There's no place for public tears in these postmodern times, but at least the sofa stays dry

One thing everyone knows about Stuart is that he absolutely adores his wife. So when he stopped over in London on Wednesday night we naturally began with Jan. How was she? Did she enjoy living in Yorkshire as much he'd hoped she would? Not really, Stuart explained, jiggling his glass of red dangerously close to the edge of the new sofa. It had been too quiet for her. So quiet that she'd gone out looking for a bit of excitement. And found it. Three weeks ago she'd left home for good.

Although I sat and listened as he answered inquiries about the arrangements that had been made for young Billy and little Charlotte, I was obsessed by the one question that could not be asked. Why don't you cry, you bastard? You whooped and sang for months after you first found Jan, and now you're telling us, without a hint of a tear, that she's lost for ever.

What happened to public tears? Why is tearfulness now routinely regarded as a serious character defect, rather than proof of emotional sensibility? Take funerals. Twenty years ago it was common to encounter loud communal sobbing as the body was unsteadily lowered into the grave; nowadays it slides from view on the crematorium travelator in virtual silence. Only the very nearest and dearest are licensed to sob aloud. Anyone else who blubbers is suspected of downright exhibitionism.

Much the same taboo on public weeping applies in the cinema. I can vividly remember the Mexican wave of handkerchiefs that was elicited in the mid-fifties by the final scene of the Glenn Miller Story (the bit where June Allyson switches on the radio by the Christmas tree and listens to "Little Brown Jug"). All I ever seem to see now when I glance sideways during a contemporary weepie is the facial rictus engendered by my neighbour's fierce determination to maintain proper glandular control.

The trend is even more marked at the personal level. Am I alone in recalling all those social occasions when someone tiptoed into the room at a party and explained in a whisper that Marcia would be taking no further part in the proceedings because she'd got terribly sad and was having a good cry in the bedroom? Now friends seem able to recount the most alarming personal tragedies with the type of dry-eyed detachment usually reserved for discussions about the euro. Indeed it's so long since I saw anyone openly cry that I wonder if I may have lost the muscular capacity to encircle them with my right arm in such a way as to allow their weeping head to fall snugly against my comforting chest. ("I'm sorry, Laurie," they'd snuffle, "I'm getting tears all over your new shirt.")

There is, I suppose, a structural reason for this drought of tears. In these postmodern times, when such a high premium is placed by the chattering classes upon an ability to ironise even the most traumatic public and private affairs, the sudden appearance of tears signals the possible presence of that most suspect of all ontological states - natural emotion. In a culture dominated by knowing laughter, there is little place left for an unreconstructed tear-burst. If there have to be tears, then they can be only tears before teatime: the sole prerogative of the "lower orders" and "trailer trash" who make up the cast and audience of daytime confessional television.

After Stuart had left the following morning, I went to make up his camp bed and found the pillow still damp. At least, as Alison said to what I like to believe was grudging laughter in the George that night, he'd had the decency to keep his tears off the new sofa.