There are two ways of proving that time is relative. You can either measure the speed of light in a vacuum, as Einstein did, or you can place a dog and a politician in a restaurant and observe how the three entities age differently. In the space-time continuum, one dog year is the equivalent to seven human years. A seven-year-old dog, therefore, is considered old. But a restaurant which can manage to stay open for just two human years is also considered old – just as a young man is, the moment he becomes an MP. This is what Harold Wilson was getting at when he said a week is a long time in politics.
Take Lord Owen, for instance. Were he to live to 105, mourners would still shake their heads at his funeral and say, ‘Could have sworn he was older.’ That’s what being a foreign secretary at the age of 38 does for you. Even now we think of him as an ermine-gowned elder statesman, a wraith from a lost generation, a lonely shadow in the political wilderness – and he’s only 60.
Lord Owen reflects upon this, surveying the grey and choppy waters of the Thames from an upright wooden chair in his drawing-room. His wide mouth spreads into a thin smile. Dimples appear. ‘Politically, I’m 75 to 80,’ he says. ‘I’m going to the funeral services of the Callaghan government.’
He has just returned from one of his regular business trips to Moscow where Middlesex Holdings, the company of which he has been chairman since 1995, has interests in the steel industry. When the conversation turns from this to his memories of an earlier visit to Russia, at the height of the Cold War, I shiver involuntarily. Owen is so ancient, politically, he can reminisce about signing a treaty (intended to prevent the accidental outbreak of nuclear war) under the steady eye of Comrade Brezhnev. Brezhnev! ‘The Kremlinologists in the West asked me to give a surreptitious medical assessment of him. He had developed a speech defect and they wanted me to try to work out if he had had a stroke, or if he had cancer of the larynx.’
Nowadays there is something of the stuffed osprey about Owen’s looks (feathery eyebrows form a severe ‘V’ above a beaky nose), and he is not as intimidatingly handsome as once he was (less the young Frank Sinatra, more the older Stanley Baxter). The hair that he always seemed to be caught combing off-camera is still thick, but now he complains that whenever he washes it he finds clumps in the sink afterwards – ‘I’m moulting!’
Although Owen still constructs his sentences with ornate precision – ‘up with this we will not put’ is a favourite phrase – he also still sounds rather bored and disdainful when talking. Not that we hear much from him these days. He speaks once or twice a year on international affairs in the House of Lords, but since the end of his three-year term as EU peace negotiator to Bosnia in 1995, he has eschewed the spotlight. Now, though, he has found a cause for which he is prepared to come in from the cold. He thinks it will be a mistake for Britain to join the single currency – and he’s leading a campaign to explain why. The Eurosceptics are delighted: Owen is not Conservative, not anti-Europe (in fact very pro), and not widely felt to be bonkers.
‘A small group of us from different backgrounds and age groups are going through a very interesting exercise at the moment. We’re trying to work out a common text to set out the arguments against the single currency. We’re doing two versions: one short and populist, the other longer and more elitist. The simple version is proving much harder to write.’ Owen’s message is that it’s fine for the British people to vote for currency union as long as they are made fully aware that this will probably end up as political union, that is, a single social welfare and tax system, as well as a single defence and foreign policy. But politicians in Britain who want a United States of Europe are, he believes, operating by stealth, denying this is their ambition while edging constantly towards it.
It could be argued, though, that Owen has made far too many enemies in his political life to be of benefit to any cause he espouses. Left-wingers have hated him ever since he, along with Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers – the Gang of Four – left the Labour Party in 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP). They objected to Michael Foot’s policy to disarm unilaterally, renationalise, tax heavily and leave the EEC, and Owen hoped his new centrist party would ‘break the mould of British politics’. (The SDP’s statement of principles became known as the Limehouse Declaration, for ever placing Owen as its leader in the minds of the general public.)
Although polls showed that, at its peak, 50 per cent of the population supported the SDP, the 1983 election proved a disappointment, and the 1987 election, in which ‘the two Davids’, Owen and Steel, formed an uncomfortable alliance, was even worse. Steel, then leader of the Liberal Party, proposed merger; Owen resisted. The other members of the Gang of Four and most members of the SDP chose merger and formed the Social and Liberal Democratic Party, but Owen stayed firm. The rump SDP suffered an eerily prolonged death. It was finally wound up after the Monster Raving Loony Party out-polled it in the 1990 Bootle by-election.
In her memoirs, Lady Castle reflected the view of many when she described Owen as arrogant. Lord Jenkins compared him to the upas-tree, which destroys life around it. Lord Healey called him Lord Owen of Split and added: ‘The good fairy gave him thick dark locks, matinŽe idol features and a frightening intellect. Unfortunately the bad fairy also made him a shit.’
Conservatives, on the other hand, have always had a soft spot for Owen, not least because he did so much to keep them in power in the Eighties. Margaret Thatcher, it is said, admired his pro-Nato, pro-market views so much she wanted to offer him a Cabinet post – but he couldn’t bring himself to become a Tory. Major was also a fan, giving Owen a peerage when he left the House of Commons in 1992. He had planned to offer Owen the Governorship of Hong Kong as well – until Chris Patten lost his seat in the election that year.
The right-wing historian Andrew Roberts is another who sticks up for Lord Owen. He wrote recently that Owen’s vanity and ego are probably no greater than many other men of his talents, but they are perceived as gargantuan. Owen thinks he knows why this perception might have arisen. ‘Well, if you break away from a large political party you make yourself a lot of enemies. And if you say what you think, unvarnished, you cause yourself problems. You should never ignore criticism, though. There is always some truth behind it.’
Lord Callaghan recalls in his memoirs that Owen went as white as a sheet when asked if he wanted to be Foreign Secretary (after the sudden death of Tony Crosland). In the two years Owen did the job, he proved to be reasonably successful – forestalling the Argentine invasion of the Falklands and paving the way for Rhodesian independence.
For several years Owen had a recurring dream that he was operating on patients before he was properly qualified as a doctor. An obvious interpretation of this would be that he was suffering impostor syndrome at being promoted so young in politics. He doesn’t agree. Instead he takes the Freudian view that the dream was reassuring, because when he woke up from it he would realise that, in reality, he was qualified. ‘I had been in politics for quite a while – 11 years – and I’d already had two ministerial jobs – Navy, and Health. I suppose it’s an arrogant thing to say, but I wasn’t daunted on my first day as I went up in that slow lift to my room in the Foreign Office. I was at the peak of my powers in terms of intellect and energy and drive.’
You suspect he doesn’t mean that he has been in decline ever since, but it is still a strangely sad and disturbing comment. In his own memoirs (Time To Declare, 1991), Owen reveals that his natural self-confidence had been dented slightly while at Bradfield, his school in Berkshire. He wasn’t especially happy there and was teased ‘in a most unpleasant way’. His nickname was Dahlia, after his initials (David Anthony Llewellyn Owen), but he used to fight those who called him by it and, he solemnly writes, he never went through a homosexual phase.
His time studying medicine at Cambridge University was more rewarding, not least because he fell in love and discovered a passion for reading and writing poetry, something he still devotes much time to today. Indeed, he says one of things he is most proud of is editing Seven Ages, an anthology of poetry published in 1992. After graduating, he worked for six years as a neurologist and psychiatrist at St Thomas’s Hospital, Westminster, before becoming Labour MP for Plymouth Sutton in 1966.
His political epiphany had come some years earlier when he heard Harold Macmillan’s claim that Britain had never had it so good. Owen looked around him, found that he couldn’t agree and decided it was time to become a Labour supporter. But, tellingly, he wrote in his notebook that year: ‘There comes a time for action and taking one particular side whilst realising that no one side will ever answer to one’s every wish.’
Owen was born in Plympton, South Devon, on 2 July 1938, but most of his childhood was spent in Wales. While his father was away fighting in the War, he and his older sister went to live with his grandfather, a Welsh vicar. Although David Owen followed his father, John, into the medical profession, his mother, Molly, a Devon county councillor, was the dominating influence. She taught him that self-doubt was a sign of weakness. ‘I had the sort of mother who, if I came second in class, would say, “Why didn’t you come first?” If you made the cricket team, she would ask, “Why weren’t you made captain?” In a very nice way she assumed there was no such thing as a pinnacle of achievement. Also, I think it’s true to say that I lived dangerously in politics because I knew I could always go back to medicine if my political career came to an end.’
The Owen we watched on the news in the Eighties always looked peeved. Today he seems to have mellowed. He’s less crotchety. He doesn’t seem to be taking himself so seriously. When our photographer asks him to sit in a gloomy corner of the room he gives a running commentary: ‘I get it. This is the dark, saturnine Owen. Aged Heathcliffe. Decaying. The last hurrah…  I know what you lot get up to. Are you trying to get me to look like Oskar Lafontaine?’
It’s a delightfully off-beam assumption, which says much about the insular life that politicians lead: after all, who in this country knows what the German finance minister looks like? But Owen now seems more at ease with himself, and he even seems to have developed a sense of mischief. When asked what he thinks of Cool Britannia he sticks his finger down his throat and makes a retching noise. He dismisses the Observer as being pathetic and unreadable because of its slavish devotion to the Government. And he thinks Paddy Ashdown is making a complete arse of himself by toadying to Blair in the hope of being offered a job in the Cabinet or a seat on the European Commission.
Lord Owen enjoys, he says, the freedom of being a crossbencher – and when he adds that he now calls himself an Independent Social Democrat, he does so with a rueful grin. ‘I don’t want to be dragged into day-to-day political events,’ he says. ‘I want to ring-fence the single currency as the only political issue I’m involved in. I like having my distance and my independence. I’m in that rather rare position of having nothing more I want out of life: no job, no patronage.’
It sounds as if the doctor is coming down with tedium vitae. ‘No, I feel very content. I’ve always been happy. I’ve not lived an anguished life.’ Anyone who remembers his leadership of the SDP might find this an odd statement. ‘I have no resentment about the SDP,’ Owen now says, before going on to prove that he clearly does. ‘I think it’s a pity that people couldn’t have had more confidence in it. And I think it was a tragic shame that we lost our newness by linking ourselves too closely to the Liberals. But I haven’t had one moment of wanting to return to the House of Commons.’ He left it in 1992 and says his only real regret is that he didn’t leave on the Sunday after the 1987 election. ‘I probably did make a mistake. I should have said: “Fine. You go on and merge.” It’s just I knew merger would fail.’
His only consolation, he adds with a smile, is that there is now a Social Democrat in Number Ten. ‘Blair is one. Absolutely. Totally. Did you know one of the names we considered calling the SDP was New Labour?’ He says he talks to the Prime Minister occasionally but doesn’t know him well. ‘I relate to him, though. I can see where he is going with most things. I’m not very often surprised. But he’s young. There’s a big age gap and that’s bound to affect things.’ He declined to endorse Tony Blair in the last election because that would have meant being disloyal to John Major, who had been very supportive to him during the Bosnian peace negotiations. When asked, though, if he thinks he was the catalyst for Tony Blair, Owen pauses for about ten seconds. ‘The French have a saying: “For all the ifs in the world you can put Paris in a bottle.” I believe that Labour would not have changed as much as it did had it not seen its own voters in their thousands voting for the dreaded SDP. I think the painful shock of that was essential.’
At least Owen can take credit for one election victory: Margaret Thatcher’s in 1987. ‘I think you can’t deny it. If a major party is split it makes the other party more likely to win. But I’m not at all ashamed of that. I don’t think Labour was fit to govern in ’83, ’87 or ’92. But I think they were by ’97.’
The patrician certainty with which he says this makes you gasp and it reminds you that, at heart, he is still the doctor who knows what’s best for the patient. ‘New Labour is a refreshing change,’ he continues. ‘It is so skilled at not taking unpopular positions. Blair has got values, you know. People say he has no ideology but that’s not true. He is a Christian socialist. He’s not without moorings.’
Owen’s own mooring is the Church of Wales. Growing up in the valleys, his mentor and best friend was his blind grandfather, the clergyman. But for all his belief in a Christian God, Owen feels there is a far wider spiritual horizon. ‘I think religion is a much more personal and private thing. The Church is just a structure.’ He and Debbie, his wife of 30 years, have three grown-up children, Tristan, Gareth and Lucy. Last summer, he took Gareth, a medical student, up Mount Athos. ‘It was where I had gone when I first qualified as a doctor. We had a fantastic time walking, and it was like a spiritual experience. Rising at four and coming to monasteries in the evening. I spent several hours in the night sitting in these stalls in the Greek Orthodox Church. I don’t think it matters which building you go to.’
Partly because of his faith, partly because of his medical background, Lord Owen is not afraid of death, he says, although he does have an irrational fear of woods – the dark spaces between trees. He doesn’t really believe in personal security, he adds. Even though he was obliged to have a bodyguard when he was foreign secretary, he refused to go ex-directory. He divides his time between two houses – a redbrick Victorian rectory in Wiltshire and the one he is sitting in now, in Limehouse – and both are still listed in the phone book. The closest he has come to death was during his time in former Yugoslavia. ‘My helicopter was always being shot at. But I’m very philosophical about it.’
As the conflict in Bosnia rumbles on, you could be forgiven for assuming that Owen was a failure as a peace envoy. But even his enemies couldn’t argue it was for want of his trying: for three years he shuttled from country to country, convened meeting upon meeting, implemented cease-fire after cease-fire. He blamed the failure of the 1993 Vance Owen Peace Plan (VOPP), made in collaboration with the American envoy Cyrus Vance, on America’s lack of commitment. Some commentators said he was just too tactless, though, that he shouldn’t have accused President Clinton of having an inadequate grasp of Balkan history. Others claimed that the VOPP actually encouraged the vicious Croat-Muslim conflict that followed. Still others praised Owen’s heroism and integrity.
‘Yugoslavia was bloody,’ Owen now reflects. ‘But I did feel, having taken a lot out of politics, I had to put something back. People were surprised at how patient I was. I think that quality is greater now than when I was foreign secretary. Had I been younger I would have probably resigned when the Americans ditched the Vance-Owen plan.’
When Owen looks back on his own career he does not feel he has wasted his potential. He has no regrets, for instance, about not being given the job of Governor of Hong Kong. ‘Bosnia was a much more manly job to be given,’ he says with a grin. ‘Besides, Debbie wasn’t keen on going to Hong Kong because it would have disrupted her literary agency.’ When he accepted the job of envoy to Bosnia, Private Eye ran a cover which showed him shaking hands with John Major. The bubble coming out of Major’s mouth said, ‘I’m afraid it’s a lost cause.’ The bubble coming out of Owen’s said, ‘I’m your man.’ Doesn’t he think the retention of sterling is also a lost cause now?
‘Well, I don’t know, is the answer,’ Owen says eventually. ‘I don’t think any of us can be sure. I want to make it clear to people that you can be strongly committed to the European Union without being an enthusiast for the euro.’ He thinks there is a danger that the single currency will be just as divisive an issue for New Labour as it was for the Conservatives. ‘I fought for our membership of the EU long enough, and welcome the Labour conversion, but they are blind to some of the problems. Blair shouldn’t use such defensive language. He should be more self-confident. We are the fifth largest economy in the world. He can afford to keep his options on the euro open.’
Owen has some advice for William Hague too. ‘He should be more ruthless, not less. [Lord] Cranbourne behaved like an absolute shit and Hague was right to sack him. Too many people knock Hague. I think he’s better than he’s given credit for. I like his sense of humour. The best thing he can do is be patient. Nothing is going to change for him unless the economy turns down or Blair makes a massive error. The Liberals are helping him by lining up with Labour.’
Lady Owen (Debbie) runs her successful literary agency from the ground floor of this house and, as we’ve been talking, the telephone has been ringing constantly.  Upstairs, the only evidence is the reading material on the wooden coffee table: the New York Review of Books and Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters (hers presumably) alongside Britain’s Legacy to the Arabs by Anthony Parsons (his, you would imagine).
Debbie is American. Owen met her at a party in New York in 1968, fell in love immediately, and boldly asked her if she would show him round the city the next day. They were married within a few months. Touchingly, a number of the couple’s love letters are included in Owen’s autobiography. One of his ends: ‘Till then, if you’ve a clear sky in New York think of each one of the stars as being a kiss.’ He signs off another letter with the words: ‘I can’t see to write for my tears.’ I put it to him that all this soppy romanticism rather undermines his reputation as an even-tempered rationalist. ‘I can’t help it,’ he says. ‘I’m very Welsh, you see.’


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.