The dimly lit back room of the Japanese restaurant is empty save for some scruffy codger hunched up in the corner, sitting sideways on, lost in his thoughts. At 56, it seems, Clive Vivian Leopold James has become smaller than life. Only when I am opposite him, face to face, do the features of the man on the box lurch into focus. And this is just as unnerving. After we have been chatting for a few minutes, picking over a salver of sushi, I forget that we are mid-conversation. I have been watching his lips move, enjoying the performance, imagining the TV set framing that familiar face  – a face once described by its owner as small and pointed at the bottom, like a talking turnip –  when suddenly the turnip gets all interactive on me and asks, ‘Have you read Kim?’ Startled, I nod and shake my head at the same time. ‘Well, you must. You must.’
This, I think, is Clive James as he likes to see himself: the pedagogue, at once avuncular and didactic. Had he not been a critic, poet, author, TV presenter, et cetera, et cetera, he would, you feel sure, have been that favourite English teacher at school. You know the one, pens in top pocket, tie over shoulder, infecting you with his sophistry – but always getting himself into trouble for teaching off the syllabus.
‘I warn you,’ he says. ‘This will be the dullest encounter of your life. I’m a nightmare. Cantankerous. Tetchy. I’ll either ramble or shut up.’ He grins crookedly, offering a glimpse of shiny bridgework, and then starts to ramble. But it is one thing for James to allow himself to stray from the point. Permitting his syntax the right to roam is another. Even in discourse he constructs his sentences with a precision bordering on the anal: he never has to search for the right word, but you can tell that he is listening out for a satisfying pitch and rhythm – even if it means, as his critics say, that he sometimes sacrifices content for form.
A detractor once described the TV column he wrote for the Observer for ten years as a cabaret turn. James took it as a compliment. But does he write as he speaks, or is it the other way round? ‘First and foremost,’ he says as nasally as the most unreconstructed Australian, ‘I think of myself as a writer. Even on TV when I say something spontaneous I have written it in my head a few seconds beforehand.’
It can sound like it. A favourite Jamesian (he’ll love that) device is to fold a sentence neatly in on itself, as in: ‘Not everyone who wants to make a film is crazy, but almost everyone who is crazy wants to make a film.’ A similar trick is to break one sentence into two and flip its tenses over until both sides are lightly browned: ‘Breakfast was there for the taking. I rarely took it.’ His own description is that he tries to ‘turn a phrase until it catches the light’. That he resists the urge to add ‘quod erat demonstrandum’ shows admirable, if uncharacteristic, restraint.
He has a more galling verbal tic: the rather anti-social habit of regarding conversation as an opportunity to pontificate – as Dr Johnson did, as James might put it. For that’s another thing. He throws in references to playwrights, philosophers and men of letters the way other people punctuate. This could be intellectual bullying – he studied for a PhD, and speaks eight languages – but, equally, it could be his way of flattering, as opposed to patronising, his interlocutor. Either way, he is well aware of the involuntary flinch that academic name-dropping elicits in the English nervous system. It is just that, after years of taking stick for it, he’s past caring.
‘Oh yes, I’m a raging intellectual snob,’ he says, thoughtfully tapping the tips of his fingers together. ‘But only because I see books, music, art and the life of the mind as a concrete reality. I can’t separate them from nature. I don’t just acquire knowledge to show off. I’ve read all my life. Devoured whole literatures. Why should I apologise for that? The English are embarrassed about learning. It’s unique to these shores – a kind of Philistinism encouraged by the landed gentry.’
Landed gentry? It seems too easy and arbitrary a target. Could it hark back to the same smouldering resentment that once prompted the Kid from Kogarah to write that the principle effect of the Sixties social revolution was to make young men who had been to Shrewsbury (the Private Eye crowd of Ingrams, Foot and Booker) feel less miserable about not having been to Eton?
Perhaps not. James gives an example of what he means: the time a journalist caught him reading Nietzsche in a restaurant in California. ‘A piece appeared in the English press saying I was ostentatiously reading Nietzsche. There was no counter to that because the journalist was assuming you only read a book like that if you are trying to impress someone. I don’t.’
There are other dimensions to this, I suggest: the British fear of appearing boastful, of being seen to try too hard. ‘That’s the influence of Private Eye for you,’ he says, lightly conducting with his chopstick for emphasis. ‘The assumption that if you are an intellectual you must be a bore. Perhaps the people who assume that should be more bothered for their souls. For their loved ones. For their children.’
James is talking in an untypically muted voice. As he does, he rests the side of his head against the wall to his right, as if to relieve his neck from the burden of all that weighty grey matter. It throws half his face into shadow, and this, too, seems unfamiliar: James as you never see him, away from the make-up and the harsh lighting of the studio. Someone once described his face as being that of a bank robber who has forgotten to take the stocking off. It is a cruel description – but not altogether unfair. Apart from two insouciantly raised clumps of wirebrush eyebrow, his face is curiously lacking in definition. It is something to do with the width of the nose; the corrugated shape of the lips that barely move, even when engaged in perpetual monologue.
That monologue is just one of the reasons why Clive James is almost impossible to interview. You feel you know too much about him already. What he has not told you on TV, he has in his novels and essays or in the three volumes (so far) of his Unreliable Memoirs. You know, for instance, that he sees himself as a wolf-whistling, red-blooded all-Australian male, but that his first sexual encounter – mutual onanism – was with a boy, Gary. You can guess, too, why he doesn’t open his mouth much when he talks: ‘The last and hardest job was to clean my gums. After every few scrapes I flew around the surgery like an open-mouth balloon. The [dental assistant] pinned me with a body-slam and the job was done.’
What does not come across in his memoirs, though, is any real sense of his emotional geography. James will tell you that he is conceited, arrogant, pompous, naive and insensitive, but this, you suspect, is probably what he thinks other people think; it is not necessarily what he feels. He charts his motives at every turn, but instead of analysing what he finds in terms of his own condition, however painful that might be, he cops out and sweeps them aside with some clever-clogs aphorism or generalisation that applies to Everyman. ‘Christ died for our sins,’ he tells me. ‘It’s rather presumptuous to think you have to die, too.’ Yes, yes, you find yourself asking, but what about you? What, for instance, makes Clive James cry?
‘I can be moved to tears by my own failures and failings in relationships,’ he answers. ‘But that’s self-obsession. Usually when one weeps one weeps for oneself. That’s the terrible truth. So I try to weep as little as possible.’ He adds that the way he empathises with a tragic novel is to imagine it happening to his children. ‘People say it’s impossible to imagine the Holocaust. But all you have to do is picture your own children being taken from you and gassed.’
James has been married to Prudence, a lecturer in modern languages, for 28 years. They have two daughters – James says he can imagine dying in order to save their lives. ‘I really hope I could. But you never know. In Germany, people killed their own children in order to save them from a fate worse than death in medical experiments. That took real courage.’
Just as we’re descending into despair, James inadvertently flicks some raw fish across the table.  ‘Ah. Sorry about that. Always been a messy eater, especially when I’m talking.’ He sees me prodding warily at what looks like a piece of pink wood. ‘Try holding that ginger under your tongue and let the juice come out,’ he says, playing mentor again. ‘And wash it down with that sake. It’ll do you the world of good. Clean up your sinuses.’
In an attempt to keep the mood light, I ask him if the sake will also make me fighting drunk. ‘No,’ he says with a chortle. ‘Sake only makes the Japanese wrap bandannas around their heads and charge when they are officially at war.’ It is a surprisingly glib reference to a subject he is known to be haunted by. (His father was taken prisoner in the fall of Singapore in 1942 and died in an air crash while flying home at the end of the war.)
This, says James, was what spurred him to learn Japanese about ten years ago; it was, he felt, his best chance of coming to terms with his past. He has, too, been working for some years on an epic novel about the war in the South Pacific (along with a novel on Rio, and the next volume of his memoirs – no slouch, our Clive). Perhaps the epic may do something to atone for having single-handedly reduced the Japanese race to a crude stereotype in the eyes of the British viewing public. At best, I suggest, the mockery he made of Endurance, the masochistic Japanese game show, was entertainingly patronising. At worst, it was racist.
He studies his nails, revealing liver-spotted hands and hairy fingers. ‘It’s almost impossible to avoid being accused of those things,’ he says. ‘You’re wide open to it. All you can do is rely on the good sense of the public. It’s true, I made my name on television making fun of Japanese game shows. But Japanese game shows are really like that. Hilariously awful. Most Japanese know that, too.’ James showed he knew it with his last novel, Brrm! Brrm!. It  was about Japan, or rather about an immaculately courteous and cultivated Japanese man who comes to England to acquire manners.
Brrm! Brrm! received favourable reviews, although, tellingly, most critics admitted that they came to bury it and ended up singing its praises. For the critics have never been particular kind to James. Auberon Waugh, another favourite schoolmaster, said of him: ‘He pretends to be an irreverent figure but in fact is a cringing man on the make.’ Such crushing comments have left James with a complex, or at least a feeling of insecurity. ‘I’ve learned that the profile as a form does not favour me,’ he says, screwing up his face in a stage grimace. He gives me an example. Earlier this year, a reporter from the Daily Mirror did a friendly ten-minute interview with him that was blown up into a double-page spread devoted to snide implications of serial lechery. ‘They got a photographer to go up to Cambridge and photograph my house. They got someone else to trail my wife and my children. A rock came through the front window the morning after the article appeared. We were showered with glass. You don’t have to be paranoid to find that a cautionary tale. The reporter wrote to me afterwards and said, ‘How can I apologise?’, and I wrote back saying, “You can’t. Get another job.” He laughs at this, lowers his chin and looks over the top of his glasses. ‘I’m trusting you. I hate doing that. I’ve been stitched up by nicer-looking, more plausible, more literate people even than you.’
But because being sarcastic is what he does for a living, he knows that he cuts a less than sympathetic figure. Lest we forget, he did once describe the tennis player Andrea Jaeger as having a smile like a car crash (she was 15 at the time and had braces on her teeth). And he is proud to tell you he once got a letter which said, ‘You were so harsh about my translation of Aeschylus that I didn’t write for a year.’ And that he wrote back saying: ‘Don’t be a cry baby.’
Does James take his own advice? He tries to, but the truth is he bruises easily. Indeed, he once wrote that he enjoys a good joke against himself, before he goes quietly away somewhere to be sick. More recently, he failed to duck when the Modern Review took a swipe at him. ‘I like to think I took the attack philosophically. With poise. The fact is it was designed to piss me off and it pissed me off. But I don’t think you should punish yourself if you feel hurt. As a writer, a thick skin is the last thing you should grow.’
Having both dished out criticism and received it, he knows the thing you should do is ignore it – but that you never can. ‘You always think the guy who is critical about you has got it right,’ he says. ‘Words are magical. If someone attacks you in print it wounds you grievously. Maybe you only get to see it all in perspective when you are on your deathbed.’ Warming to his maudlin theme, he adds that the attacks in the Modern Review were so vitriolic he couldn’t imagine what terms of disapprobation the writers would have had left if asked to condemn Hitler or Himmler. It is a line I remember reading in his memoir, May Week Was in June, where James used it to describe the personal attacks FR Leavis made on his rival academics, Hough and Holloway. For the sixth time during this lunch he makes a reference that has me flicking mentally to the appropriate page in one of his books – ‘a 93-year-old Scots lady wrote to me saying that, when young, she had done all the same things I did’. Flick flick flick, page 12, Falling Towards England.
It strikes me that the price of James’s success is that he has become a pastiche of himself, formulaic, cruising on autopilot, or rather autocue. He has come to inhabit a fictionalised reality of his own making, a twilight zone in which he constantly re-reads the 26 books he has published and then, perhaps unconsciously, reiterates their tried and tested contents as part of his everyday speech. It makes me feel slightly cheated, but it doesn’t change my view that he is, on the whole, a good thing. There, I’ve said it. I like his writing. He makes me laugh and pause for thought. I can’t think of anyone else who could have come up with: ‘I find myself left alone with an Iranian biochemist whose name sounded like a fly trapped against a window.’ Or: ‘My own transitional persona must have seemed as out of focus as a chameleon crossing a kilt.’
Yet I know plenty of people who do not share my enthusiam. He knows plenty, too. So why is it, does he suppose, that he never seems to inspire neutral feelings? He gives an exaggerated blink: ‘I might be just obnoxious, I don’t know.’ But even then he’s hoisted by his transitional persona. When he’s doing interviews on TV, his critics say, he isn’t obnoxious enough – just sycophantic. I ask him whether his interviewing style is deceptively gentle or just gentle. ‘Just gentle. I’m not very good as a probing interviewer – too easily embarrassed. I believe in bowling under arm, instead. That way they take a big swing at it and get caught out. There’s far too much attention paid to the adversarial style of interview. Get them through their vanity instead. I took a lot of stick for my Ronald Reagan interview. But I knew that there were two ways of asking him about his connection with McCarthyism. I could ask outright, ‘Were you a stoolie for the FBI in Hollywood?’ – at which point he would have clammed up. Or I could say, ‘How serious was the Communist menace in Hollywood?’ – which I did and he opened up and told me everything.’
You don’t get the feeling that Clive James tells you everything. Perhaps he expects you to read between the lines of his novels instead. Indeed, there are a number of parallels between the hero’s life in his latest novel, The Silver Castle, and that of the young James. Both learn about the world through magazines and the cinema. Both fuel their ambition with envy and fantasise constantly about being famous. Both incorporate self-mockery into their armoury of devices for staving off wrath, even if it is not the way they really feel about themselves. Both are cursed by a sense that, even in their own country, they can never feel at home.
James has lived here for 34 years, yet still, I suspect, he does not feel as if he belongs, quite. He feels that he is still a bit of an outsider. An exile. ‘I feel more Australian the older I get,’ he says, yet he can’t imagine fitting in there either. England – the motherland – is the only place he feels he could fit in, but, he says, he has never had the least urge to try. ‘So cold in England,’ he once wrote, ‘even when it was warm.’
His friend Vitali Vitaliev, a Russian journalist, describes him as being too melancholy in his private life. Yet James himself once wrote that only self-discipline keeps his face straight. Which is true? The answer seems to lie in the chameleon reference. He is always playing a role, as he probably is here in the Japanese restaurant on the edge of Holland Park. In the Postcard From… series his persona is that of a wide-eyed amateur, charmingly lost, sometimes nervous. For one who lives his life in front of a TV camera, it can sometimes seem an implausible conceit. ‘It’s part genuine, part gimmick,’ he shrugs. ‘But it does answer a genuine need in my character. Egomania is not incompatible with extreme self-doubt.’
To his irritation, James has often been asked why he is wasting his learning – and talent as a writer – presenting populist TV shows. ‘I’m very flattered that people assume I have talent to waste,’ he says. ‘I don’t believe I am wasting it. I believe in mass communication, not art for the few. The short answer to why am I wasting my talent is that I never heard much about this talent before I started wasting it.’ But when I ask him if he is happy, he gives a categorical no. ‘On the other hand,’ he adds, ‘I’m happy to be alive. Happy to be here. But I won’t pretend that I don’t know what the question means. By keeping busy, I’m compensating for something – a sense of the world’s arbitrariness that I acquired in childhood, perhaps. But I’m not about to burst into tears.’
His memoirs, he tells me, were written as a form of therapy. But writing something down, coolly and dispassionately (and later editing it, of course), is not the same as discussing it live, as it were, in the here and now. I am struck by the paradox that Clive James might actually feel uncomfortable talking about his favourite subject. ‘No,’ he replies. ‘I don’t mind talking about myself – because I can just offer the outer layer of the onion.’ And with this he goes off in search of the chef, in order to practise his Japanese for a few minutes before it is time to go.
In my imagination, the onion analogy wrestles momentarily with that of the turnip, and then topples it off its throne. Onions have thin skins – those concentric layers of white succulent flesh that are bitter when raw, sweet when cooked. They also have a pungent odour which brings tears to your eyes, or makes you gag, depending on how you look at it.
Clive James said, after this appeared in 1996, that he would never agree to be interviewed again. He did, four years later, to promote a new collection of his essays as well as his internet site. He was much ridiculed in the press in 1997 when he wrote a long and heart felt tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales, for the New Yorker.


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.