Ed Balls blubs – not because more black boys rot in jail than attend our leading universities – but at the price of a pot on Antiques Roadshow. A teenage criminal can't see why he should say sorry and more or less tells his victims to bugger off. On an everyday level, we rarely bother with a simple thank you (and most of us don't mean it either). Does "cheers" do the job? Our emotional wiring seems to be in meltdown.
Soon we'll be offering a GCSE in crying. Getting us to sob on demand is a highly technical achievement employed in millions of ways every day. Television programmes, films, pop music and advertisements all employ similar tactics to snare us. From The X Factor and "rent-a-gush" Cole to the cute boy in the John Lewis festive extravaganza, the brains behind these modern fairytales know exactly how to create heartbreaking moments that have us reaching for a hankie and buying their product. Take the film The Help, for example – a simple story of black maids in Mississippi in the 1960s. Social history lite, nothing too raw. All the maids are brilliant actresses, and their shameful treatment is entertainingly told. But every 10 minutes there is what I can only call a "sob" break – a little bit of mawkishness designed to make you feel noble about watching this rather fluffy piece of work.
From Downton Abbey, Antiques Roadshow, Grand Designs to anything fronted by Gok Wan, programme-makers drag us on an emotional "journey", creating a fake bond with what's happening on screen. That family in Downton aren't our relatives with serious illnesses, but we care just as much for them, if not more. The old family heirloom on Antiques Roadshow brings a tear to Ed Balls's eye, but if any of us found a treasure in the attic, would we be happily sharing the proceeds with our relatives, or keeping quiet? The ghastly contestants in The X Factor aren't our flesh and blood, and yet we want them to succeed with a passion we don't seem to apply to our own under-educated teenagers.
Event movies such as The Sound of Music, a wonderful piece of high quality film-making, combining memorable music and performance, have been replaced with everyday tawdriness and an emotional rollercoaster. We've become a nation of blubbers, and it all started with Princess Diana's funeral. That massive outpouring of hysterical grief was out of all proportion to what had happened. When psychologist Oliver James was brave enough to point this out on Newsnight, he was roundly abused. Diana opened the floodgates and her successor is Ms Cole, the human faucet. Public tears have become a sign you're "connected" with your emotions.
Watching a preview of The Iron Lady, in which Meryl Streep turns in a riveting performance (out in January), I was reminded that Maggie only cried when her darling Mark got lost in the desert, and on the day she finally left Downing Street. During all those tough years in power, she never let that mask slip in public. Now, dozens of politicians, from Blair to Balls, Cameron to Clegg, proudly blub. Even Yvette Cooper and Louise Mensch are not immune. These tears are nothing more than feeble attempts to re-interest the public in politics, at a time when we are more cynical than ever. Hey – they even have the same emotions as us! But we don't have their expenses, their pensions, their sense of entitlement. The political world, the lobbyists, the powerful rich pals, is still one that ordinary people find repugnant, whether its members cry or not.
As for the teenage burglar who didn't see why he should write a letter of apology to his victims – consider the warped world this kid has grown up in. Newspapers hack into the phone of a murdered girl, they print the secret diary of a mum whose little girl has gone missing (which, by the way, was always her copyright), they pay for the medical records of the famous. Worse, they allege that a teenage girl murdered in a Scottish playground was a bully (completely untrue), with the result her brother kills himself and parents lose both children. Doesn't that take your breath away? Raised on a diet of these headlines and this level of intrusion into private catastrophe, and a television culture where sobbing means nothing and winning on a talent show is the highest form of human endeavour, a thief can't be expected to have much of a moral code. And if we can't be bothered to thank each other and mean it, what right do we have to criticise a nasty little kid who can't even spell remorse?
We talk about our emotions all the time – but deep down, what are our values? Show less, mean more is my mantra – there's a lot to be said for British reserve, even if it is out of fashion.
Downton writer shoots himself in the foot
Julian Fellowes sees himself as the self-appointed defender of what remains of the British aristocracy – and he seems to relish the fury some of his more outrageous comments inspire.
Who can blame him for being contentious? He has a TV series to promote, and on Christmas Day Downton Abbey will be battling for ratings against the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing, so every little plug helps.
Last week, he gave a speech in London complaining that modern British society shuns those with inherited wealth. A bit of a touchy topic, one might think, at a time when most people have zero savings to pass on to their children, the young can't afford to buy a starter home and pensioners have seen their incomes drop by 30 per cent in three years.
Inherited estates and vast houses are not exactly a cause I would go to the barricades for – can you imagine a camp of toffs pitched outside Parliament, protesting because no one cares about the cost of replacing their roofs and restoring their moats?
According to Fellowes, we venerate self-made tycoons who have built up their fortunes in one generation – but he thinks those with inherited wealth give more back to society and are often kinder. Could he be thinking of Prince Charles?
All I know is that life is a lot nicer when you have a roof over your head – and if you didn't have to find the money to buy it, then you can probably afford to be pleasant to the lower orders.
Baron Fellowes is beginning to sound like some of his fictional characters.
Beware the giant caterpillars
I doubt that sex will be on the agenda during the festive season in many British households if the sales of the repellent "onesie" suits are anything to go by.
Tesco has already sold half a million of the rainbow-striped fleecy romper suits for adults, and say a further 750,000 are expected to be snapped up by Christmas Day. Wearing one might enable the heating controls to be set lower, but at what cost?
Fancy mating with a larva?
Knit one, purl one, win the gold
The countdown to the Olympics has begun – many theatres plan to close, and thousands of Londoners are booking their holidays for the duration to avoid the transport chaos. I'll be watching from rural Yorkshire and plan to make my ancient telly into an Olympic shrine by knitting a selection of athletes to decorate it.
With Carol Meldrum's witty book: Knitlympics (Collins & Brown £7.99), you can recreate Olympic heroes past and present. Mark Spitz has a cute moustache and Carl Lewis, dinky little red shorts. Should knitting be an Olympic sport?