Luminous white hair, dandruff on black polo neck, florid complexion, thick lips cracked and bruised, fingers stained yellow from smoking… The 64-year-old Cornishman drinking Rioja and chain-smoking Marlboro Lights at the table by the window is either a broken-veined pervert or a literary genius. As it happens, DM Thomas has been described as both – female critics tend to favour the former theme, male critics the latter. Actually, what he looks most like is the survivor of a bomb blast, emerging blinking and disorientated from the rubble, white with plaster dust.
It’s a rainy afternoon in Truro. The clouds outside the pub are black. We’re on our second bottle and Thomas is hunched forward, avoiding eye contact, telling me about the topic that preoccupies him at the moment – his wife Denise, who died at the age of 53 last October. ‘She had kidney cancer that went to her vertebrae,’ he says in a subdued, mildly Cornish burr. ‘Most people try to avoid thinking about death because there is nothing you can do about it. But when it happens to someone close to you, you can’t escape it. You know that half of you is dying and will die. You feel sorry for her but also for yourself because everything she knows about you dies with her.’
Donald Michael Thomas, DM Thomas to his readers, Don to his friends, has a first in English from Oxford. He began using his initials as a pen name when a contemporary at the university, another Donald Thomas, beat him into print with a collection of poetry. DM Thomas went on to publish six collections of verse, 12 novels, an autobiography, translations of Pushkin and Anna Akhmatova, and, last year, a 550-page life of Alexander Solzhenitsyn which AN Wilson described as the most impressive literary biography he had ever read. But it is for his third novel, The White Hotel, that DM Thomas is best known. When it was published in 1981 it became a surprise bestseller, first in America, then in this country, where it was short-listed for the Booker Prize. When the author heard that Salman Rushdie had won that year, his response was commendably honest:’Fuck!’
The commercial success of The White Hotel was – and, as it has never been out of print, still is – something of a mystery to the publishing world. Though it is considered a ‘difficult’ novel, it has sold more than two million copies. And like most of Thomas’s fiction, it is about his obsessions with Sigmund Freud, the Holocaust, dreams, myths and the sex-death parallel – grand, over-arching themes which have earned the author a reputation as the dirty old man of literature. Does DM Thomas like himself? He sighs. ‘Yes and no. What does Hamlet say? Neither terribly good nor terribly bad. I sometimes have monstrous ideas, but I don’t think I’m a monster.’
Feminist critics of The White Hotel disagree with this analysis. They consider one chapter in particular to be the work of a monster. Lisa Erdman, the clairvoyant opera-singing heroine of the novel, becomes a patient of Freud in the Vienna of the Twenties. Together they explore her sexual fantasies and her sense of impending catastrophe. Twenty years later, Lisa is among the multitude at the massacre of Babi Yar, the ravine near Kiev where 200,000 Jews, gypsies and Slavs were machine-gunned by the Nazis. The careful attention Freud pays to Lisa as an individual in the first half of the book is contrasted shockingly with the way the Nazis dehumanise her in the second. She ends her life on a pile of naked corpses as a soldier uses a bayonet to simulate sex with her.
Feminist critics have accused Thomas of fantasising about being that soldier. ‘People are afraid of what Freud had to say about the inner-self and sexuality,’ Thomas says when I put this to him. ‘They would rather explore things on sociological and political terms than confront their own demons. That scene was an exploration of the good and evil in every human consciousness. I have no desire to put a bayonet in a woman’s vagina. But I do want to try and understand the destructive and sadistic impulse that makes some other men want to.’
The White Hotel is a metaphorical place where all that is good and beautiful in the world coexists with all that is evil and brutal. In her recurring dream about it, Lisa longs to go there yet dreads it as well. ‘I’m willing to accept that I am a White Hotel,’ Thomas says. ‘We all are, if we are honest. Even Freud admitted he had good and evil impulses. But most of us can leave those impulses under the surface. I have never beaten or ill-treated a woman in my life, but I accept the world of fantasy where these things can happen. And perhaps it’s the people who don’t explore these impulses as an abstraction who are the most likely to act upon them in real life.’
DM Thomas says he has always tried to be faithful to the truth in his writing, but in his private life, and that of his family, he admits he has engaged in ‘every colour of lie from white to grey to black’. As we shall see, his amatory career has been extraordinarily complex and he has been, at best, evasive about it. But the death of his wife has taught him that such deception is pointless. ‘Oh, what does it matter any more?’ he sighs. ‘Let’s get drunk. Ask me anything. I’ll try and be honest.’
And honest he is: about sex, drugs and infidelity. But such is his suicidal frankness and his clear vulnerability that you feel protective towards him. When he stubs a cigarette out, he taps it against the ashtray about 15 times in rapid succession.  Rat-tat-tat-tat. It is a compulsive gesture, agitated, wounded. He does this now and immediately lights another cigarette. He managed to stop smoking five years ago, he says, but the stress of watching his wife die made him start again. She was a smoker, too, and towards the end he would have to guide her hand to the ashtray.
Lately he says he has found it very easy to cry.  Although he has written a few poems, and has recently been commissioned to write a novella, he has had neither the energy nor the inclination to write fiction. ‘It’s been a struggle just surviving. I wrote a few poems about Denise tending the garden when she knew she wouldn’t complete it. They were a feeble attempt to pay tribute to someone who wasn’t known to the world at large.’
In the mid-Eighties Thomas suffered a nervous breakdown and was unable to read or write for a year. He still suffers periodic bouts of depression. ‘It feels like a terminal illness, too,’ he explains. ‘It is almost as powerful as travelling with your wife on her road to death. I feel terrible for saying that – but in depression your life is totally without meaning.  Chaotic. Every moment is enormously painful. There are no parameters and you are convinced that every day until your death you are going to be miserable. I didn’t actively seek death. I lacked the energy to commit suicide. But I certainly felt it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t wake up.’
Living a life of deception may have contributed to his breakdown. At one stage he would divide his time between his first wife Maureen, with whom he had two children (Caitlin and Sean), and his second wife Denise, with whom he had one (Ross). Maureen and he grew up in the same tin-mining community near Redruth in Cornwall. They met while he was home on leave during his National Service and married in 1958, when he was 23 years old and still a student at Oxford. ‘At the time in Methodist Cornwall if you slept with someone, you married them,’ he says. ‘But I wasn’t mature enough for marriage and I’m sorry I put her through so much. Then again, I don’t really regret it because children came out of it – and I wouldn’t want to wish them away. Maureen and I both went through a long period of uneasy, unsatisfactory compromise, in which she knew about my mistress. To her infinite credit she said in her late forties: “I’ve had enough of this, I’m leaving.” We are still on friendly terms. When she remarried I felt relief. Then panic.’
After graduating in 1958, Thomas become a schoolteacher and then, in 1964, a lecturer at Hereford College of Education. He remained there until 1978, when it closed and he was made redundant. Instead of looking for another teaching post he decided to try and earn a living writing fiction. He met Denise, an engineer’s daughter, when she joined Hereford College as a student teacher in 1966.
‘Denise and I had a very unconventional marriage. It was all to do with a piece of paper. She wanted a child. She taught at a church school and in those days, the Seventies, it would have been a scandal to be a single mother. We decided to marry so that she could have a child and keep her job. It would be treated as a formal arrangement and, then, as soon as we could – three years is the minimum – we’d get a divorce.’
Ten years and one divorce from Denise later, he was back with her. The couple moved to Cornwall and began living together. When they discovered that Denise had cancer they went to see their solicitor to check what provisions the original divorce settlement had made for their son. ‘We were told that the divorce had never gone through. We had the decree nisi but someone at Hereford Crown Court had neglected to issue the decree absolute. We were unexpectedly still married after 24 years. We were flabbergasted. And glad. It was like fate had stepped in. Even Thomas Hardy wouldn’t have got away with such an improbable twist.’
Thomas says he has been haunted all his life by Freud, whose writing style he consciously imitated. He also seems to have taken inspiration from Freud’s promiscuity. In his autobiography, Memories and Hallucinations (1988), Thomas alludes to affairs he had during both marriages, as well as to his penchant for seducing big-thighed students. Did he suspect he would be an unfaithful husband right from the day he married? ‘No. I drifted into it. It was like I was in a dream state. I wanted to be loyal but I did feel, selfishly, that if I wanted to be a writer I would need more experience of life. But my being unfaithful was a contradiction because though I wanted self-fulfilment I also felt a root loyalty to look after my family.’
When in turn his mistress found out he was being unfaithful, she seems to have taken it in her stride. ‘I think Denise knew no one else would be a real threat to her. She led her own life and we understood each other.’ Thomas doesn’t think that his literary fame gives him a feeling of empowerment, a sense that normal moral codes don’t apply to him because he is an artist. ‘No. I sinned and accepted that I was a sinner.’
So much for his private life, in his professional life he has been labelled a devilish misogynist (by the Guardian). And one Observer reviewer has compared him to ‘some raddled seducer, tweaking his passive conquest with absent-minded fingers’. He plays up to the image to an extent. For a few years he ran an erotic writing course from his home – until the Modern Review sent a female journalist on it, under cover, to see if he would try and seduce her. She claims he did. He says he didn’t.
DM Thomas denies the misogyny charge. On the contrary, he says, he feels at home in a feminine psyche. When I ask if he is Lisa in The White Hotel in the same way that Flaubert is Madame Bovary he answers: ‘Yes, although I didn’t realise it at the time. It’s great fun writing as a woman because it is the unknown. It didn’t occur to me until years after I had written The White Hotel that the Don Giovanni poem at the beginning is a representation of my own turbulent sexuality. The extreme puzzlement, wonder and frustrated longing I felt as an adolescent. I think it is easier for men to write about women than for women to write about men because we’ve all been inside a woman – our mothers.’
Thomas recognises that he probably went through an androgynous phase. ‘Around puberty I became something of a hermaphrodite. I have a sister who is ten years older than me and I would wear her clothes sometimes. It felt liberating because I couldn’t get close to real girls at that age and yet I had a strong sexual instinct to turn myself into one. I’m sure my sister played a vital role in fostering my weird imagination.’
Don Thomas and his sister had a peripatetic childhood. Their grandfather was a carpenter who worked in the copper and tin mines around Redruth. Their father, Harold, would have done the same had the mines not been closed after the First World War. Instead, he travelled to California to construct film sets at 20th Century Fox, only to return to Cornwall during the Depression. When Thomas’s sister married an Australian serviceman and moved to Melbourne in 1949, he and the rest of the family followed. Thomas, his father and mother, lived there for two years before returning again to Cornwall.
‘I never got on with my brother-in-law,’ Thomas reflects. ‘I was in my early teens when we moved to Australia, and maybe there was some Oedipal jealousy there. I never went through a homosexual phase – although I did sleep with my father a lot from the age of seven to 14, because I was afraid of ghosts. My mother would be turfed out of bed. I definitely had Oedipal fantasies about her.’ When his father died in 1960 Donald took comfort by sleeping the night in the same bed as Maureen his wife and Amy his mother. When his mother died 15 years later it triggered an obsession with death, which was to become a recurring theme of his writing.
Thomas has always wanted to revisit the place where his family lived in California. But because a clairvoyant told him 20 years ago that he would die there, he has never dared go. Now that Robert Geisler and John Roberdeau, the producers of ‘The Thin Red Line’, are making The White Hotel into a film, he might have to. There have been several unsuccessful attempts in the past to bring the novel to the big screen. First DM Thomas wrote a screenplay, then two more screenwriters tried and failed before Dennis Potter had a go, which is the version being used.
At one stage David Lynch wanted to direct it. ‘Lynch thought the opera singer was too highbrow and so should be a trapeze artist instead. He also thought that his then girlfriend Isabella Rossellini should play the role. When she left him he went off the idea. I suppose because of my parents’ connection with Hollywood I shall enjoy going there,’ Thomas reflects.  ‘But I feel superstitious about dying there. The stress might bring on a heart attack at the premire. Actually, that might not be such a bad way to go. It would be terrifying – but what publicity for a film about clairvoyance!’
We leave the pub and head across Truro, up a hill to the converted coach house where Thomas has lived for the past 12 years. Currently in residence is Sean, Thomas’s 35-year-old son from his first marriage, a former heroin addict whose taste for S&M led to a rape charge (of which he was acquitted), in 1988. He is also a published novelist. We greet him briefly and then head upstairs to the study. The walls are lined with shelves carrying various editions of DM Thomas’s many books, including more than 20 translations of The White Hotel. The computer is switched on. There is a sculpture of a unicorn with a broken horn, a photograph of Denise and, above his desk, a painting of Akhmatova, the Russian poetess whom he says is his muse. Thomas lights up another cigarette and, shrouded in smoke, his eyebrow arched, he looks demonic. I ask him whether he has ever been tempted to experiment with drugs. He has had the odd joint, he says, but nothing stronger. ‘I know I have an addictive personality so I don’t want to risk heroin. But part of me would like to try it just once. If I knew I was going to die, I would try it.’
Perhaps when he goes to California? We are back on the subject of death. He is beginning to feel old. His body aches from sciatica. He has another drag from the cigarette he holds between blotchy fingers and, as he starts the process of stubbing it out 15 times, he tells me he has a religious consciousness but finds it difficult to accept the notion of an afterlife. ‘I hope there is one. I fear there isn’t. Denise and I talked about it when she was in the hospice and I tried to be more optimistic than I felt. When someone is desperate you put the best gloss on things.’
How should an artist die? Thomas tells me he once experienced the death of a novelist. William Golding used to live near Truro and the night before he died he had a party. ‘I stayed after the other guests left and his daughter brought out his two best bottles of wine. This upset William a bit and there was a certain tension. But then he suddenly told her he loved her. He looked out of the window and remarked upon how much he enjoyed living in this house. He squeezed his wife’s hand affectionately. I said goodnight, drove back seeing double, and he died of a heart attack half an hour later. That was a good way to go.’
Like William Golding, DM Thomas will probably be remembered for just one novel. He is philosophical about it. ‘Some writers can do it again and again and it’s wonderful. Others have to resign themselves to never producing anything as good again. At least I did it once. I didn’t get angst-ridden when later novels weren’t as commercially successful. The White Hotel is the novel with which I am most satisfied. I was almost in a dream state when I wrote it. It flowed automatically and needed little revision. It was the book where all my themes and obsessions found their absolute objective correlative.’
The phone rings and the answering machine clicks on. A young woman’s voice, well-spoken. ‘Hi, my darling. I’m at home. Call me when you get in. Bye, darling.’
The author and I exchange a glance.
‘Oh my God,’ DM Thomas says from behind a blue veil of smoke. ‘An unexpected intrusion of reality.’
Who was she?
‘A friend of mine. Yes. A friend.’ Silence. ‘Life has to go on.’ Silence. ‘Do you want to ask more about her?’
No. That’s all right.


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.