Muslim scholars, Anglican bishops, touchy-feely party leaders – David Starkey will have a pop at them all. History’s loose cannon talk to Nigel Farndale

He’s a fastidious man, David Starkey. A silk handkerchief plumes from the breast pocket of his pinstripe suit as he arrives, punctually, for dinner at the Wolseley. Even when he was a full-time history don – teaching first at Cambridge then at the LSE – he was something of a dandy: ‘Academics tend to be drab,’ he says in his precise, emphatic way.

‘They rarely wash and can’t behave properly. I didn’t want to become part of that tribe of drabness.’ He is also wearing, canny as he is about the usefulness of branding, the tortoiseshell glasses and matching cornelian intaglio ring that have become his trademarks.

He tucks his napkin into his shirt and we clink glasses. We are trying a bottle of Chassagne Montrachet, from a region of France he likes to visit. Fastidious again, you see. Still, I’m surprised he is in a drinking mood.

Not worried about having to get up early tomorrow morning to record his television show? ‘No, no,’ he says. ‘I do the early morning call with my producers from my home. A video conference call. I sit there in my fluffy white dressing gown.’

It is a startling and improbable image. In terms of reputation, after all, Starkey is anything but fluffy. When he was a regular panellist on Radio 4’s The Moral Maze a decade ago, The Daily Mail dubbed him ‘The Rudest Man in Britain’ and he made the most of the accolade, recognising that it was publicity money could not buy.

He always manages to play up to that image in photographs, looking stern and schoolmasterly, his face a mask of serious purpose. But he toned down the rude side of his persona in 2000 when he evolved into ‘Britain’s best loved historian’ by simultaneously topping the bestseller lists and winning the television ratings war with his book and series Elizabeth I. The rudeness does still emerge from time to time, though.

Not long ago he lost his temper and verbally duffed up a Government minister on Question Time. ‘Don’t patronise me, you little twit,’ he said, spitting the words out.

But as we talk, a sentimental side of him emerges, a fluffiness that I haven’t seen in our previous encounters: about his father Robert, his boyfriend James, their chocolatecoloured labrador, Seal. We shall come to these.

The television show, a current affairs debate he hosts, goes out at 11 every night on More4 and is called Starkey’s Last Word. He pre-records it during the day and calls it ‘enjoyable nonsense’, a break from writing books to accompany his epic series Monarchy, which is now in its third year, and for which he was paid £2 million by Channel 4 in 2002.

He has an 18th-century manor house in Kent, in addition to his house in Highbury. It’s a far cry from the council house where he grew up in Cumbria, the only son of a factory worker and a cleaner. Would ‘shamelessly materialistic’ be a fair description? ‘I enjoy having money. I enjoy being able to buy nice things. I have no guilt about it.’

But he would still be obsessed with history even if he wasn’t paid to be. It animates and galvanises him. He is so passionate about it, indeed, he can barely contain himself – and he has the pedagogue’s gift of making others feel passionate about it, too.

His conceit is to humanise two-dimensional historical figures by recognising their base appetites and natures, showing that history is moulded by the whims of the powerful, be they clever or stupid, puritanical or perverted.

Take his specialist subject, Henry VIII. ‘He was very modern,’ he says. ‘He loved fame. He would have loved the fact that we are having this conversation about him 500 years on.’ Starkey is writing a big biography of Henry to mark, in 2009, the 500th anniversary of his accession – and it becomes apparent as he talks that his imagination is haunted by the homicidal king. ‘He is alive in my head when I write.

He is in the room with me. I often feel a sense of dictation when I am writing. I hear sentences and paragraphs.’

It becomes obvious, too, that for Starkey the past is constantly collapsing into the present. His allusions sweep back and forth. When he talks about the past, he does so in the present tense. ‘History is a narrative form,’ he says. ‘And the task of the historian is to make past and present talk to each other. I’m an interpreter. I look for meaning in history. I’m convinced, for example, that the big question of the next few decades is the relationship of religion and politics.’

This is the theme of his latest book, Monarchy – From the Middle Ages to Modernity. ‘We need to understand that this is at the centre of our own national experience. We were the first European country to produce an Islamic-style fusion of religion and politics. But equally, we were the first country that got out of it, with modernity. Hence the extraordinary flowering of late 17th-, early 18th-century England.’

I try to imagine his frustration at having to keep Henry VIII down to one chapter in his latest book. ‘OK,’ he says, slipping Caesar-like into the third person, ‘Starkey has written 680 pages on Henry’s wives [an earlier book], not to mention what he is going to write on Henry himself. But for me the excitement of doing the book and the TV series is that it forces me to look at Henry in perspective.

If you do that you see his true importance. He is the pivotal figure around which England turns. It becomes clear to me that although Henry was driven by a desire for a divorce, everyone working around him was driven by religion, just as much as any imam or mullah.’

But if the Enlightenment and modernity liberated us from the fusion of state and religion, won’t the same happen for Islam? ‘No. Islam is 600 years behind Christianity. In Islamic time it is 1400. We’re not supposed to call that time medieval. Well, darling, it is. The great difference is that Islam has never had a doctrine of separate church and state, whereas Christianity had it from the beginning: render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Islam destroys the institutions around it, Christianity works with them. The only example of a successful Islamic state is Turkey and that, thanks to Ataturk, is secular.’

Like a lot of atheists, Starkey can seem a little obsessed with religion. It is often the target for his magnificent scorn, most famously when he excoriated the Venerable George Austin, Archdeacon of York, on The Moral Maze. ‘Doesn’t he genuinely make you want to vomit?’ he asked his fellow panellists. ‘His fatness, his smugness, his absurdity.’

But when I ask him what he makes of Prince Charles’s desire to become Defender of Faiths, he surprises me by saying: ‘I don’t think the Prince is being naive. In the past I have tended to be a little dismissive about him, saying I couldn’t image a talking-to-plants eco-monarchy working. Suddenly, though, Charles looks very ahead for his time. I can imagine a situation where you had the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi and the Ayatollah of Britain, if such a role were invented, all doing a little gig at the Coronation. It would be a deeply British compromise.

After all, the Church of England was only ever really about the English worshipping themselves: the regimental histories; the great dead. Go to Westminster Abbey and there is barely a cross in sight. If Islam were able to fit into that I would have no problem with it, but it would have to be a jolly different Islam to what we have at the moment. The ayatollah would have to lose his sense of exclusivity and become as fundamentally muddle-headed as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and I can’t see that happening.

‘Personally, I find the inclusiveness and uncertainty of the Church of England as horrible as the brittle, iron-edged certainties of Islam and I would much rather the chairman of the National Secular Society held up the Coronation sword. But I can’t see that happening.

Although I am an atheist, unlike a Richard Dawkins, I understand the importance of religious motive and, broadly, I am sympathetic to it – except when it is fused with the political, which is what Henry does, and which modern Islam wants to do, and also what Tony Blair and George Bush flirt with.’

So he appreciates the rituals of the Church of England? ‘Yes, I remember the horror of my father’s funeral in 1997. It was a Quaker funeral in which there was absolutely no ritual. No music. No reading. Nothing between you and the rawness of that emotion.’

But wasn’t that quite healthy? Cathartic, I mean? ‘It wasn’t for me. Why have a ceremony which is unmediated raw emotion?’ Surely they wouldn’t have minded if he had delivered a homily? ‘The fact is, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Me, eloquent, fluent me, couldn’t stand up and give a talk at my own father’s funeral.’

When I first met David Starkey his father was still alive, though nearly 90. He told me then that they used to talk on the phone every day. ‘Well, I had not known him well. He was a late discovery because my mother [who died in 1977] had dominated everything.

We became close. The whole relationship had taken on a new dimension because two years before he died, James and I had got together. My father had led a sheltered life, yet there he was at that age still capable of responding to new things.’

Starkey had come out as gay to his parents back in the early Seventies. His God-fearing mother had never forgiven him. But his father reserved judgment, it seems. Was it important for Starkey to get his father’s blessing about his relationship with James? ‘Not quite the word I would use,’ he says. ‘Put it in Latin. Call it a benediction then I might feel more comfortable. But yes, it was important to me.’

Given the theory that there may be a gay gene, did he ever wonder whether his father might have been bisexual? ‘It would have been unthinkable for me to discuss it with him. We could never talk about things like that.’

What about Starkey himself? As a young man did he assume he was heterosexual? ‘I didn’t assume anything. It was not an issue. As far as I was concerned it was a low priority at that age. It makes me sound like the most awful nerd, but I was only interested in getting a scholarship to Cambridge.’ (He did get it, and a First, then a PhD, then a fellowship.) ‘But yes it did take me a long time to realise what the emotions actually meant.’

He met James Brown, a publisher and designer, at the LSE. Starkey, who is 61, was a lecturer there at the time. Brown, who is 34, had been a student. When I ask Starkey if he had taught Brown he coughs and splutters jokily. ‘Good heavens no! I have rather high views on that kind of thing. James read economics and social policy then began working for the LSE Foundation.

I had a meeting with Howard, the foundation boss, at the university bar. He sent James on ahead to tell me he was running late. James and I got talking…We went out to dinner after that, nothing happened and I can still remember sitting in the back of the taxi looking back at this young man thinking: why I am going home alone and seeing this agreeable-looking young man clearly thinking the same? Something clicked. It was like Henry meeting Anne Boleyn.’

Not quite as much at stake though, I suggest. ‘Oh, stop being a spoilsport.’

As Starkey has been a patron of the Tory Campaign for Homosexual Equality (Torche) since 1994, I ask him what he made of David Cameron’s ‘…and I don’t just mean between a man and woman’ conference speech. ‘It’s called gesture politics isn’t it?’ Starkey says. ‘My problem with Cameron is that I am not just a kind, sharing, nuzzly individual: I also care about my tax bills. I’m really boring. I like my Toryism with a bit of beef.’

In conversation, David Starkey has no restraint. And, as Michael Buerk, the chairman of The Moral Maze, noted in his autobiography, he is prone to ‘whinny at his own cleverness.’ But he is entertaining with it. And there are no awkward silences with Starkey. In the course of our four-hour conversation, in fact, the only time Starkey hesitates is when I ask him where he stands on civil partnerships.

‘Oh dear.’ Long pause. ‘Why the need for a public endorsement? I don’t see why. On the other hand, I think James would like to and I suspect in the end we will. I can appreciate all the legal reasons why marriage is practical in terms of the handover of property, it’s just… Another pause. ‘I’m wary of it. Matthew Parris and I have joked about this, saying: “We didn’t become gay to get married!”‘ He and James have been together for 12 years. ‘We have our ups and downs, like any couple. But we have become a part of each other. We have learned to live with each other’s foibles, and idiocies, and disgusting habits. It becomes like going upstairs and downstairs in a familiar house.’

Part of the familiar house is Seal, the labrador. ‘I’ve become so sentimental about him. I thought I was immune. Most dinners he gets the plate to lick. He uses his eyes like Princess Diana…’ Starkey demonstrates. ‘Totally manipulative. But his face is so beautiful I cannot resist. The big eyes, the softness, as he sprawls out in front of the fire. We have become a parody of English life.’

It sounds like a child substitute. ‘Not for me. A cuddle substitute, possibly.’

Starkey’s life may now be a parody of middle-class life, but his childhood was almost a stereotype of working-class misery. He has often spoken of his mother, Elsie, a domineering woman who was overly protective of him, in part because, as a child, he suffered from club feet, which after several painful operations were corrected. ‘My mother was suffocating but I owe her everything.

She was the divine discontent. She was the possibility I could get out.’ But he has rarely spoken about his father. ‘He was a sweet, gentle man,’ he now says, ‘but he hated what he did for a living and was prone to bouts of violence and temper, not a million miles from me in my earlier incarnation.’

At whom were the violence and temper directed? ‘Anything. Everything.’

I ask if his own frustrations, when he was an impecunious academic away from the spotlight, were similar. ‘You are right. I was frustrated and I do love the spotlight. But a good lecture is a theatrical performance. The whole point of The History Boys is the way in which teaching and performance have a symbiotic relationship, which is both to their mutual advantage and disadvantage. The question is: is one using one’s histrionic skills to power learning or to vulgarise it?’ So which is he doing? ‘Probably a bit of both.’


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.