Charley Boorman held Angelina Jolie as a baby and had starred in several Hollywood films before he left school. Yet today he’s best known as Ewan McGregor’s globe-trotting wing man. How will he fare travelling the world on his own? Nigel Farndale joins him in Nepal to find out

Kathmandu has its own gravitational pull, for Western backpackers at least. They come to get stoned and sit on the steps of the temples, as their hippy forebears did, though nowadays they do it wearing Fat Face fleeces and listening to iPods. I am here to meet Charley Boorman and accompany him on the next leg of his round-the-world journey – into the foothills of the Himalayas – and I have been tracking his progress, mobile signals permitting, as he was himself pulled into Kathmandu’s orbit, crossing the border into Nepal from India on a tractor, covering ground on an elephant, paddling in a dugout canoe down a river. Adventurous stuff. Travel by any means.

This is the name of his latest conceit: By Any Means. It follows the runaway success of Long Way Round, in which he and Ewan McGregor circumnavigated the globe on their motorbikes, and Long Way Down in which they rode from John O’Groats to Cape Town. The idea, this time, is that Boorman will travel from Ireland, where he grew up, to Australia, using any means of transport other than commercial aircraft. This trip will take about four months, and is the subject of a BBC documentary series and a book.

Pretty much what he was doing on his previous trips with McGregor, then. Except there is no McGregor this time. The actor is filming in LA. Boorman is on foot and on his own, apart from his producer, Russ Malkin, and his cameraman, both of whom worked on the earlier trips. And the big question is, will viewers want to watch Boorman without McGregor? The success of the previous trips was to do with there being a double act. Banter between two bikers in sweaty leathers. And it didn’t hurt that one of the bikers was a Hollywood star.

Boorman’s journey so far has taken him across the English Channel in a dinghy (he found the shipping lanes ‘scary’), from Paris to Venice by Orient Express (‘nice’), through Croatia, Serbia and Turkey on trucks and buses (‘amazing’), across Georgia in a sidecar (before the Russian invasion), and from Iran by container ship across to Bombay (‘surprisingly safe’). I am meeting him two months into the journey, the halfway point. Almost 10,000 miles have been covered.

It is dusk. The cicadas are singing. And my first sight of Boorman is of him barrelling across the springy lawn of a house where we are meeting for dinner, guests of the head of Unicef in Nepal. He has a tan, which he never had on the bike trips because of his helmet and visor. ‘I look healthy now rather than pasty faced,’ he says, all big-lipped, gap-toothed smiles and pale, bulging eyes framed by equally pale lashes – a big friendly labrador. He has a Van Dyke moustache and beard, as well as ambitious sideburns and long flowing hair which, at 41, is showing no signs of going grey. I tell him I’m surprised that he hasn’t grown a full beard. Isn’t that what travellers do? ‘That’s Ewan. Any excuse and he will grow one,’ he says, pronouncing his ‘r’ as a ‘w’. ‘I think it’s a Scottish thing.’

As with the previous films, nothing is scripted, but narratives do seem to unfold of their own accord. His original cameraman damaged his knee a few weeks into the trip and had to be flown back to England. And there is trouble brewing here in the capital of Nepal. A political coup is in the offing, of which more later.

The dinner is lavish, more like a banquet. ‘The food has been delicious all the way,’ Boorman says. ‘Russ and I put on so much weight in Turkey. Good thing about travelling this way is you don’t get jet lag and you don’t get squits so much because your stomach has time to adjust to food as you’re travelling. That said, I did have the s—s two nights ago.’

Such is his laddish bluntness. Seeing him lying on his back in a field in France so that he could light his own flatus was one of the more memorable scenes on Long Way Down. Not everyone finds such laddishness endearing, though. One critic, writing for The Times, was unambiguous in her review of the first episode of that series. ‘Boorman comes across as a copper-bottomed, ocean-going, 24-carat prick,’ she wrote. ‘You can only hope he gets raped by a lion. In a bad way.’

Now, now. Boorman may be high-spirited but he is also polite and earnest. McGregor refers to his ‘in-your-face affability’ and that is about right. And his heart does seem to be in the right place. On this trip he will be looking at Unicef projects in Borneo, in his capacity as a Unicef ‘high-profile fundraiser and campaigner’, and in Nepal he will be helping deliver vaccines for children in remote villages.

‘Yes. I got it,’ he says when the head of Unicef asks him whether he has read the material on Unicef’s work in Nepal. ‘But I haven’t read it. I like to be surprised.’

But there is another reason he hasn’t read the brief, and we will come to that later. At the dinner, Boorman introduces himself to some of the local Unicef workers and when they ask what he does he tells them he’s an actor. Actually, he has more or less given up on acting, not least because acting has more or less given up on him. Before Long Way Round, his main source of income was painting and decorating. Since then he has been making decent money from after-dinner speaking, as well as from the television repeats of the two series, and the DVD sales of them.

As for his acting: well, let’s say Boorman peaked early. He had a part in the 1972 classic Deliverance, starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight. ‘Not the banjo player, before you ask. I was only three.’ His father, John, was the director and Boorman served as a pageboy at the wedding of Voight and Marcheline Bertrand during the shoot. When Bertrand gave birth to Angelina Jolie, Boorman was eight and was one of the first people to hold the baby. He also appeared in Excalibur, The Emerald Forest and Hope and Glory, all directed by his father.

Boorman and McGregor first met on the set of The Serpent’s Kiss (1997). When they discovered they shared a passion for motorbikes, their friendship was sealed: they got on so well that by the end of the wrap party McGregor had asked Boorman to be godfather to his daughter, Clara.

Next day we set off in a white Land Cruiser which has UN written in blue letters on its bonnet and side. As well as the two-man film crew there are half a dozen Unicef workers and an official sent by the Nepalese government to keep an eye on us (he looks like Captain Mainwaring and snores like a chainsaw). Not everyone can fit in, so a minibus with inadequate suspension is also found.

There is inhospitable terrain to cross, steep ravines, rackety bridges and terraced paddy fields carved into the hillside. We are to follow what is known as the ‘cold chain’ up into the foothills and stay in a remote village, in order to get a sense of the authentic journey, as taken each month by the Unicef workers. They use the public buses as far as they will go and then complete the journey on foot. It’s heroic stuff, actually. Unsung and humbling. The ‘cold’ refers to the cool boxes full of vaccines they carry from medical post to medical post.

The ‘chain’ begins at a depot housing 10 freezers. Boorman does a piece to camera about the vaccines. Though he may not have read his brief, he does prove himself adept at assimilating the information that is fed to him off camera. This cold box, he explains, contains enough vaccine for a 1,000 children and costs just £12. Unicef provides 40 per cent of the world’s vaccines for children and relies on donations. The pitch done, they cover the cool box in By Any Means stickers. There is nothing you can teach these men about branding.

Because the public bus we are using is overloaded to axle-breaking point, each hairpin bend makes us feel as if we are in a tumble-drier. A couple of hours later, back in the UN trucks and winding through a forest, the vehicles belly on the road and we have to get out and push, just as a deluge starts.

Spattered with mud, we eventually reach a village where young mothers are waiting with their babies in a surgery with a tin roof. Their colourful saris are in contrast to the darkness and pokiness of the medical centre (there is no electricity here). ‘We have a team which goes ahead of us raising and widening doors so that we can get Charley’s head through them,’ Malkin says in an aside to me. Boorman is doing his bit for camera again, carrying the cool box in through the low door. A nurse opens it and gets to work vaccinating the babies. They all scream when jabbed and this seems to move Boorman, reminding him of taking his two daughters for their vaccinations.

We walk and climb the next leg of the journey, to the village we will be staying in. The Land Cruiser and the minibus are waiting for us at the top again. Hurray! Several hours and several pushes later, we reach the village, to find the womenfolk waiting to greet us and put bougainvillea garlands around our necks and vermilion powder on our cheeks.

Boorman and I sit down next to a water pump. As the shadows lengthen, his pale eyes seem to become more luminous. He doesn’t get homesick, he says. ‘Done this all my life. Since I was three. Because we were always travelling with my father.’

How is it being away from his wife? ‘I talk to her every day. The thing is, this is what I do for a living now. I’ve known Ollie since I was 17. Before we had children she used to come with me.’

I ask why McGregor’s wife came out for a leg of Long Way Down but his didn’t. ‘Ollie and I are a very tight family and we don’t have help. We do everything ourselves. It is hard for her to come out with me because the dates are always changing. She has a company… so she is busy and we don’t want to take the kids out of school, and the money has to come from somewhere, and this is what I’ve always done, acting or dossing round on bikes.’

They seem to take a professional attitude to it all. In the first episode of Long Way Down, Boorman leaves despite his wife being in hospital with pneumonia and a collapsed lung. He said he would be happy to postpone it, but she said he should go, because otherwise that would put her under more stress. ‘The thing that annoys me is when people say, “How did your wife let you do it?”‘ he says. ‘I always think that a bit sad – that people think their wives would stop them doing what they wanted to do. It wasn’t as if I had sprung it on her. It was months and months of planning.’

But is it awkward with Ollie at first when he goes back after these trips? ‘If you jump straight back into the domestic thing…’ He doesn’t finish the sentence. ‘The best thing is to go off for a weekend somewhere so there is some neutral ground where you can get together again, so that you’re not straight back into bills and washing up. After Long Way Down we went with the girls for a three-week holiday to Kenya so that when we got back it was all normal again. Whenever I get home the house becomes messy and chaotic. Kinvara, my daughter, said, “Mummy, do you like it when Daddy is away, because the house is nice and clean?”‘

Does he wish he had sons as well, so that he could pass on his passion for motorbikes? ‘My daughters have to, 100 per cent, take their bike test, even if they don’t want to.’

Bikes gave Boorman a confidence he lacked – a result of his severe dyslexia. ‘As an actor it is really difficult for castings, sometimes you have to sight-read and that can be embarrassing. Before the days of chip-and-pin I would always have to ask how to spell the shop name when writing out a cheque… I always compensated by being the clown in class.’

Is the travelling anything to do with mid-life crisis? A need to prove himself as a man perhaps? ‘I don’t think so. I’m competitive but I’m not butch. I don’t have to win at tennis. I have a friend who is so competitive at tennis I sometimes throw a game because I know it means so much to him… manliness and travelling? Hadn’t really thought of it like that. I do get itchy feet when I am in one place for too long.’

The success of Long Way Round and Long Way Down had much to do with the sense of male bonding it conveyed. Boorman describes McGregor as his ‘best mate’, and having met McGregor on a couple of occasions, I know the feeling is mutual. But what is the nature of that friendship? ‘I think we are both quite different. He’s great at being able to see the bigger picture and he’s very loyal, fiercely loyal, and protective and funny. Funny guy to be with.’ So, by implication he, Boorman, thinks he is none of those things? ‘No, it’s not that; it’s more… we feel comfortable with each other.’

It is an unequal relationship? ‘I’ve always been involved in the film world so I’m not star-struck or anything. I just see Ewan as Ewan. I don’t see him as this A-list guy. I think we benefit a lot from the relationship, a good solid relationship. It’s almost like a marriage when we are travelling together.’

We now come to a more delicate matter. After The Serpent’s Kiss, McGregor made Moulin Rouge! with Nicole Kidman, while Boorman took up decorating. Did that disparity put a strain on their friendship? ‘I think Ewan does consciously play it down. He never really talks about the films he has done or the ones he has coming up, unless I ask. But he is a family person and loves his family unity and in that way lives a simple life.’

If there is a certain gaucheness to Boorman he makes up for it with his tender side, especially on the subject of McGregor. ‘I have a lot to thank him for. When we did Long Way Round, the original plan was for us to just go off and do it on our own anonymously, but I couldn’t afford to so he suggested a book or a television series to fund it. You know, using his name to get the funds. I think he did it for me.’

As it is now inky black and we don’t have torches with us, we decide to head back to where the vehicles are parked and find the others for some lentils and rice. As we grope sightlessly, he tells me that if he had to describe himself in two words they would be ‘lazy’ and ‘shallow’. I like him for that. Later, Malkin tells me Boorman is sulking because he forgot to bring his silk-lined sleeping bag.

That night the villagers put us up in their damp, flagged-floored houses and we sleep in rented sleeping bags on hard board beds without mattresses and with pillows that seemed to be filled with walnuts. Boorman manages to sleep well.

Back in Kathmandu there are police checkpoints. In the evening, as we sit in a bar, three homemade bombs go off not far away – not very effective bombs, it has to be said, though one person is injured. Things are hotting up and Malkin and Boorman plan how they will get some footage. It should make for a good narrative. A genuine coup d’état. The following afternoon is the vote to decide whether the king should be thrown out of his palace. Crowds gather and swell the streets. There are several thousand marching people, all waving red hammer and sickle flags. Tanks appear on the streets and the tension is building. Malkin and Boorman get in among them with their cameraman. A risky move this, given the mood of the crowd.

As it turns out, the coup happens fairly peacefully, only a few arrests and injuries. It is time for Boorman and Malkin to head off to Laos. They have just heard that for the final leg of the journey to Australia they might be able to hitch a ride on a submarine. After that? Well, when the dust has settled and Charlie and Ollie have had their weekend away together, and re-engaged with their domestic life for a year or so, he is, he says, planning a Long Way Up through South America. With McGregor and two motorbikes.


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.