He’s the tough guy of English cricket and arguably the best all-rounder since Sir Ian Botham. Ben Stokes on breaking records, locker-room tantrums – and the last time he cried. By Nigel Farndale

As a conversationalist, Ben Stokes likes to play himself in. He takes his guard, levels a pink-lidded gaze at his interlocutor and answers questions defensively, in an earnest, slightly lisping, flat-vowelled monotone that owes more to his teenage years in Cumbria than his early childhood in New Zealand. It is the opposite of his batting style, which is explosive from the start. His bowling style, too, come to that.

As we sit in a dank corner of a disused shipyard in Sunderland – he is making some social-media films here for Red Bull, one of his sponsors – he hesitates only once. It is when I ask him about the last time he cried. I’m hoping he will say it was over a rom-com, which would be amusing given his reputation as the hard man of cricket, but after a long pause he says, “When a close friend from school died a couple of years ago.” He doesn’t want to elaborate. Ah, OK. Moving on.

At 6ft he’s tall, but not fast-bowler tall; not Finn, Broad, Tremlett tall. His features are angular, his skin freckled and his eyebrows so pale they are almost invisible. An array of tattoos covers his gym-hardened arms. When I ask him to talk me through them he obliges, ending with, “… and this one is a symbol of my tribe in New Zealand. My mum has more Maori in the family than my dad’s side.”

It is a war-like tribe, presumably, for the Stokes fuse is famously short. When opposition teams sledge him – that is, try to make him lose concentration at the crease by winding him up – the only worry his England team-mates have is for the wellbeing of the sledger. When the Australian wicketkeeper Brad Haddin once tried this, the England spinner Graeme Swann took him to one side and suggested it might not be a sensible way to proceed, on balance. When Haddin asked why, Swann explained, “Because he’ll f***ing kill you, mate.”

When I ask Stokes how close his altercations on the pitch have come to turning physical he gives a short, ambiguous laugh and answers in a way that sounds as if he means the opposite: “There’s adrenaline there, but I’d never get close to punching someone. It’s the heat of the moment. Trying to be the bloke to get the wicket that will change the game back in our favour.”

Arguably it is this anger – always just below his surface – that has made the 26-year-old cricketer England’s top all-rounder, some might say the greatest, alongside Sir Ian Botham (having overtaken Freddie Flintoff, statistically at least). In the final Test of the West Indies series earlier this month, he got a career-best wicket haul of 6-22, and thus became only the eighth player to have his name on both honours boards at Lord’s (which means he has not only taken five wickets with the ball there, but also scored a century with the bat).

This is in addition to the world records he already holds, notably the fastest 250, which came in a match against South Africa last year and included 11 sixes. When in 2015 he got what everyone assumed was the fastest century in history at Lord’s (until a spoilsport statistician discovered a slightly faster one from 1902), his fiancée, Clare Ratcliffe, who describes herself as a cricket widow, sobbed with joy in the stands.

“I’ll have a few pints the night before a match. I’m 26, not 14″

He tells me they are planning to get married on October 14, shortly before he heads off to Australia for the Ashes series. The shipyard we are sitting in is not far from Chester-le-Street, the home ground of Durham, his county side. The couple recently bought a “footballer’s mansion” near here – it belonged to Adam Johnson, the disgraced footballer now in prison for sex offences, hence the knockdown price of £1.7 million.

This sum, by happy coincidence, is what Stokes was paid by the Indian Premier League for a mere month’s work earlier this year – a record for an international player. Along with his sponsorship deals with Red Bull and New Balance and his £700,000 a year “central contract” with England, it has made Stokes a wealthy man. Is he, I ask, investing his new-found riches shrewdly? “I’ve a brilliant manager in Neil Fairbrother,” he says. “I trust him to point me in the right direction.”

Mr and Mrs Stokes, as they will soon be, have two small children, Layton and Libby. When I ask how he will cope with being separated from them when he is away in Australia until the new year, he shrugs. “I’ve been used to being away from my family for long periods of time, even as a teenager. Summers in Durham playing for the academy, away from the comforts of home. My kids are used to it, too. It has always been the case that, ‘Daddy is home for a week or two and then you are not going to see him again for four or five weeks.’ ” He leans forward in his chair. “It makes seeing them more special and Clare is very understanding of the situation.”

She is less understanding when it comes to his personal habits. Stokes has said that she gets “driven mad” when he is at home, at least for the first week after a tour when he treats the place as if he is still in a hotel, leaving towels on the floor and dishes on the side. Stokes was barely out of his teens when he became a father. Was he hands-on? “I was a nappy changer. Becoming a father was a big difference from how life was before. But the good thing is, it will mean I’m still fit and active when my son gets to the age where he wants to play sport properly with his dad.”

“My kids know they won’t see me for four or five weeks. They are used to it”

Does he make any allowances for his son’s tender age now? “No. If Layton loses his concentration I say, ‘Well, I’m not going to play with you then, if you’re being like that.’ Even though he’s four. I think it comes from being sporty. My dad was the same with me when I was growing up.”

Ben Stokes was born and partly raised in Christchurch, New Zealand, where his father, Ged, was a professional rugby-league player and his mother, Deb, a counsellor. “My mum would go away to Australia all the time for work, so Monday to Friday was spent with dad,” Stokes recalls. “So that meant growing up around rugby training every day. That sense of dedication probably rubbed off.”

It meant Stokes became so obsessive about sport that he couldn’t concentrate on lessons at school. When the family moved to England – after a neck injury forced his father to give up playing and become a coach – Stokes was 12 and his school work suffered even more. “Nothing at school stood out to me as a career path apart from sport,” he says now. “It was all about rugby and cricket for me.

“When I first came here, I had a New Zealand accent and everyone wanted to hear me speak. That was how I got to know people. They would ask me to read signs out loud.”

It was when he was 13 and he broke his hand punching a fire door after getting out in a cricket match that his temper tantrums first exhibited themselves. That red mist episode was repeated more dramatically in the West Indies in 2014, when he fractured his wrist after punching a changing-room locker. After that his England team-mates started calling him Rocky and The Hurt Locker, and he worried that they would think he had a “tapped head”. Do they still tease him about the locker incident? “It comes up every now and again, yeah.”

I ask if they give him space if he hasn’t batted or bowled well, as was the case last year when he was knocked for four consecutive sixes in the last over of the final of the ICC World Twenty20 championship, costing England the title. “If someone gets out or bowls badly, you try not to get in their space. Leave them to it,” he says. “I methodically pack my kit bag now when I get too pissed off, because it takes me five or ten minutes and by then I’m usually done with the frustration and anger.”

Which brings us to the “stump mic” incident at Headingly in the second West Indies Test this summer. Stokes was given another demerit point to add to his collection after he was heard swearing on the pitch. That means he is now one shy of a suspension. “Look, from what I’ve heard [the authorities] are going to sit down and discuss the rulings on that,” he says. “If a batsman gets hit close to the stump mic and swears in pain, is that going to be a penalty? A heap of frustration had built up all that day and then the batsman got a nick and it went for four, and swearing was a release for me.”

“Does he see a shrink about his anger issues? ‘Yeah, I have to make sure I keep a lid on it’

The locker incident and the demerit points have given Stokes a reputation not only for having what psychologists might call “an unfortunate manner”, but also for being easy to goad, something that the West Indies all-rounder Marlon Samuels exploited mercilessly when he gave Stokes a mocking salute after he was bowled out cheaply in 2015. He must be aware that the Australians will be out to target him in the Ashes. “Yeah, I am,” he says in a laughter-edged voice. “Well, if that’s the tactic they want to use then they will be focusing on something that has nothing to do with cricket, so we can take advantage of that. Use it against them. I’ll know that if I’m getting a few words here and there it’s because they are not concentrating on the game.”

I ask him whether he sees a shrink about his anger issues. “We have a team psychologist available on match days,” he says carefully, “but I haven’t spoken to him about it lately. We have normal conversations. He doesn’t force it on you.” He stares at his feet. “But yeah, I have to make sure I keep a lid on it.”

Does he worry, though, that if he keeps too tight a lid on his temper it will take away his edge? “Yeah, I maybe just need to channel it in a different way. Even after I got my demerit point I was still being aggressive towards the batsman, just not in a vocal way. I was asking the umpire all the time, ‘Am I OK here?’ They don’t mind confrontation if it’s not personal or over the top.”

Stokes is the first to admit he’s not a good listener in team talks, and he’s not a great one for analysing his own game either. But he does have the odd superstition. He likes to have an omelette for breakfast on the morning of an important innings, because that was what he had before his glorious 258 against South Africa. “My only real superstition, though,” he says, “is that I always have to put my left pad on first. I wouldn’t feel right if I put my right pad on first. It would feel weird.”

When I ask him to articulate what it felt like when he got his 258, whether he felt invincible that day or found it hard to keep his ego in check afterwards, he says, “I’m not very good at speaking about myself when it comes to doing well. I lose my words … When I got my 258, I didn’t want to sound arrogant, I just wanted to … shove it under … you know.”

This halting answer reminds you that, for all his aggression as a player, Stokes can be a surprisingly modest man; a decent one, too – unlike some players he “walks” when he knows he has nicked a ball that had been caught behind, even before the umpire has made up his mind, or in one case given him “not out”. Away from cricket, he is happiest, he says, playing on his Xbox or having a round of golf “with Stu [Broad] and Rooty [Joe Root]” (he plays off a 12 handicap).

As the former England captain Michael Vaughan puts it, in Stokes, “England have got a freak cricketer; they are very fortunate to have him because he will win games in every format for years to come.”

It’s the reason Stokes’s sponsor, Red Bull, is all over him, too. “It’s the full-on for me,” he says. “I drink it during matches for hydration. I always drank it, even as a kid. And it does mix well with Jägermeister.” Indeed, he’s a legend in that respect, once claiming he lost count after 20 Jägerbombs. When was the last time he had a Jägerbomb night? He purses his lips as he thinks. “Probably after Edgbaston.”

He acquired a bad-boy reputation after he was sent home from a tour in Australia in 2013, after ignoring a curfew and going out drinking. Presumably he no longer drinks alcohol during a five-day Test? “Yeah, why not? We’re grown men, go out for dinner, have a few pints. I’m 26, not 14. I don’t have to drink Diet Cokes with dinner.”

I ask if there is a public school/state school divide in the England team. I’m thinking of an unguarded comment made by Giles Clarke, the former chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, about Alastair Cook coming from “the right sort of family”. “One person we absolutely nail is Sam Billings, because he is so posh,” Stokes says. “He cops it from the lads about being ‘rah’, as we say. But judging someone based on what school they went to is not high on my agenda. I went to a normal school; other guys went to big private schools like …” he frowns again. “Actually, I don’t even know the names of these schools, but if it does get brought up, it gets used in banter.”

After his first game for Cumbria as a teenager, Stokes doubted himself so much he was sick. He has clearly learnt to channel his doubts and nerves since – he tells me he always sleeps soundly before a match – and he is also learning to manage his anger better and understand why, as often as not, it is directed at himself. From the perspective of a spectator, however, I hope he doesn’t learn to manage his emotions too well. The last thing we want is a passionless Ben Stokes on Prozac.

It is time to do the photoshoot and, as he changes into his England kit, I see yet another tattoo on his back, this one of England’s three lions.

I decide I’m not going to let the crying question go. Has he ever blubbed during a film? He grins. “Yeah, once, watching The Lion King. When Mufasa dies. I was six.”



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.