600px-Andrew_Neil_FT_2011All heads turn as Andrew Neil enters the newsroom of the Sunday Times like a gunslinger moseying through the swing doors of a Wild West saloon. On his arm, dressed in the shortest of skirts, is the pouting Pamella Bordes. On his hip is the security pass to the newspaper’s offices that he has taken to wearing like a holster. It’s 11.30 on a Friday night, the early pages are being put together and, as he swaggers past cowering sub-editors and reporters, the editor points to various computer screens. ‘Cut that intro,’ he barks. ‘Give me a better headline on this.’ All eyes follow him as he now leads his girlfriend ostentatiously into the executive washroom at the end of the line of desks. He emerges 20 minutes later grinning like the cat who got the cream.
It is a story veterans of Wapping love to relate. And I am now reminded of it as I watch the great man approaching the entrance to Brighton’s Palace Pier. He has a pigeon-toed walk which, combined with the rolling motion of his wide, forward-hunched shoulders, looks like someone doing a bad impression of Robert Mitchum.
Today he is not wearing the cowboy boots he sometimes favours, but he is carrying a six-shooter on his hip, disguised as a mobile phone. It is high noon. The sun is blazing down. And the Wapping Kid is back in town. I ask if he was followed. He grins and says that he doesn’t think he was. Full Disclosure, his autobiography, tells of the time when he was tailed. By MI6, he thinks. In New York. It also describes the many death threats he received; the bodyguards riding shotgun in his car; and the attempts he claims were made by the Establishment to destabilise him.
On one occasion his new flat in South Kensington was burgled, and every drawer and cupboard searched. ‘It was hard to avoid the impression that somebody was looking for some dirt on me,’ he says, with a neutralised but still springy Paisley burr. ‘It was no time to be paranoid. I knew everyone was against me! That was what hardened me. It brought out reserves of brutality I didn’t know I had.’
Seagulls are wheeling and screeching overhead and, as we wander along the pier, past an arcade full of slot machines, their cries are drowned out by the sound of Madness singing ‘I Like Driving in my Car’. Sportingly, Andrew Neil agrees to be photographed sitting in the tiny car of a brightly coloured merry-go-round in front of a huge grinning clown. It seems that Brillo Pad, as he is known to Private Eye readers, has a sense of the ridiculous. (The journalist Matthew Norman discovered this, too, after he started a campaign in his Guardian diary to find a suitable wife for Neil. The butt of his joke joined in the search and began faxing his own suggestions. Neil apparently enjoyed the whole caper, even when Norman’s mother was revealed as the only applicant.)
A gang of shuffling old-age pensioners stops to stare. ‘I know the face,’ says one as she unwraps a treacle toffee. ‘But I can’t think of his name.’ One’s thoughts return to the time when Neil was asked by Mrs Merton on her television show if he had ever thought of having an allotment because it would do him good to get out and meet people his own age (Neil is only 47, but he appreciated the joke).
The photos done, we stroll back along the pier and stop at a booth where palms can be read electronically. Ever since he dragged Fleet Street picketing and screaming into the computer age, Neil has been obsessed with new technology. Indeed, on the door of his downstairs loo is a framed page from Private Eye in which a disillusioned journalist from Wapping is quoted as saying: ‘If he can’t fuck it or plug it in to the wall, he isn’t interested.’ But the electronic palm-reader has gone to lunch, so we take a walk along the seafront to find a restaurant and do the same.
Andrew Neil edited the Sunday Times for 11 turbulent years. He was, he now claims, eased out of the job in 1994 for two reasons. First, the Malaysian prime minister demanded Neil’s head on a plate, following a spat between the Sunday Times and the Malaysian government which threatened Murdoch’s Far Eastern business interests. Second, Rupert Murdoch, the paper’s proprietor, had become jealous of his celebrity. As if on cue, a middle-aged man lying in a deckchair recognises Neil and shouts out to me, ‘Are you auditioning him?’ Neil smiles tightly, ignores the man, and continues his theme. The trouble was, he says, that in many people’s minds he had come to personify the Sunday Times. ‘Rupert didn’t like that. He resented the independent celebrity I had. No one is allowed to outshine the Sun King.’
Neil portrays the Australian media mogul as a cross between an omnipotent Sun King and a foul-mouthed tyrant who has no real friends and who rules over his medieval court through authority, loyalty, example and fear. ‘He can be benign or ruthless, depending on his mood or the requirements of his empire. It was part of his management style that he could leave you in deep depression or on top of the world.’ Neil describes Murdoch as having a Jekyll and Hyde personality. In a later chapter, perhaps unconsciously, he uses the same cliché when writing about Pamella Bordes, the Parliamentary researcher who, after her fling with Neil was over, was exposed as a high-class call girl. I ask if he has a masochistic streak that draws him to such people. ‘I’m not self-destructive. In fact there’s a huge self-preservation streak in me. That was what stopped me falling head over heels in love with Ms Bordes, or getting besotted in the way our tiny friend [Donald Trelford, then editor of the Observer] did. The same applies to Rupert. The best advice I ever heard was: ‘Don’t fall in love with Rupert. He turns on his lovers.’
Neil constantly talks of the breakdown in his relationship with Murdoch in terms of a divorce. ‘It wasn’t a love affair in the sense of being two intertwined individuals in a passionate embrace,’  he says. ‘But we were a team and we both knew our roles. I could see the divorce coming as early as 1990. But the decree absolute took until 1994. It was all about a clash of egos and, in a way, I’m surprised he tolerated me for as long as he did.’
There is a third version of what happened between the star-crossed lovers. According to this, when Murdoch offered the 34-year-old Neil the job of editing the Sunday Times he knew he was taking a big risk — critics said that because Neil came from the Economist rather than a newspaper, he was too inexperienced. But the Sun King’s faith was rewarded when Neil rode into town for his shootout with the unions during the bitter Wapping dispute, one of the longest and most violent strikes in industrial history. And when Neil then went on to introduce the first multi-multi-section newspaper in Britain, as well as launch Sky TV, a strong bond was formed between master and servant. But in the early Nineties, the theory holds, Murdoch began to accuse Neil of being gratuitously controversial, a parody of himself, guilty of folie de grandeur.
Worse, Murdoch feared his editor was so unpopular with the public that he was putting off more readers than he was attracting. (When Neil became editor in 1983, the circulation of the Sunday Times was 1.29 million — when he left in 1994 it was 1.22 million.) Murdoch’s antennae may also have picked up on a feeling at the time that, under Neil, the Sunday Times had become mean-spirited, yobbish, too rabidly anti-Establishment. As a former colleague of Neil’s puts it: ‘The Sunday Times had become a perfect fake Rolex. Neil knew it, and each week he would pray that the gilt — his sensational scoops — would stay on until the lunchtime news. After that it didn’t matter if the stories fell apart because everyone would have already bought the paper.’
And so, the story goes, Murdoch let Neil down gently by promising him the job of anchorman on a new prime-time current affairs programme in the United States. But it was a bone his pet Rottweiler never got to play with. The programme only made it to the pilot stage — amid plentiful stories of American terror at his untelegenic looks and impenetrable accent — so, when Neil returned to Britain six months later, tail between his legs, all his enemies were delighted.
Tellingly, some of these have been unable to keep up their animosity. As Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye puts it: ‘It is difficult to sustain a loathing of Brillo since the Dirty Digger stripped him of the apparatus of power and blew him out — or rather “offered him a job in television”, as the euphemism goes.’
But Andrew Neil is canny enough to know that many people will still try. He is well aware of the enemies he has made over the years. ‘The reviews for this book will all be hostile,’ he grins. ‘There will be a lot of retaliation from the diaspora of the dispossessed. You know, the old guard, from Hugo Young [a former Sunday Times colleague, now a big cheese at the Guardian and Observer] downward. But I don’t mind. This book will sell on its controversy.’
And, judging by what is on the record, Neil’s expectations are justified. Charles Moore, editor of The Daily Telegraph, finds him ‘ghastly. It makes me laugh just to look at him.’ Auberon Waugh says he associates Neil with a sort of whingeing enviousness: ‘He seems to me like a wounded bear, ranting and raving inside his cave, a sort of Caliban figure.’ Francis Wheen, writing in the Guardian this summer, seemed to sum up the feelings of many journalists when he wrote: ‘I know of no spectacle so ridiculous as Andrew Neil in one of his periodic fits of morality. Come to think of it, I know no spectacle as ridiculous as Andrew Neil, full stop.’
Neil now thinks that the reason he made more enemies ‘than was necessary’ was that he had no patience or skill for massaging bruised egos. But there was more to it than that. Canvas the views of colleagues from Sunday Times days and you hear such descriptions as: ‘A volatile man. Pugnacious and full of bluster. Eaten up with anger’; ‘The key to understanding him is that he is very negative. He is driven by what he is against, not what he is for’; ‘Working for him was nerve jangling; he created a poisonous, internecine atmosphere wherever he went’; ‘He is chippy and gauche — all wing collars and red braces — but there is an attractiveness to his chippiness. And he could never be accused of being a hypocrite.’
Nearly everyone who meets Andrew Neil says that he can be relaxed, charming and affable. As we now sit down to lunch, he proves to be all three. But this, I suspect, may have a lot to do with the taut chuckle that punctuates his every sentence. He smiles a lot, too, which always helps. Indeed, over the years, his constant smiling has etched deep grooves on his face that run from the side of his nose down to the corners of his mouth. Combined with the cleft in his chin, these make him look as if he has been accosted by an over-enthusiastic, amateur make-up artist worried that those at the back of the village hall will not be able to make out her subject’s expressions.
Actually, as he studies the menu, I can’t help noticing that Neil is wearing make-up — orange powder that, presumably, has been applied in readiness for his televised conference report later that day. Despite this, his thick, rubbery skin still looks ruddy, as if his head has been boiled, and it strikes me that this may in part account for his Mr Angry image. He always looks as if his head is about to burst with rage.
I have to suppress a childish snigger when Neil opts for the brill (actually, his hair is not nearly so corrugated and bristly as legend has it — although it is a rather alarming mahogany tint). He doesn’t want potatoes with his fish — just green salad and vegetables. Thanks to such restraint, he says, he has recently shed 26lb. He eats using just a fork, American style, and, returning to the subject of Murdoch, jabs with it for emphasis. ‘What’s Rupert going to think of the book? I don’t know. I suspect he won’t like it. But he’s very unpredictable. It’s not a hatchet-job, is it? It just reports what I saw. I suspect he’ll pretend he hasn’t read it.’
Murdoch still haunts Neil’s dreams. This is not surprising given their symbiotic, almost preternatural relationship: Murdoch playing Frankenstein to Neil’s Monster, or, more accurately, Mephistopheles to his Faust. At one point in the book Neil describes the way Murdoch ‘descends like a thunderbolt from Hell to slash and burn all before him’. And you can almost smell the whiff of sulphur that lingers around Neil still. Indeed, I suspect the Wapping Kid still lives in fear of the moment when the ground will open up and the Prince of Darkness will return to claim his soul.
But it is a mistake to assume, as most of Fleet Street did, that Murdoch made Neil in his own Machiavellian image. Murdoch’s attraction to Neil was narcissistic: he saw in him a reflection of himself. Neil was a fellow outsider, a mercurial Scotsman who hated the English Establishment and had an evangelical commitment to the freemarket economy. (A former Sunday Times journalist gives an example of how single-minded and one-dimensional Neil can be. He was once working on a nostalgic anniversary feature about the 1968 hippy counter-culture. Neil approached and asked what he was doing. ‘Ah yes,’ said Neil wistfully, ‘’68 — the year of Callaghan’s economic reform.’)
Murdoch also recognised that both men are reckless gamblers: always acting on instinct and, almost addictively, taking risks. Neil compares his time with Murdoch to a ride on a rollercoaster. Again, he uses exactly the same comparison when talking about his time with Pamella (now Pamela) Bordes. He says he was genuinely frightened by what he calls her dark and evil side; yet, to echo Neil’s cliché-rich writing, he was drawn to her like a moth to the flame. The thrill of the risk, the whiff of sulphur, was overwhelming. Bordes, he claims, told him that she thought she might be schizophrenic and this, combined with her bulimia, is what he now thinks accounts for the frenzied way in which she scrawled obscenities on his mirrors and took scissors to his suits and shirts. (She suspected him of being unfaithful because, according to Neil, she had listened to an answering machine message that was nearly a year old.) She would ring him constantly, send him dog excrement in the post and, one day, was even spotted by a caretaker waiting outside his flat with a breadknife.
‘I found myself playing the starring role in the sequel to Fatal Attraction,’ Neil recalls. ‘The day I got back and she had wreaked all that havoc was terrifying. My friend Gerry Malone [now a Tory minister] joked that if I’d had a bunny rabbit it would’ve been a goner.’ Until now, Neil has been leaning forward in earnest anchorman mode. As the conversation turns to Pamella Bordes he leans back as though trying to get away, one hand in his trouser pocket. He was flabbergasted when he found out that Donald Trelford was wooing Bordes as well: ‘It seemed to me an incredible folly for, just as on Sunday mornings on the news-stands, it was a competition with me he could not hope to win.’ The crude machismo of this comment reminds you of the answer he gave Mrs Merton when she sarcastically asked why women found him so attractive: ‘Because I had the biggest organ on a Sunday.’ It also helps to explain why, when the Bordes scandal broke out, Peregrine Worsthorne, then editor of the Sunday Telegraph, should have felt compelled to publish a leader accusing Neil of being unfit to be an editor.
In response, Andrew Neil sued the Sunday Telegraph for libel and won £1,000. ‘I risked too much,’ he now says. ‘Winning by a
thousand wasn’t enough. I mean, it was better than losing, but £10,000 would have made it look more convincing.’ In the press the libel case was presented as a clash of the Old Britain (Stowe and Oxbridge, stuffy, snobbish, pseudo-aristocratic, High Tory) versus the New Britain (Paisley Grammar and Glasgow University, brash, upwardly mobile, meritocratic, Thatcherite).
‘The English Establishment thought it was a game,’ he says. ‘I didn’t. They resented the fact that I couldn’t be bought. I didn’t want their cold country houses where you have to bathe in two inches of hot water. I didn’t want one of their knighthoods. The hope of baubles and gongs in return for good behaviour is what is holding Britain back.’ He adds that he would have refused a knighthood if one had been offered. ‘But,’ — that clipped chuckle again — ‘I’m happy to say my resolution was never likely to be put to the test!’
Part of the reason he now regrets the libel trial, I suspect, was that it gave his press foes a second chance to snigger at him. He says he doesn’t mind jokes being made at his expense. Indeed, he professes to enjoy Private Eye’s long-running gag of finding an excuse to reprint in every issue a photo of him in a vest and baseball cap with his arm around an young woman in a bikini. But Ian Hislop doubts this: ‘Well, he has to say that, doesn’t he? I heard that when the photo was first printed someone pinned it up in his office and he was hopping mad.’
When asked why it is always open season on Neil in Private Eye Hislop says: ‘It’s partly because his sense of himself as an outsider against whom the Establishment is always plotting is so absurd. The irony is that he was the Establishment in the Eighties. That’s the other funny thing about Andrew Neil. He’s just funny. He says people like me are jealous of him because we live sad, pathetic lives with our wives and children. He’s right, of course. How I would love to live his life! In the end, the best that can be said of him is that he is less ghastly in the flesh.’
Hislop is referring, of course, to Neil’s reputation for working hard and playing hard. According to Fleet Street mythology you will find Neil in Tramp, the St James’s nightclub frequented by minor royalty, celebrities and second-hand car-dealers, almost every night.  ‘I haven’t been there for about three months,’ Neil now says. ‘But I don’t want the mythology to be broken. As we say in journalism, it’s a story too good to check.’ But he does have an incredibly robust constitution. The model Nicola Formby, an old friend of his, says he is always the last to leave a good party. She recalls times when he and two drinking mates — a threesome known collectively as the ‘Maltesers’, cockney rhyming slang for old geezers — have still been going strong at 5am, long after everyone else has slid under the table. And then Neil has gone straight to a studio to present an early morning radio programme.
Neil has a vulnerable side, though. He is never comfortable working a room, even if it is full of friends. And he describes how, when he was flying back from a holiday in America to take over as editor of the Sunday Times, he was so nervous he had an anxiety attack and began to hyperventilate. Again, when he was awaiting the outcome of the libel trial, he was so churned up with angst he couldn’t swallow. ‘They were the most miserable, loneliest two hours of my life,’ he says.
The mood of the lunch having now changed, Neil tells me a touching story about the last time he saw his dying father, in 1988. ‘I had just said goodbye to him. I kissed him on the forehead, but I don’t know whether he heard me say goodbye. I was lost in my thoughts, keeping my head down as I waited at Glasgow airport for my plane back to London. Suddenly all these screaming banshees, Sogat activists with East End accents, came from nowhere and started cursing me. I nearly punched one but, thank God, Gerry Malone happened to be on the same flight and grabbed my arm to stop me.’
He says it wasn’t so much his father’s death as his mother’s, in 1993, that concentrated his mind on his own mortality. ‘Ours was a small family and it made me feel very alone in the world. Just me and my brother left. You don’t really appreciate how much you are going to miss  your parents. I keep thinking of all the times I should have made the effort to go up and see them but didn’t.’
Though there are stories of him dressing up as Santa and visiting orphans on Christmas Day, and of him being devoted to his seven
godchildren, Neil has no immediate plans to start a family of his own. ‘I never set out to get married and the way things have worked out I never have. I don’t fall in love easily… But I do fall in love.’
Is he courting at the moment? ‘Erm… I might be. We’ll see how things go.’
Driving back to the conference, I ask him a final question. What is he like on the dance floor?  ‘Oh! A knockout!’ he laughs, revealing a sprig of spinach caught on his tooth. ‘Sensational! Whether I’m sensationally good or bad is another matter. But definitely sensational.’
The answer is as good a summary of the life and times of Andrew Neil as you are ever likely to hear.
Two days after this article appeared Andrew Neil wrote a letter to the Sunday Telegraph to say that the anecdote with which this article begins is apocryphal, offensive and entirely without foundation. ‘If this is really a true “story veterans of Wapping love to relate”, as opposed to one invented by some fevered imaginations, did it never cross Mr Farndale’s mind to consider why it has stayed unpublished for eight years? If anything remotely approaching such an incident had ever happened it would undoubtedly have been given due prominence in the next edition of Private Eye. After all, everything else I did at the Sunday Times was.’


James Blunt

It could be the homes around the world; his military bearing; or that he’s our biggest musical export since Elton. For whatever reason, being called annoying, a philanderer or – worse – middle class doesn’t exactly keep James Hillier Blount awake at night. Nigel Farndale met him

It’s not the sight of the groupies that haunts me, but the sound, or rather the absence of sound, as they ghost past us on their way up the stairs to the dressing-room. It takes me a moment to figure out that the reason they aren’t talking to each other is that they don’t know each other. One of the band members, the keyboard player, I think, has picked them from the audience on the basis of their looks. Half-a-dozen of them, all in their late teens and early twenties, and all, surprisingly, in pretty frocks, as if they were going to a Sunday school meeting. They have been separated from their friends like lambs weaned from their mothers. The silence of the lambs.

The ‘us’ they are filing past is James Blunt and me. He has a bottle of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and not a hair in place – tousled just so, like a Renaissance painting of John the Baptist – but they don’t realise it’s him because he has changed out of the suit he was wearing on stage and is now in jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket, as well as a pink feather boa and star-shaped novelty sunglasses. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the end of the day; we need to go back to the start, well, to the middle, when the seats are empty and the Texan sun is at its most unforgiving.

A barefoot and unshaven Blunt is wearing normal sunglasses and shorts as he plays his piano, strums his guitar and sings his plaintive songs into the microphone for the sound check, all the while looking out with his soulful eyes over an empty, open-air arena in Houston. At 5ft 7in, he’s not a tall man, but he has presence and an unaffected manner – a certain maturity, too, one that you wouldn’t normally associate with a pop star in the ascendant.

But then he is 34 and this is his second career, his first being as an officer in the Household Cavalry. He joined after graduating from Bristol University with a degree in sociology. He became a champion skier for the Army and not only saw active service in Kosovo, but also guarded the Queen Mother’s coffin when she was lying in state.

Tonight he will be supporting Sheryl Crow, though, since his second album ‘All the Lost Souls’ and the single from it, ‘1973’, went straight to number one in America, he is arguably the bigger act these days. Indeed, not since Elton John has there been a more successful British singer-songwriter in the States.

His first album, ‘Back to Bedlam’, also went to number one over here, as it did in 18 other countries, making it the biggest-selling album of the millennium. It even entered the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest-selling album in one year. But it was his first single that really put him on the map. You’re Beautiful became the sound of that summer. It was everywhere, and still is – having become a favourite at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. I even heard a brass band playing it at an agricultural show in the Yorkshire Dales this summer.

As well as millions of sales, James Blunt has won Brit awards, Ivor Novello awards, MTV awards and various Grammy nominations. In terms of credibility, he’s headlined at Glastonbury and won the respect of the world-weary music press. Yet not everyone loves him, as he points out when we get something to eat in the canteen area back stage.

‘After Back to Bedlam really started selling,’ he says, ‘there was this sudden aggression towards me in the UK, for whatever reason, and that focused my mind, made it clear to me what I was doing and why I wanted to do it. I write songs for myself. I don’t write them for you, or for anyone else, I write them because I have experiences that I need to process. I don’t have the answers all the time, but I do have lots of questions, and I express them in the songs I write.’

He is, I think, alluding to a poll last year of ‘the most annoying things in life’, which put him at number four, just behind cold-callers and queue-jumpers. ‘I haven’t met anyone who voted in the poll, have you?’ he says when I mention this. ‘That poll probably came from a website that was after some publicity. You and I could do the same poll very quickly right now and it would count as a poll. We could do one about annoying newspapers, for example. I promise the Sunday Telegraph wouldn’t be in my list. My parents take it.’

His father, a retired colonel in the Army Air Corps, manages his son’s finances. His mother arranged the purchase of his six-bedroom villa in Ibiza (he also has a chalet in Verbier and recently bought a place in Chelsea). ‘I’m not married,’ he says, ‘and so the support structure in my life is my parents. I’m closer to them now than I have ever been.’

He certainly isn’t married, as the photographs of him emerging from nightclubs with various high-profile women on his arm attest. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson was probably the best known socialite, Jessica Sutta, of the Pussycat Dolls, the most glamorous. He also seems to be photographed regularly cavorting on beaches with bikini-clad models such as Petra Nemcova, whom he dated and then dumped – unceremonious dumping being his way of ending relationships, according to the tabloids. He once said he found himself in a swimming pool in LA with nine naked women. ‘I was the only bloke. It was the only time I wished my mates were there, purely to spectate. I had arrived. It was a moment.’

Now he says of the tabloid interest in his peripatetic love life: ‘Last week I went to my home in Ibiza and was photographed by the paparazzi in my swimming trunks with girls. What is the point of that? I’m not that bothered, but maybe the media should be concentrating more on global warming or the Russian invasion of Georgia.

‘Looking at me in my swimming trunks is not a great sight. It’s a waste of time. There generally is a long lens pointing at me wherever I go, these days. I’m comfortable with it. I appreciate how things work. But my record label said something about my always being photographed coming out of nightclubs and I thought, “But this is what I do. I was doing it before the second album came out, so what is different now? You didn’t tell me to stop then.” I’m not going to change my life because of these people. I don’t see why I should.’

His label also gets him to dye his grey hairs and be enigmatic about his love life, which is an old tactic dating back to the Beatles – they had to pretend they didn’t have wives and girlfriends so that fans could fantasise they were in with a chance.

Actually, at the time of going to press, Blunt seems to be going out again with one of his old flames, Verity Evetts, an Oxford-educated barrister. He has also stayed friendly with some of his other exes, the socialites at least. He told one – an ex who got married not long ago – that he doesn’t feel ‘centred’ at the moment and would like to get married as well. Then again, he also said that he never tires of singing You’re Beautiful night after night because it gets him laid night after night.

Either way, he tells me he has grown used to the idea that his mother will probably find out from the papers what he has been up to, and with whom, before he has had a chance to tell her. ‘And my [two] sisters are quick to email me about things in the papers, laughing their heads off. I get healthy, ritual abuse from them, and give it back myself.’

As we are talking, I can’t decide whether the way Blunt smiles all the time is disarming or disturbing. He’s like a victim of a religious cult, smiling at the beginning of the sentence and at the end. I guess he has a lot to smile about, but also I sense a great deal of insecurity to disguise.

Then, I’m distracted by the sight of Sheryl Crow playing table tennis across the room. She has been holding her adopted son in one arm as she bats with the other, and now, even more distractingly, she is heading straight for us. ‘Are we going to have one of our little conversations on stage again tonight, James?’ she says. ‘That flirting thing. I think it worked well last night.’

They discuss the duet they will sing – a cover of Cat Stevens’s The First Cut is the Deepest – then we both watch her shimmy away, her blonde curls bobbing. ‘She’s very down to earth,’ he says. ‘I’d met her a couple of times, which was why she asked me on this tour. We do end up playing a lot of table tennis on the road. We’ve done 117 shows so far this year, in 117 cities, and there are a lot of hours to fill in the day.’

As he sleeps on his tour bus with his band, one city tends to blur into another. When I joke that he is in Cincinnati now, he looks genuinely confused. ‘No, this is?… Oh, right. Actually, I always get the tour manager to say where we are just as I’m going on stage. I still managed to get it wrong the other night, saying “Hello Dallas” when I meant Austin. I’m surprised I got out alive.’

He is funny on the subjects of things that go wrong. ‘People are normally surprised by my show, which is more energetic than you might think. Jumping on the piano. Jumping out into the audience and running up and down the aisle high-fiving them. But going off the stage can be quite dangerous. I broke my finger once. My legs carried on when I jumped off, and I smacked down on the ground. The spotlight was on me, and when I got back to the piano I hit the wrong note and thought, “Why did I do that?” And I looked down and saw it was because my finger was broken, sticking out an angle. Look,’ he says holding it up. ‘It’s still crooked.’

On another occasion, in Chicago, he jumped 8ft off the stage. ‘When I began running to the audience, a security guard stuck his arm out and I thought, “Does he want a hug?” Then next thing I know he’s rugby-tackled me. He wouldn’t release me and I was screaming in his ear, “I’m the f—ing singer.” I had to wait for the other guards to pull him off.’

I would have thought Blunt’s training in unarmed combat would have helped. I presume he still works out. ‘No, never. Couldn’t handle it. Too boring. I am a hyperactive person though.’ He likes an adrenaline rush, as well, having recently bought an 1100cc Moto Guzzi V11 Sport motorbike. There’s also the skiing, which he still does, and the riding. Actually, he tells me, he never really liked horses before joining the Life Guards. So why did he join that particular regiment?

‘Well, it is a reconnaissance regiment.’ But they are all so tall in the Life Guards, did that not make him self-conscious? ‘Some are. The Foot Guards tend to be taller regiments, though. The Life Guards take a few shrimps, as well. Besides, they are on horses, so height isn’t so important. Also being in that regiment had the benefit of being in Knightsbridge. I got a chance to be in London and meet people in the music scene.’ And groupies, as it happens.

As he paraded up and down the Mall in plumed helmet and shiny breastplate, girls would stick their phone numbers down his knee-length boots. But it was his time in Kosovo that really made girls swoon. He used to strap his guitar to the outside of his tank, because there wasn’t room for it inside. He had learnt to play the violin at five, the piano at seven and the guitar at 14, while a pupil at Harrow.

He writes his songs on piano and guitar. ‘But mainly guitar because it is easier to carry around. It’s like a child messing around with a toy. If a tune comes to me I don’t record it instantly. I think if I remember it, then it must be worth remembering, and if I forget it, then it was forgettable.’

Does he have any anxiety dreams about forgetting lines or chords? ‘Not yet. Perhaps I will tonight. Perhaps you’ve jinxed me. But audiences aren’t judgmental, and if things go wrong and you can look them in the eye, that is fine. The only people who are judgmental are the journalists. I will be conscious of you being there in the audience judging me.’

Blimey. Sorry about that. Is it true he signs breasts? ‘Not that I remember. Not that I’m fussy what I sign. A lot of men started coming to the shows after I appeared on Top Gear last year. That was such fun. I spun the car five times. I thought I might as well make the most of it. I am competitive.’

He recorded one of the fastest laps, but I’m surprised blokes didn’t think him manly before that, given his tour of duty in Kosovo. ‘It’s because I sing songs that are heart-on-your-sleeve and therefore I must be overly emotional. Nothing I can do about it. I could pose more, but I am comfortable with my masculinity.’

He has said that his lyrics are autobiographical, in which case, are we to assume that the lyric on his new album, ‘I killed a man in a far away land’, means he killed a man in a far away land? I only ask because in the past he has said that he would never try to exploit what he went through, what he saw. ‘You should ask any soldier how many lives he has saved. How they do it is no one else’s business. What I took from my experience in Kosovo is that you are told from one day to the next who your enemy is and it keeps changing. That’s what is happening in Iraq, too. I believe in looking people in the eye, looking for the common humanity.’

He is a great believer in looking people in the eye. He will use the phrase again later and it seems to reveal a Christ complex, or a John the Baptist one. That direct and challenging stare of his. It would also explain the hair.

It is time for him do some photographs before he goes on stage and, endearingly, he says he is ‘not fussed’ about the grooming he is offered before they are taken.

On stage his features contort with passion when he sings. The big video screen goes in tight on his face. His voice is by turns soft and tremulous and forceful, but always high. Having seen him in concert once before, a couple of years ago, I notice the tone of his banter has changed.

‘Wow it’s hot tonight,’ he says now. ‘I’m surprised any of you are wearing any clothes. We could all take them off and get friendly.’ It is suggestive, designed to get the teenage girls in the audience screaming. Before he used to joke about his ‘girlie voice’ and taking helium to get it that way, and being ‘a bit wet’ and the ‘housewives’ favourite’. I think now he has realised that, actually, he is a proper musician, a popular one, too, and that he doesn’t need to apologise for it.

Afterwards, back in the dressing-room, he strips to the waist as he talks because he wants to take a shower before going back on to do his duet with Sheryl Crow. ‘Things got a bit hairy out there when I jumped into the crowd,’ he says. ‘Did you see that? Some thought it was some kind of sport to grab me.’

I watch his duet from the side of the stage and notice he whispers something in Sheryl Crow’s ear and then she starts running her hands over his trousers suggestively, patting them. Afterwards, I ask what he said. ‘”Is now a good time to ask for your phone number?” She was checking my pockets, pretending to look for a pen.’

He shows me round the gold-coloured tour bus where he will be sleeping tonight as they drive to their next gig in Dallas. It is full of hi-tech equipment and is nicely air-conditioned but there isn’t much space in the bunks. ‘We do live in close proximity,’ he says. ‘Some of us stay up late. This is the crew end, they have to get up early.’

Where do the groupies go? ‘Never have groupies on here. Never. They’d only get in if we invited them in. But we’d only ever invite friends in.’

Does he sleep OK? I heard he has to take sleeping pills. ‘It is a bit of a rough sleep, but better than a hotel and taking planes all the time because you have to get to the airport two hours early, which is miserable. Then your flight gets delayed.’

He is drinking champagne from a plastic cup. ‘This is for your benefit,’ he says. ‘The tour management went out and bought a bottle of champagne because he thought I should be seen drinking it. Better for my image. Isn’t that sweet? Normally, we drink vodka and beer. In fact, I think I’d rather have a beer, now. Want one?’ He opens a well-stocked fridge then takes me to the back of the bus where there is some seating space. He has one small case which he pulls out from a cupboard. It continues a few pairs of socks, T-shirts and a spare pair of jeans. No photographs or mementos. ‘This is all I have for 14 months on the road,’ he says. ‘I’m not known for style.’

Does he know how much he is worth? ‘No I don’t, not very interested in it to be honest. I travel with hand luggage only. That is why I always seem to be wearing the same clothes in photographs. If a tabloid says my clothes aren’t fashionable or my hair looks stupid, I really don’t worry about it. Don’t have any hair gel.’

In London, he takes the Tube or the bus. He prefers pubs to restaurants. When he goes to Ibiza, he flies easyJet. Still, that’s at home. Presumably on the road he can afford to be more self-indulgent.

Another lyric that we can only assume is autobiographical is ‘I’ve taken a s—load of drugs’. It is. Though his only comment on the subject is that he has ‘a comfortable relationship with drugs’. His relationship with fame is less comfortable. Oscar Wilde said there were two forms of tragedy: not getting what you want, and getting it. Is that how it felt for him when he went to number one? ‘Actually, I don’t think I had been dreaming about it. Certainly, I hadn’t anticipated being so recognisable so quickly.

‘I do remember getting a phone call from the record company, who said both the single and the album have gone to number one, and thinking, “S—, this is not what I expected.” I hadn’t prepared myself for it. Number two is great. Number two is nice. I sensed then it would mean having to change from being a musician to being a celebrity and that that would be a change for the worse. Fame doesn’t affect me, but it does affect everyone else around me. As for celebrity, it is the worst invention of the modern world. Gossip columns treat your life as if it were a cartoon. Relationships reduced to cartoons.’

Although there are other public-school bands around at the moment – Radiohead, Coldplay – Blunt seems to have suffered more than most from a perception that he is too posh to be credible. His family name is Blount (and his middle name Hillier), but he changed it to Blunt to sound, well, blunter and more proletarian.

When he tells me he would nevertheless still send a son of his to Harrow – ‘I think I would. I think I would. Public schools make individuals rather than sheep’ – I ask what he makes of the mood change now that the old Etonian David Cameron has made it OK to be posh. ‘Is it? I must come back to Britain immediately. Is it really safe to come back?

‘It’s not a dirty word to be posh, people come up to me and no one gives a damn if I’m posh. It’s about having a normal conversation and looking people in the eye.’

We head back to the dressing-room where he puts on his feather boa and novelty sunglasses then we wander back downstairs to have a word with Sheryl Crow, who is signing autographs. This is the moment at which the keyboard player says: ‘This way to the good-time room girls’ and the silent groupies dutifully appear.