Cherie Blair

‘Vulgar, self-pitying, greedy’ – impressions of Cherie Blair weren’t exactly sympathetic during her time as the Prime Minister’s wife. But two years after she left Downing Street, the human rights lawyer is frank, funny and (whisper it) quite charming

From the moment she enters the room, Cherie Blair manages to wrong-foot me. We are meeting at the chambers in London where she works as a QC specialising in human rights law and, as she shakes hands, she stands way too close, invading my personal space like a one-woman Barbarian horde. Then she says, while still pumping my hand and smiling up at me, ‘I read your columns, including the stuff you sometimes write about me!’

Argh! For the next 10 minutes I cannot concentrate, trying to recall what I might have written about her over the past decade or so. Was it anything rude? Did I refer to her as Cruella de Vil, as journalists lazily do? Compare her smile to a Scalextric track, perhaps? Oh God… You have to admire the tactic, though.

I also find her perky manner disconcerting. By way of preparation I’ve been watching footage of this 54-year-old mother of four being interviewed on television, and she often comes across as edgy and cold. Yet in person there is a lightness and warmth to her, her sentences punctuated with laughter. I’ve been told by the third party who set this interview up that I am not to ask about the expenses scandal or the fate of Gordon Brown – because she won’t be able to comment on either – but it soon becomes obvious that she will answer pretty much any question I ask.

I have also been reading Speaking For Myself, her best-selling memoir. Some reviewers gave her a kicking, calling her vulgar, self-pitying, grasping, cringeworthy and so on. One amusingly suggested she should take out an injunction against herself, or perhaps sue herself for libel. But this is to be expected. Few people have been as divisive and unpopular in recent years as Cherie Blair. A Radio 4 poll even voted her the person listeners would most like to see deported.

Everyone seems to have an opinion on her. My devoutly Catholic mother-in-law, for example, is not keen, mainly because Cherie claims to be devoutly Catholic, too, despite the very non-Catholic revelation in her book that she used contraception, or rather forgot her ‘contraceptive equipment’ when they visited Balmoral (and lo, unto them, a baby was born nine months later).

My mother isn’t that keen either, come to think of it. Like many people who used to ride to hounds – including the Princess Royal – she blames Mrs Blair for the hunting ban, or at least for forcing her husband’s hand on the issue (Mrs B, as she was known in Downing Street, claims this wasn’t the case, by the way).

Being neither a Catholic nor a subscriber to Horse & Hound, I read her memoirs with an open mind and was surprised by how funny they were. She has fine comic timing and does a nice line in self-deprecation, describing herself as looking like ‘the mad woman from the attic’, for example, in that photograph where she opened the door in her nightie – ‘with my hair like a bird’s nest, and bleary-eyed’. And her account of how Tony proposed to her while she was on her knees cleaning a loo is hilarious. ‘I know,’ she says when I mention this. ‘So romantic. Him standing, me on my knees scrubbing the toilet, then after that, the wretched man said: “Let’s not tell anyone yet, let’s keep it to ourselves!”‘

Plenty of reviewers loved the book though and, on the cover of the paperback, published this month, there is a quote that reads: ‘Charming, frank and funny.’ And that is about right.

We are meeting on the Thursday of the European elections. Downing Street is in turmoil. Gordon Brown is a gibbering wreck. There is speculation he might not survive until the weekend. On a day like today, I suggest, when the body politic is pumping with adrenaline, she must miss being at the heart of things. ‘Not really. Been there, done that, got the scars on my back. It’s quite nice being a spectator again, rather than the subject of a spectator sport.’

Presumably she doesn’t miss things like the press scrutiny of her finances – the £100,000 fee she was paid for a lecture tour of Australia in 2005, on behalf of a charity, for example. ‘Rather naively, I thought because it raised $250,000 for charity it was a good thing, but the press didn’t think so. I’ll never do that again. You learn by your mistakes.’

Did she consider paying her fee back? ‘No, I didn’t. The caterer was paid. The comic was paid. I was paid. Together we made a lot of money for the charity. In England I speak all the time for charities without asking for a fee. But I had gone all the way over to Australia and spent a week away from my children and my work, whereas I wouldn’t have to do that for a speaking engagement in Manchester.’

Long before the current expenses scandal, Cherie Blair was involved in an expenses dust up of her own: whether she should pay for André, her personal hairdresser, out of her own money, or whether he was a legitimate government expense. ‘In the end I did pay for him, but I couldn’t have done my duty as the wife of the PM without him or someone like him.’

So, can she empathise with MPs who feel their expenses are justified? ‘I think – what can I say about the expenses row? – not much other than I am glad I am no longer involved in that world. There is now an impression that MPs are out for what they can get, which usually isn’t the case. Our MPs are not crooks and it is wrong that people should think they are. I think there is a real danger now of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.’

The word greedy is often applied to her; is that fair? ‘No, because personally I don’t think I am all that greedy. Like everyone, I am formed by my background and mine was, well, we didn’t have a lot of money. I didn’t live in a cardboard box but I did live in a place where at the end of the week the money was gone.’ That was in Crosby, Liverpool. Her father, the hard-drinking, serially adulterous actor Tony Booth, was absent for most of her formative years, and she was raised by her grandmother and mother, a RADA-trained actress who worked in a fish and chip shop to make ends meet.

‘That must have affected my own anxieties about money, about paying the bills. We knew that when we left Number 10 we had no house to move to because we had sold ours in 1997. Sometimes I used to say to Tony, “We could be out of here tomorrow and it could be me, you and four children with nowhere to go”.’

Now they have bought a house in London (for which they paid £3.5m) and another in Buckinghamshire (£5.75m). Tony Blair has consultancies with investment banks thought to be worth £2.5m and he is also thought to have earned around £2m from speaking engagements, as well as £4.6m for a book deal. In addition to her salary as a QC, Cherie Blair was reportedly paid around £1m for her book. Are all her money worries over now? ‘I’m in a fortunate position now, but do I still worry in the back of my mind that it could all be gone tomorrow? Yes.’

She was the original WAG (Women Against Gordon) and complained about the way he was constantly ‘rattling the keys’ to Number 10. Does she now think that her former neighbour should have been careful what he wished for? She laughs. ‘There is this whole image about my relationship with Gordon being… Look, he has many good qualities and it was not wrong of him to have wanted to be prime minister – most politicians do, and why shouldn’t they? It’s just that as Tony’s wife, when Gordon’s ambition got… when he became impatient, I was on Tony’s side.’

Hence Tony Blair’s quote that there was no danger of his wife running off with the man next door? ‘Yes, I think that was quite observant of him.’ And the reason why, when Gordon said in his conference speech that it had been a privilege to work with Tony, she said: ‘That’s a lie’? ‘I didn’t say that, I didn’t! The trouble is, everyone thinks I might have said it.’ But she did think it? ‘I might have thought it, but even I’m not so stupid as to say it.’

Well if she didn’t say it then, she has now. We are on the subject of her gaffes and they seem odd for someone with an alpha brain. Upon leaving school, she studied law at the LSE, going on to gain the highest bar examination marks of any student in the country in her year. There are, it seems, two Cheries; the smart lawyer and the not-so-smart embarrassing politician’s wife. They even have different names – Cherie Booth and Cherie Blair.

She does indeed talk of a disjunction between her life as a high-flying QC, a world in which she feels comfortable and in control, and her former life as a prime minster’s wife, less sure of herself, more prone to gaffes. ‘The thing is, I knew the decisions I was making in the legal world would only affect me. In the political world, if I made a gaffe Tony took the consequences, and it is always worse to hurt the ones you love than hurt yourself.’

Is it true he would sometimes bury his head in his hands and say, ‘For goodness’ sake woman!’ ‘He does say that, you know, quite a lot. But he kind of only half means it. He’ll have a rant and get it out of his system. He is not one to hold grudges. We’re both optimists.’ She reckons one of the reasons
he loves her is that she is so unpredictable. ‘I hope so, otherwise he wouldn’t have stuck around for
so long.’

Any advice for Sarah Brown? ‘Be there for your husband. But she doesn’t need my advice. She’s done a lot better than me in the press.’

And Samantha Cameron? ‘Exactly the same. In the end, it’s about having someone to share it with, which Ted Heath didn’t have. Even now Margaret Thatcher gets confused and looks for Denis.’ She describes her tempestuous relationship with Alastair Campbell as a ‘double act’. He went ballistic over what became known as ‘Cheriegate’, the time she bought two flats in Bristol at a discount, with the help of the fraudster Peter Foster.

‘Yes, that was not one of the high points of our relationship. I’m very fond of Alastair. He was extraordinarily loyal to Tony. But he was slightly prone to barging in without knocking. And I think he felt the pressure towards the end, especially when he became part of the story. What he was trying to protect me from was what he fell victim to himself.’

Does she now resent the way Campbell bullied her into doing her emotional mea culpa speech about Cheriegate on the evening news? ‘I don’t… I don’t think I was bullied. The trouble was, Tony had insisted I tell him what had happened in terms of my contact with Peter Foster and he would pass on what I said to Alastair… Today Tony has a Blackberry but when he was PM he… He had a computer on his desk but never turned it on. So when I said I’d had an email from Foster, it didn’t really mean much to him.

When we left Downing Street in 2007, I said to Tony: “We’re going to sit down and I’m going to show you how to use a Blackberry.” And now the kids say, “Mum, he’s never off that ruddy thing, why did you teach him how to use it?” ‘

Speaking of equipment, I tell her my Catholic mother-in-law was somewhat surprised by her admission that she used contraception. ‘I suppose it was the Catholic in me that meant I couldn’t bring myself to go into any more detail.’

But surely the term raised more questions than it answered. ‘Some people have speculated that it might have been a wooden shelf to put between us in bed… But part of me said that because, though I like to think of myself as a good Catholic, I couldn’t have had the career I had without contraception. The fact is, even in Spain, France and Italy there must be a lot of Catholics who bend the rules.’

So is she going to solve the mystery of what the equipment was? ‘Nooo! Certainly not. You can probably guess anyway.’ A cap? She covers her ears and laughs. ‘I’m not saying anything!’

Here is another mystery. As a couple, their friendship with the Clintons is easy to understand, all four are left-leaning lawyers. But the Bushes? What was that about? ‘It’s not really that baffling because one of the main job descriptions of the British prime minster is to get on with the American president. Whatever the domestic policies, on foreign policy Tony and George saw eye to eye. That said, I talked about policy and politics with the Clintons in a way I never did with George and Laura. Most of the time I talked to the Bushes about the things we did have in common, like having children the same age. We have stayed friendly with them.’

OK. Time to authenticate some tall tales. Is it true that when Bill Clinton came to Chequers she was worried he would try and get off with Carole Caplin – the masseuse, one time soft porn model and New Age ‘therapist’ – who was walking around in her stretched leotard? Another laugh. ‘I just think Bill is one of those men who appreciated… feminine company.’

Why did she trust Caplin when she was so obviously flaky, what with her crystals and her ‘toxin showers’ and everything? ‘I don’t think my judgement… I shouldn’t have bought those flats [Foster was Caplin’s boyfriend] because even to this day they are not worth what the Daily Mail claimed they were worth.’

What does she make of Lord Levy’s insinuation in his memoirs that Tony was the father of Carole’s baby? ‘I think that’s a load of old rubbish, frankly.’

Is it true that Cherie and Tony rolled round in mud as part of a rebirthing ritual while on holiday in Mexico? ‘That’s a load of old rubbish, too.’ Really? ‘It wasn’t rebirthing. We went to Mexico and we thought we would try some treatments and one of them was the Mayan equivalent of the sauna.’

And it involved mud? ‘No, actually. Did it involve mud? I can’t remember. Don’t think so. Although you get all sorts of things these days, don’t you. Seaweed wraps and so on. I don’t think that one was about mud, particularly.’

Is it true that her husband has a pact with the Queen never to watch the film The Queen? ‘That’s my understanding. I don’t know whether the Queen has watched it but I’m pretty sure Tony hasn’t. I watched it on my own on a plane. My daughter Kathryn was miffed because they didn’t get a red-haired actress to play her. And I wish I was as thin as the actress who played me. And I hate Michael Sheen as Tony. Doesn’t do it for me at all. Tony is six foot and quite broad shouldered and Michael isn’t six foot and isn’t strapping and doesn’t have that physical presence.’

Is Mrs Blair a monarchist? ‘I am a great fan of the Queen. I miss her.’ That was not what I asked. Is she a monarchist? A knowing smile. ‘I’m a huge fan of the Queen.’

When she left Downing Street she shouted at the waiting press: ‘I won’t miss you!’ She describes in her book how her husband cringed, telling her through clenched teeth: ‘For God’s sake, you’re supposed to be dignified, you’re supposed to be gracious.’ Obviously she doesn’t miss the press, but what about Number 10?

‘The big difference with our life today is that Tony is constantly travelling to the Middle East and America. The irony is that we saw more of him when he was PM. Leo would pop down and see him, sometimes he would pop up for lunch. But, you know, today Tony is working at home so we just had lunch together.’

Their eldest two children have graduated from Bristol and Oxford and are now working. Kathryn is around the corner from here at King’s College, London, and has just finished her second year exams. Leo is eight and Mrs Blair now says she is aware of being one of the oldest mothers in the playground. ‘Sometimes I think I’m older than some of the grandmothers, frankly.’

Time to go. Cherie Blair has, indeed, been charming, frank and funny. I can only think it is to do with the freedom of being out of what she calls the goldfish bowl. Her happiness must also be a little to do with Gordon Brown’s unhappiness. She would have to be inhuman, I say, not to allow herself a chuckle about the pickle Gordon has got himself in.

‘Well you forget that I am a Labour Party animal. I joined the party at 16. We have our Labour poster out today. This is the government that I think deserves to be re-elected. So there is not much joy in seeing the turmoil at the moment.’ ‘Not much’. She is a lawyer who chooses her words carefully.

She stands close again to shake hands and, as she is leaving, turns and asks me a question. ‘Your Catholic mother-in-law doesn’t approve of contraception, but what about your Catholic wife?’ Damn she’s good. Wrong-footed again.


Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello is a doting father, friend to presidents and writer of ‘proper’ love songs – but he’s still got the same old fire…

On a roof terrace overlooking Manhattan, an awning flaps lazily in the breeze. The man sitting underneath it is wearing sunglasses, as well he might given that a) the afternoon sun is unforgiving, even in the shade, and b) he is a rock star. Well, rock star up to a point. At 54, Elvis Costello is still leaping from genre to genre like a young pond frog spoilt for choice with waterlilies.

Having produced hit after New Wave hit in the late Seventies with his band The Attractions, he turned a little bit country in the early Eighties. After that came, in no particular order, recordings of jazz, swing and opera, as well as his innovative work with the Brodsky Quartet, a collaboration that is still going strong after 17 years.

Now he is back with Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, an album of bluegrass and traditional American country music, recorded in Nashville. It’s a beguiling collection. Appeals to the heart and the head. And lyrically it reminds you why Costello has been described as Britain’s answer to Bob Dylan – reminds you, indeed, why Dylan wanted to tour with him and why songwriters as great as Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney have queued up to collaborate with him.

But this said, he is still a bona fide rock star and today he is dressed like one, in his black suit, black shirt and black tie – and his purple fedora and matching socks. The sunglasses could not be more rock star, in fact, big as they are with silver frames that contrast with his gingery sideburns and ’tache.

In conversation he is expansive and articulate, but easily sidetracked. And it is disconcerting talking to a man with whom you cannot make eye contact. ‘These?’ he says touching them. ‘I’m blind without them. They have prescription lenses in. Anyway, trust me, you don’t want to see what’s underneath them. I’ve only had three hours’ sleep.’

He and his wife, the multimillion-record-selling jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall, live mostly in Vancouver with their twin boys who are two-and-a-half years old. Is the lack of sleep because of them? ‘No, I’m just an early riser and yesterday I flew in from the West Coast so I’m still on West Coast time.’ His son from an earlier marriage – he’s been married three times – is 34. How is he finding being a father again at his age? ‘Wonderful. Being a father at any age is wonderful.’

Who do the twins take after? ‘Thankfully their mother. Light hair and light eyes. I see temperamental things that might be like me. They travel a lot for young children. They’ve just crossed the Canadian prairies on a tour bus with us and they will be here in New York in a few hours, and then my wife is going to Europe to do some television shows, so they will stay here with me while she does that. I have help of course, but it’s great. We can sit and watch football or read The Hungry Caterpillar.’

Anyway, the point is, the twins have been listening to music since before they were born, and I ask Costello if he sings to them now. ‘No, and I don’t think they are all that keen on my songs. It’s Randy Newman they love because he wrote Toy Story. They know the score so they can say what action is happening when. Randy must have a great trick there to imprint that music in children that young.’

The twins, he tells me, by the way, think he looks like Mr Potato Head, or at least that the drawing of him on the sleeve of his new album does. For his own part, he describes himself as a combination of Cheeta, the elderly chimp from the Tarzan movies, and Liza Minnelli. ‘The dynamism of Liza,’ he adds, ‘with the hairiness and long arms of Cheeta.’

Oh, and another aside while we are at it; he was born Declan Patrick MacManus in London in 1954, the year Elvis cut his first record, and he has had his stage name since 1977, the year Elvis Presley died (the Costello part was taken from his great grandmother).

But back to his music. Does his 34-year-old son like it? He smiles a rare, gap-toothed smile. ‘You’d have to ask him. I think so yeah, but I can’t speak for him. I can speak for my wife because we are both musicians, so of course we influence each other in our musical choices, but as for him, I can’t really say. Up to a certain age you can say our life together is beautiful but then the child becomes a separate person with his own identity. I love them all and am proud of them all. And I often don’t feel deserving of the love I get back from them.’

His relationship with his own parents seems to have been equally healthy, even after their divorce in 1972. It was a musical family. His mother sold records, his father was a successful big-band singer and his grandfather a trumpeter, working the cruise ships. Does he ever look in the mirror now and ‘see’ his father looking back? ‘I see both my parents. My dad in some respect but also my mother. I look like both of them. I think we made some of the same choices. They worked hard to make sure I had a decent standard of living. And I’ve worked hard, every single day since I left school. I think I have a protestant work ethic.

‘Never sleep in the day. My mother doesn’t enjoy great health and I sometimes hear my dad’s voice in my own saying to her, “You should take a nap during the day”, but she won’t. I’m a bit like that. I haven’t taken a holiday in 16 years.’

In his case the not wanting to sleep during the day is to do with his insomnia. That said, he now points to a couple of sun loungers on the other side of the roof terrace and suggests that we could always go and have a lie down on them and carry on the interview there ‘side by side, like Eric and Ernie’. Elvis Costello, it seems, is in a playful mood. This isn’t always the case. He has a reputation as a serious man – serious about music, serious about politics, serious about the subject of Elvis Costello.

This is reflected in his physical paradox – he manages to convey an air of slovenly nonchalance and tightly coiled energy. And it occurs to me that his reputation for reticence and being difficult may be something to do with his manner and voice. He is a mumbler. As it competes with the breeze, the traffic and the sirens below, his voice becomes so whispery, I worry it won’t pick up on my tape. He shields the recorder with his hat. ‘See? The hat has two purposes, shields my head and shields your mic.’

His whispery speaking voice is in contrast to his singing voice, which has extraordinary range and power. We had originally been scheduled to do this interview when he was over on a visit to London, but then he decided he would have to rest his voice that afternoon and when I heard the concert at the Barbican that evening, I could see why.

‘You do have to be a bit careful with your voice,’ he says now. ‘It is an instrument. I think when you know the songs, your voice works around them, finds the slots with more ease, but you need to know how to pace yourself because we were doing 10 new arrangements in that show. I try to find the character for each song and I wasn’t sure how much vocal stamina it would take to follow one from the other. It seemed to hold out OK.’

The Barbican audience that night was warm, with many standing ovations; he was in a friendly mood, too, with much good humoured banter. Was this, I ask, a case of him making amends for the comment he made in 2005 that, in effect, he had fallen out of love with England? ‘I don’t care if I ever play in England again,’ he said at the time.‘I don’t get along with it. We lost touch. I don’t dig it. They don’t dig me.’ He shakes his head.

‘That was a mischievous sub-editor taking a quote out of context. I was opening for Bob Dylan and was just coming off stage and I was saying that, compared to America, I feel like I don’t connect any more in Britain. My mother rang up and said: “Did you say you hate England?” You can scour that interview and you won’t find that quote. Then the broadsheets pitched in with arts page editorials about what it all meant. I mean, if I’d known that was all I had to do to get publicity I would have said goodbye to England earlier.’

It’s not the first time he’s been taken out of context. At the end of the Seventies, details of a drunken argument in a Holiday Inn in Ohio were leaked. Having apparently described the soul legend James Brown as ‘a jiveass nigger’, and Ray Charles as ‘a blind, ignorant nigger,’ he woke up with a hangover and called a press conference in New York to apologise.

‘I said some stupid things and can’t blame anyone but myself,’ he says now. ‘I hope I have made amends now and anyone who has followed my career will know I am not racist and cannot doubt my respect and admiration for black singers. But the English thing I didn’t even say. I don’t know whether any one noticed, but I haven’t been in England for 20 years. I moved to Ireland 20 years ago and now I am mainly in Vancouver. But ultimately…’ A shrug. ‘I didn’t get into this business to be loved.’

But loved he is. Besides T Bone Burnett, Elvis Costello has worked with, among others, Bacharach, Brian Eno, McCartney. It’s often said he’s the Kevin Bacon of the music world, connected to everyone and everyone connected through him. ‘I don’t feel I went looking for them, though. Most of the major collaborations came to me. I didn’t go knocking on Paul McCartney’s door.’

Sounds like a cue for a Wings song. ‘Exactly. It’s funny but with Wings, Paul didn’t refer to the musical language of the Beatles at all, he wouldn’t even make passing reference to their harmonic cadences, what he did instead was create another highly original sound. But by the time our collaboration occurred I thought his reluctance to refer to the Beatles was perverse, because everyone else was ripping the Beatles off.’

And as McCartney once said, ‘I think I can do Paul McCartney better than Noel Gallagher can do Paul McCartney’. He nods. ‘Well Noel is deluded about a lot of things, most obviously that he is a songwriter at all. That he even brackets himself in the same sentence as Paul is laughable. You have to keep these boys in line! None of us are Irving Berlin or Burt Bacharach, you know. I sat at the side of the stage recently watching Burt sing Alfie and it was magical.’

He had been a member of the Beatles fan club as a child, so working with McCartney must have been daunting enough, but to work with Bacharach must have been… well, what? ‘We worked section-by-section, phrase-by-phrase, both composing, answering one another, it was a fairly extraordinary thing for him to allow me to do – after all, he doesn’t exactly need to collaborate at this stage in his career.

‘It’s probably what appealed to him. Having a dialogue in music. With him it was a case of finding the lyrics that would confer the meaning of the music that was already in the song. It was so vivid to me.’

Yet this is not the collaboration of which he is most proud – that would be his work with the country singer George Jones. ‘In 1981 I had not a writer’s block exactly but an impasse because I had done five albums and I felt I was no longer saying what I was feeling, so I used other people’s songs and that became the country album Almost Blue.’

To his fans, was that like Dylan going electric? ‘I don’t think it was that big a deal. We joked about it and put on the album – “Warning! This album contains country and western music and may offend narrow-minded listeners.” I didn’t have people heckling but even if they had at least that would have shown they cared.’

He sips his coffee. In his youth he was a legendary drinker. It is just coffee these days. No hard liquor. Did it get in the way? ‘Not so much that really, I just drank my share and it was enough.’

But is it true he split from the Attractions because of arguments fuelled by drugs and alcohol? ‘We just had our time, I think. We thought, “let’s go and do some other things independently.” In the end we were copying ourselves. Self parody. Other people were doing it just as well as us.’

There is something endearingly Eeyorish about Elvis Costello. At one point I find myself in the bizarre position of defending one of his songs, to him – Every Day I Write the Book. ‘It was OK,’ he says begrudgingly. OK! I say. It was the soundtrack to the summer of 1983! ‘I like singing it now, but I don’t much care for the record.’

So the layers of personal meaning and association that the listener brings to it count for nothing? ‘That is to confuse quality with nostalgia. Certain songs have indisputable quality such as I’m Gonna Make You Love Me by the Temptations. Objectively that is a great record with five great vocal performances on it. But the records that were the hits were not always the best songs, they were just the ones the labels put out which caught the mood of the time.’

He even manages to downplay Barack Obama’s request that he be the bandleader at his inauguration. ‘I’ve not met him. My wife has and says he’s very charming. He sent his regards to me, which was nice of him. You’d think he would have too much on his plate to bother with a pop singer.’

The Clintons were fans, too, naming their daughter after the Elvis Costello song (I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea. ‘I think Bill is more a fan of my wife,’ he says. Even so, last year, Costello hosted Spectacle, a chat show series on Channel 4, and proved an able interviewer, his skills honed from standing in for David Letterman.

Guests ranged from Lou Reed, Smokey Robinson, Herbie Hancock, Elton John and Tony Bennett… to Bill Clinton. ‘That Bill took an hour out of his time when his wife was running for president to come on was good of him. That was only the second interview I did. It was bad enough trying to remember the technical stuff, like which camera to look at, without having to think of coherent questions.’

Another week featured what was probably the last television performance by the Police before they disbanded, again. ‘With them it was a case of let’s have some banter with these three guys who after tomorrow night are probably not going to see each other again for a very long time. I had been on the road with them and knew there had been this begrudging tolerance of each other.’

Costello was known as an acerbic songwriter in his early years, as well as a thorny personality. I ask what he makes of the perception that he was an angry young man who mellowed. ‘I don’t think there is any mileage in that. I just think it is a safe thing to say. A safe guess. Mellow about what?’ One thinks of the energy of his early music. Oliver’s Army. Pump it Up.

‘You saw that concert at Barbican, there was a lot of energy in that. A 23 year-old couldn’t have done that.’

What about the anger of the lyrics of Tramp the Dirt Down, in which he looked forward to the death of Baroness Thatcher. ‘Well that was much later. To people who say I have lost the fire of some of my early commentary, I say there are many ways to express things. Shipbuilding is not a ranting song, it is melancholy.

‘The River in Reverse, the song I wrote about [Hurricane] Katrina, wasn’t a pious song, that was an angry song about the lack of care for the victims.’

Besides, often his songs were about love and betrayal. Of The Crooked Line, one of the songs on his new album, he says that it is the first time he has written about fidelity in an unironic way. ‘I think when I was younger I was not very good at writing love songs that didn’t have a twist. You know, Smokey Robinson writes the heartfelt songs, whereas it was my job to write the songs about weakness and failure in love.’

He says it took a long time to admit that it was love with Krall, not just musical empathy. He believed they could be friends and collaborators. ‘Then something happens that you can’t control and I’ve never felt better in my life.’

So The Crooked Line is about finding love and happiness after two unsuccessful marriages? ‘Actually, it was written for someone else to sing. Imagining a much longer relationship to reach a peaceful place. If I was going to write something that personal it would be in the song, I wouldn’t need to explain it. Maybe none of my songs are directly from my own life.’ Note the ‘maybe’. Costello is always careful in his use of words.