, there is no network of gossip and memory to offer warning, guidance or approval.
Marriage brokers, marriage bureaux or 'lonely hearts' columns all offer a range of potential partners, although everyone denies having consulted them. Yet why, when we are so frank about everything, particularly sex, should the obvious, sensible remedy be regarded as a source of shame? Why do people still pretend to have met 'at a party' or 'in the pub' rather than admit that they went to an agency or the small ads?
This misplaced embarrassment makes people helpless targets for exploitation. A hugely expensive, well-publicised introduction agency that charged its clients more than pounds 2,000 simply to be put on to its books recently decamped. With it went not only the clients' money, but all their most intimate details - addresses, personal histories, salaries, savings and sexual preferences.
The potential for blackmail hardly bears thinking about. The police were hamstrung, since clients evidently preferred to be robbed than admit that they had recourse to an agency.
I once advertised in a Lonely Hearts column. It was quite a success. Despite the brittle joke that said I would rather be in a box at the opera or the races than in Box Number XXX, and could someone please come and rescue me, I really longed for all the usual things . . .love and tenderness, candlelit dinners, country walks and Mozart. (Everyone mentions Mozart. It's code for cultured professional middle class.)
I was looking for a man who would reassure my parents and make my friends sit up; someone to share holidays and catastrophes and bills and the rituals of coupledom. I had dozens of replies.
After weeding out the obviously unsuitable ones (on grounds of distance, spelling, handwriting, scented paper - I could be as capricious as I liked) I exchanged life stories on neutral territory with five or six favoured candidates. That disposed of a couple more, and I saw a film or went out to dinner with the rest. I met some perfectly acceptable chaps, certainly more than my friends had ever introduced me to. But none was absolutely the right man.
In the end I met him in the most traditional way of all, at a dinner party given by a member of the family. Had I been less bowled over, I could have made discreet inquiries about him from half-a-dozen mutual friends and relations, just as he could have checked me out.
Like all happy couples, we now indulge in discreet match- making, although the selection of single people we can muster is tiny compared with those in the pigeonholes of a reputable marriage bureau or the number of answers produced by a well- worded advertisement. I know many people of both sexes who are content with their single state (fewer, I suspect, than claim to be), but why do we make it so difficult for those who are not?
Secrecy is the culprit. I'm all for the frankness of French personal columns, which fill pages of every provincial newspaper. I especially liked the one that read: 'Young farmer seeks widow with own tractor. Please send photograph (of tractor).'