Reagan and Bush trusted him. Bill Clinton feared him. Opponents of the war in Iraq blamed him. But why didn’t Colin Powell seize power when he had the chance?

Having read that General Colin Powell insists on punctuality, I arrive an hour before my appointment at his office – which is in a leafy part of Washington DC – planning to find a quiet corner to go through my notes as I wait. There is no one else around but, as I’m entering the building, a silver sports car roars up: a brand new, six-litre V8 Corvette. I’m pretty sure it’s him behind the wheel, and equally sure he hasn’t clocked me.
“I saw you arriving,” he says when we meet an hour later. Of course he did.
Like Tony Blair and George Bush, he must have to watch out for strangers on his doorstep, or rather loonies and conspiracy theorists wishing to protest about the Iraq War. Although Powell advised Bush to delay the invasion and give the UN inspectors time to do their work, he ultimately failed to rein in the hawkish Cheney and Rumsfeld and then, with his 2003 speech to the UN that accused Saddam’s regime of “concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction”, he gave a veneer of respectability to the war. Or so his critics claim.
In the corner of his office there is a 19th-century saddle, one used by the Buffalo Soldiers, the nickname given to the Negro Cavalry. On the walls are photographs of Powell with the four presidents he has served, going back to Reagan. I study them as our photographer takes his last shots, then I look down and see the Corvette parked in the courtyard below. Nice car, I say. But I’m surprised he doesn’t have a driver and bodyguards. “No, I dispensed with my security team exactly six minutes after Condi took over from me at the State Department.” That was in 2005, when Condoleezza Rice became Secretary of State, only the second black person in history to hold that office – Powell being the first. “There were about 20 of them,” he continues. “And they used to guard the whole street. My neighbours loved it. Safest place in northern Virginia. But I wanted to be able to drive myself    so I said: ‘Guys, you’ve been wonderful. You’re all relieved of your duties.’ What about public places? “When I’m flying I go to the airport in a baseball cap and windbreaker and I stand in line and talk to people. I also like to sit and watch people go by, and I’ve come to the conclusion that most Americans need to be on a diet, and need a dress code.” At 75, Powell is still physically imposing, 6ft 2in with broad shoulders.
And he does still get recognised, most of the time. “I was coming back from Jamaica and a German couple were getting off the elevator and the husband said to his wife: ‘Look, Frieda, look, you know who that is? It’s General Schwarzkopf.’” His new book is full of such self-deprecation. Called It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, it is an odd mix of the profound and the quirky, such as his hobby of fixing broken down old Volvos. “Well, I am quirky!” he says when I point this out. “In my first memoir I had to cover my experiences as the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and national security adviser and when we were halfway through, my collaborator looked at me and said: ‘Do you know how boring this —- is?’ So this book has more of the quirky stuff.” As well he knows, that earlier memoir, which was published in 1996, was far from boring, which was why it became an international bestseller. Not only did it cover his time as a war hero in Vietnam and the small matter of his being in charge of the First Gulf War (he was Schwarzkopf’s boss), it also showed how he was the embodiment of the American dream, rising from a modest childhood in the Bronx to a glittering career, first in the army then in politics.
This new book doesn’t so much take up the story since then as use anecdotes about his career to explain his theories about leadership, one such being that any organisation should make sure its employees aren’t afraid to deliver bad news. A good example is the way no one dared show Rumsfeld the Abu Ghraib prison torture pictures, which meant the problem was allowed to grow. I ask if another example might be the way that, in the days before his “infamous” (his term) speech to the UN in 2003, American Intelligence chiefs didn’t share their doubts with him regarding their own claims about Saddam’s WMD capabilities.
This is an uncomfortable subject for Powell. He has referred to it as a “blot” on his record. His wife, Alma, has gone further and said that he was “callously used” by the White House. He was enormously popular, you see, and polls showed him to be the most trusted man in American politics.
The Intelligence community knew the information he was going to reveal was suspect, but no one dare admit it to him; was that it? “Not just me, they weren’t telling their Intelligence superiors. Some agents have since claimed that they tried to tell their superiors, but the superiors say they never did. All of us, me, the president, our British friends, all accepted what we were being told, without knowing there were serious weaknesses.” It takes courage to admit to your boss that you don’t know something. “Yes, it takes courage from a junior coming in who is about to get his head taken off if I don’t like what he says. But you also have to create an environment where, if your people know more about something than you do, then they will tell you. ‘Tell me what you know and don’t be put off if I argue back with you. I am arguing with you to get everything out of you I can, and then I’ll make a decision.’” He writes in the book about how a general has to trust his instincts in war. Did his instinct fail him on that occasion in 2003, to the extent that he failed to ask the right questions? I’m thinking especially about the single source, the agent known as Curveball who claimed that Saddam had mobile laboratories to conceal biological weapons. “I didn’t know of a Curveball at the time of my speech, I didn’t know there was a single source.” Were they telling him information hadn’t come from a single source?
“Yes. They told me there were multiple sources. I wouldn’t have accepted it if it was just one guy in a German detention camp. A lot of the things that were in the basic Intelligence document that was sent to Congress four months before my speech, I challenged – not because it was wrong, but because it had a single source, or just didn’t sound right. But with respect to what I did use at the UN, all the leadership of the government was behind it, including Congress. It was four months later that the president said: ‘OK, take the Intelligence document and make a presentation on it to the UN.’” He wasn’t given enough time to do the job properly, but rather was bounced into it? Was that it? “Rather than starting from a running position we had to start from a stationary position and create the presentation in four days. It didn’t bother me because I had seen the whole Intelligence document. I thought we could do this. Frankly, a lot of the stuff will stand the test of time. Saddam was a guy who did use that kind of technology against his own people and against the Iranians and there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that if he had been relieved of UN sanctions, he would be right back in the game.”
Powell knew that better than most because of his involvement in the first Gulf war, when Saddam definitely did have chemical weapons. “Yeah, he had stocks of it. To this day it is a mystery what happened to them.” Does part of him still think, maybe it is buried in the Iraqi desert somewhere? “There are conspiratorialists who still think that, or some who point to Syria, but that’s an excuse. I don’t see anything, and haven’t seen anything in the last nine years, that would suggest it was moved to Syria or it was buried in the sand, even though, after the first Gulf war, we found jets buried in the sand. Fact is, there weren’t any programmes. And remember the argument we were making was not one of potential use, but that they had it.” Did Powell support the president? “The truth is, I thought we should see if there was a way to get rid of this problem of WMDs through diplomatic and peaceful means. I spent time with the president on that proposition and he accepted it. He went to the UN and asked for a resolution to do that. But Saddam failed the first test of it by giving us worthless documents when we said ‘show us what you got’. When he didn’t show us, and the president and Mr Blair decided we should take military action, I fully supported it and you will find nothing in the record from the UN speech and onwards that I spoke against it.” And before then, did he advise… He stops me. “Look, if    this is going to be all about this, we might as well stop”. Surely he can understand my curiosity. It was an extraordinary time. “Well it is an extraordinary episode, but it is what it is.”
OK then. Change of subject. To what extent did his time in Vietnam inform his attitude to military engagement? “Well it was my war. I spent two years there, at the beginning when it looked so noble, and at the end when it didn’t look quite so noble. I am a professional soldier who has studied war all his life, from ancient philosophers to Sun Tzu and Clausewitz, and my own thinking is that you should always have a clear political objective before you decide to use the last resort, which is force, which kills people: not only the enemy, but your own folks and the innocent civilians who get caught up in the conflict.” That’s why they call him the reluctant general? “You bet I’m a reluctant general. I’ve seen war. I’ve run wars and I think our civilian political leaders have an obligation to think things through as best they can, with as much time as they have before having to make a decision, to see what the consequences are.” I ask him to talk me through his thinking in 1996 when everyone was telling him to run for president – his polls were through the roof and even Bill Clinton, who went on to win, was saying that Powell was the one man he didn’t want to face. Was his heart just not in it? “There was a lot of speculation and I foolishly said, ‘So many people are pressing me on this I will have to think about it.’ That raised the temperature even higher, but after six weeks of not having a single morning where I got out of bed and said, ‘This is what I want to do,’ I realised I didn’t have the passion for the job a potential president must have. It just ain’t me. I decided the speculation had got out of control and we had to shut it down. My wife looked at me and said: ‘What took you so long?’ She had become part of the story because she suffered from depression and Time magazine was making a big thing of it.” And no regrets? “No, none.” Not even on the day when Obama became the first black president? Wasn’t he a little wistful then? “No, no. I have a habit of making a decision and moving on.” He may not have been a political animal, but he was a natural-born soldier.
“Yes, I responded to the structure, discipline and camaraderie of the army. You can’t imagine what it was like as a black kid going in the army in 1958, four years after the last black unit had been disbanded. We still had segregation in the South. There were still strong views in the country that black people couldn’t make good soldiers. But there was another current which said we’ve got to move them on, we’ve got to give them the opportunity. I think I was penalised in one sense but given an advantage in another, and my view was that whatever advantage you are given, take it and don’t feel guilty about it because there have been 200 years of black people getting nothing.” He believes black people in America have always had an affinity for military service because they thought it was the only way they could prove themselves the equal of a white person. “Get armed like one and shot at like one.” He speculates that if his parents – who before becoming naturalised Americans were British citizens – had taken a boat from Jamaica to Portsmouth, instead of New York, he would only have been able to rise to the rank of sergeant. “The British Army still doesn’t have a black general,” he notes.
We are on the subject of the special relationship now. He reckons the closeness comes from common beliefs in democracy, freedom and individuality “and it has always been there, apart from the War of Independence”. You just won’t let it go, will you? “Well, you burned the place, man!” He says this with a deep laugh.
He doesn’t think Alma would have cared if he had never risen above the rank of lieutenant colonel. “There is all sorts of baggage that comes with high office. Working late. The kids have to stay out of trouble – fortunately mine did.” Judging by the way he constantly refers to his wife, he is an uxorious man.
He is also a good raconteur, and even his enemies don’t deny his fundamental decency and charm: a good man in a bad administration being the usual line. He has an endearingly wheezy laugh and a slightly less endearing way of being pleased with his own folksy anecdotes, as rehearsed during his speaking engagements. “They always laugh at that bit,” he will say, or, “That one brings the house down.”
As we have seen, he likes to think of himself as quirky, even as a boss. “I liked to be goofy sometimes in meetings but people also knew: ‘Don’t screw with me because I can make you cry if I have to. I can be nasty. I can spoil your day.’ But I’ve found I get better results if I try to be affable. As well as being firm and setting high standards and forgiving errors, I like to have fun.” He also does a good Ronald Reagan impersonation. There was clearly a chemistry between them, I say, but I’m sensing not so much with the other presidents. “I got on well with all of them. They all had different styles. My job as a staff person is to adjust to their style, not expect they would adjust to mine.” He has said in the past he found Bush’s fidgety impatience irritating, along with his tendency to interrupt everyone. What about W’s habit of closing the door on him if he was late for a meeting? “He did that to everyone, even Karl Rove. It was more a joke than trying to diss me.” There were days when every king, every president, every prime minster in the world was calling him, and every reporter wanted to hear what he had to say or think. “One day you are the number-one diplomat in the free world,” he says. “Next day you ain’t.” What was it like to go from having one of the most high-pressured jobs in the world to being an ordinary citizen? Did he feel lost? “They pull out the phone, the bodyguards go away and you lose your private plane. You have to transform yourself and become something different. That begins at home.
“I was sitting at home with my wife and I said, ‘Darling, this is the first day of the rest of our lives. I won’t be leaving the house at 5.30 in the morning anymore.’ She froze. Then I could hear her muttering under her breath, ‘This fool doesn’t know how we stayed married for 50 years.’” He tells me he sleeps better nowadays. “Never pass up the chance to have a nap in the afternoon. Now I’m on my way to 76 I always try and nap for 20 minutes after lunch.” We have gone over our appointed hour. Let us end, I say, with him giving me a scoop about who he is going to endorse in the elections. Another deep laugh. “I can’t do that! Do you know what would happen to me if I did that? In 2008 I voted for Obama. For 20 years before that I had voted Republican.
“It’s going to be close. I don’t have to announce who I am going to vote for, because I am a private citizen. All I have to do is vote.”
After the third debate, Powell came out for Obama. This endorsement did not cause much surprise in Washington, given Powell’s public reaction to Mitt Romney’s claim that Russia was America’s greatest geopolitical foe. “Come on, Mitt, think,” Powell said. “That isn’t the case. I don’t know who all of his advisors are, but I’ve seen some of the names and some of them are quite far to the right.” Obama played on this comment in the debate, mocking Romney for not kowing that the Cold War ended twenty years ago.
He is now running a little late for a lunch with another general but, nice guy that he is, he nevertheless offers me a lift in his Corvette. Sadly I have to decline as my hotel is literally a couple of hundred yards away.
But I do enjoy watching him roar off, driving himself, a free spirit without bodyguards.


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.