Christopher Hitchens, ‘right wing Leftie’ and raconteur, hates God and bores. But most of all, he hates losing an argument…

Christopher Hitchens likes to point out, he never misses a deadline, or a plane – despite his fondness for ‘strong waters’ and his disinclination to wear a watch.

But what of trains? I have arranged to meet him at Paddington at 10.45am and, according to my watch, that was two minutes ago.

I am to accompany the 61-year-old author and journalist on the 10.50 to Oxford because, as he says, it will be ‘a nice prompt for reminiscence’, but if we miss each other, that will be it.

He has a tight schedule: lunch with Richard Dawkins at Balliol, their old college, followed by a reception in the afternoon and a debate on atheism versus religion at the Sheldonian in the evening, then it’s home to Washington DC tomorrow and thence to Australia for a book tour.

When he appears, wearing a white suit and open-necked navy blue shirt, he is dragging a suitcase, or perhaps, given his slightly ruffled appearance, the suitcase is dragging him.

The look is that of the English gentleman abroad, but where exactly abroad for him is, these days is debatable.

A couple of years ago he took American citizenship, having lived there for a quarter of a century, and he still likes to fly off to war zones and ‘difficult countries’ to file dispatches and/or find inspiration for his polemical essays and books.

And as he reveals in his latest, a pert yet elegantly written memoir called Hitch-22, he has been roaming the globe, looking for trouble, all his life. But when you hear his voice, any doubts as to his true identity evaporate.

He speaks in a sonorous Oxford English, in sentences that are sometimes clipped (his father was a commander in the Royal Navy), sometimes florid. And something in his tone makes every word sound vaguely ironic.

We immediately seem to fall into pre-assigned roles: he the slightly unworldly senior don, me the amanuensis as he hands me some papers among which he suspects his ticket might be lurking.

I find it and slot it in the barrier, but, before he can get through, it closes on his suitcase and a tussle ensues. ‘A dignified start,’ he says, once freed by an inspector.

The Hitch, as he is known, does self-parody well. He plays up to the Hitch image a little – the cool, louche, tousle-haired, twice-married street fighter.

Rarely is he sighted in public without a cigarette in one hand and a Scotch in the other. And according to his closest friend, Martin Amis, he ‘likes the smell of cordite’ and is always on the prowl for an argument.

‘Against the Hitch,’ Amis once wrote, ‘physical and intellectual opposition are equally futile.’ His favoured technique when debating is charm followed by the abrupt, flick-knife withdrawal of charm.

We settle in our seats on the train and take in the scenery as the suburbs turn to fields. He used to do this journey a lot, he says, not least because he stayed on in Oxford for a year after graduating.

‘My girlfriend was still doing her final year. I was looking for a job in London and, alas, I found one.’ It was with The Times Educational Supplement.

Getting fired six months later proved a good thing, leading as it did to a job on the New Statesman, where he joined a set that is now part of literary legend.

‘It’s funny,’ he says, ‘this thing about being in a set. We didn’t think it was at the time.’ Either way, the roll call was impressive, with Clive James, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and James Fenton among the names.

Every Friday they would gather for a lunch and, as Hitchens acknowledges in Hitch-22, it’s hard to convey the atmosphere because ‘you had to be there’.

Their favourite game was word replacement, so that, say, house became sock, as in Bleak Sock, The Sock of the Rising Sun and so on.

Those lunches, I suggest, must have been horribly competitive and self regarding.

‘Julian Barnes has described them as being “shouty”, but I don’t remember them like that. I don’t think I was competitive. Clive said a lovely thing about me once, which was that I was the cause of wit in others. I should have used it as a blurb.’ He slaps the table. ‘In fact, why the f— didn’t I?’

He gets to his feet and steadies himself against the motion of the train. ‘Come and look at this. I’ve always loved this part of the journey. In a few seconds we will glimpse Christ Church.’ We do, and, five minutes later, we are in his hotel.

As he’s checking in, he rather deftly dispatches me to the bar, a suggestion rather than an order, one made almost under his breath, as if he is talking to the concierge:

‘I imagine there’s time for a Johnnie Walker Black Label, no ice, Perrier on the side.’

We sit outside so as he can light up a Rothmans and, for the next 45 minutes or so, unless you hear otherwise, you must assume he is always lighting one up (that’s a line from a Martin Amis novel, by the way).

With the sound of woodpigeons and church bells in the background, I ask about his childhood stutter. It went away, but the idea that the ferociously fluent Hitch could have been vulnerable in this way is intriguing.

Are there any other insecurities we should know about?

‘Money. Never had enough growing up. And I’m full of self-loathing that I don’t speak another language well. And I would have liked to have run for a seat in Parliament. Think less of myself for not doing it.’

He draws on his cigarette. ‘I don’t have any terrific self-esteem issues but I do sometimes realise I’ve been too lucky and that I’m over praised. It makes me nervous. I have this sense of being overrated.’

A sip of Scotch. ‘Another insecurity is that I never like to lose an argument, even a domestic one. Even when it might not matter.’

Does that make him difficult to live with? ‘It must do. In fact, I know it does. It’s a vice.’ What’s wrong with losing an argument? ‘What a question! I would feel it was a defeat.’

Although he often uses humour as a weapon, he can turn nasty, go into flame-thrower mode. What happens to him in those moments? Is it the red mist?

‘It doesn’t take much to make me angry. Don’t care about getting it back in return. There are all kinds of stupid people that annoy me but what annoys me most is a lazy argument.

‘People being too easily pleased. I’m amazed they settle for so little. But a gentleman is someone who is never rude by accident.’

I once saw Hitchens in a television debate with the elderly Charlton Heston, arguing about the first Iraq war. At one point he snapped and told Heston to keep his hairpiece on.

Does he ever regret such personal attacks? ‘No, in a debate there’s no point in not doing it. I don’t regret that one because he f—ing asked for it. But if you worry you’ve gone too far it’s usually a sign that you have not gone far enough.’

Politically he considers himself an advocate of secular liberalism. Others describe him as a contrarian, a term he doesn’t much care for.

Either way, he was, and is, a formidable advocate of the war on Iraq and this has left him as something of a punch bag on the internet.

Not that he cares. He does feuds well, having had a public spat not long ago with the MP George Galloway, who memorably dismissed Hitchens as a ‘drink-sodden ex-Trotskyist popinjay’. (Hitchens only took exception to the suggestion that he couldn’t hold his liquor.)

He certainly doesn’t look like a hard drinker, although he does acknowledge that his looks have declined so much that now only women will go to bed with him. It’s a good line, one that alludes to the bisexuality of his youth.

In Hitch-22 he ‘claims’ two young men who later became members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. So, come on then, who were they? ‘I’m amazed no one has guessed. But no comment. And please don’t bother David Heathcoat-Amory.’

His memoir is selective, not least on the subject of his womanising. Even his former girlfriend Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of US Vogue, doesn’t get a look in.

Neither does his ex-wife, Eleni Meleagrou, whom he met while working as a foreign correspondent in Cyprus, or indeed his current one, the Californian writer Carol Blue.

‘No, didn’t do any of that.’ Why not? ‘This might sound conceited, but if you were doing it properly there were quite a lot. And also you enrage people you leave out. If you leave everyone out then you are in the clear.’

As a youth he was a paid-up Trotskyite: the visit to Cuba, the manning of the picket lines, the selling of Socialist Worker on street corners.

When arrested after a sit-in, he sang The Internationale in the dock, fists raised in the approved defiant manner.

In retrospect, was he playing up to a romantic image of himself?

‘No, there was no role-playing. At Oxford there was a guy called Gyles Brandreth who set out to make himself into a Ken Tynan. Wore a cloak. Spoke at the Oxford Union.

‘Took his girlfriend up in a monoplane. I remember thinking, whatever happens, these are not going to be known as “the Brandreth years”. I shall make sure of that. Do you mind if I shade my eyes? They are light sensitive.’

He pops on his sunglasses. ‘You must tell me if I am being boring. You must be blunt with me.’ Fear of boring people, and people boring him, has been the driving force in his life, he reckons, and the reason for his drinking.

It’s also what makes him so readable, although it wasn’t until his last book that he enjoyed a commercial success.

What was it about God is Not Great that clicked with the reading public?

‘I think it was a desire to push back against theocratic bullying. The violence in the Bible is appalling. And written by people who were terrified a lot of the time and brutally, barbarically ignorant.’

He has three children; what if they get religious on him?

‘As Jeeves might say, the contingency is a remote one. I can’t claim any credit for this, but I think with all three of them their sense of the ridiculous would be too strong.’

Though he had long been an atheist, there were two episodes that galvanised him into his crusade against organised religion.

The first was the fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie in 1989; the second was the attack on the twin towers.

As he watched the news coverage he ‘swore a sort of oath to remain coldly furious until these hateful forces had been brought to a most strict and merciless account’.

Has it brought out the worst in his former allies on the Left?

‘Yes, at the time of the fatwa I was appalled that anyone with a Marxist background could find any excuse for the Ayatollah. And after 9/11 I realised there was a modern Left accommodation with Islam.

‘People like Galloway, to name the creepiest of them, feel let down by the British working classes from an insurrection point of view, so then they say: “Ah, disaffected Muslim youth are the new revolutionary force”.’

It was Hitchens who came up with the term Islamofascist; has he had death threats from them? ‘Yes, and if you read their communiqués, so have you. It’s nothing special.’

The Commander, as his father was known to his sons, would gather the family together every Boxing Day to toast the sinking of the German battleship Scharnhorst, an action he had been part of.

To what extent has his life been a reaction against his father? After all, his father was taciturn, he is garrulous.

‘We could not have been less alike. My father was not much of a presence in my life when I was growing up. I saw him as a rather weak person, or too effaced by life.

When I moved to London he called me up to say he liked something I had written from the Lebanon, adding that he thought I had been brave to go there.

So unlike him. I did wonder after that whether by going to these dangerous places I was compensating in some way for not having had to fight in wars.’

What was he like as a father? Was he the Commander? ‘Abnormally no good at the childhood stage. I am always impressed by how women get a grip of things.’

His own mother lost her grip after her sons had left home. She had an affair with a defrocked priest, which ended in a suicide pact in Athens. Hitchens refers to it as a lacerating, howling moment in his life.

‘But I hope there’s no mawkishness in the book. When I read that chapter back to myself I wept, to my surprise, quite a lot. Not Little Nell tears either.

‘The worst bit, in a way, was knowing from the phone records that she had been trying to contact me, because I’m pretty sure I could have talked her out of it.’

He identified more with his mother than his father.

‘My brother is much more like my old man, though you can’t really describe Peter as taciturn.’ Indeed not. Peter Hitchens is also an award-winning author and journalist.

In public, the sibling rivalry between them has been on a grand scale – the Liam and Noel Gallagher of political thought, they have been called – but actually they are more alike than different.

Both extremely argumentative, both started out as Trotskyites. Now one is a right-wing Leftie, the other a left-wing Rightie.

They often disagree on politics, but their real difference is over religion, Peter being a devout Anglican. ‘Yes, that’s true enough,’ the Hitch says.

‘Fundamentally we find the same sorts of things and people repellent. But yes, apparently he has some conviction about the supernatural.

‘I find it very hard to work out exactly why, even after reading his new book, The Rage Against God. It is very nice. It purports to be a riposte to my lot and me. You must tell me when it’s time to go for lunch. I don’t have a watch.’

I check mine; it is time. We set off for Balliol and, on the way, he shows me where he first met the young Martin Amis.

He also shows me the cobbles which the university considered paving over in the late Sixties, lest they be dug up and employed as missiles, as had happened in Paris. Dawkins is waiting for him outside Balliol. Both are wearing sunglasses. The atheist mafia.

That evening, at the debate, I watch Hitchens as he waits to speak, rotating his foot at the ankle like a cat about to pounce. He soon gets the audience on side, making them laugh, then cheer. As Dr Johnson was said to do, so Hitchens does. He tosses and gores his opponent, a desiccated professor who never stood a chance.

As I watch him perform – for it is a performance – it occurs to me that the Hitch has just come from a dinner at which the wine flowed and, given that it is unlikely the Master of Balliol runs a dry ship, he must have been putting it away all day, since that first Scotch at noon, in fact. Yet he slurs not one word.

On my way home, I remember that he signed my copy of his book. I open it up and smile to myself: ‘Well met on the 10.50 to Oxford.’


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.