On the seventh floor of the Café Royale in central London, in a room unheated despite the wintry night air outside, a door creaks open. A callow youth in overalls stands hesitantly, framed in the doorway, chair in hand. He takes in the long mahogany table and the tape recorder that rests upon it. He looks at the back of Des Lynam’s head, at the silvery collar-length hair, then at me. The BBC’s sports anchor turns in his chair and gives him a quizzical arch of his eyebrow.
‘I. Chairs. Move. Told to,’ the youth says, suddenly tongue-tied. Lynam raises the neatly trimmed eyebrow another notch, no more than an eighth of an inch. The youth looks helpless and uncertain. When Lynam gives him another 16th, he backs out. ‘Later. Sorry. I. Come back.’
Des Lynam is the coolest person in the world. Fact. His producer on Match of the Day could be singing, ‘I’m the firestarter, twisted firestarter’ into his earphone while an escaped ostrich skitters unhindered around the studio, and not a flicker of emotion would cross the man’s face. He can wear a cravat, advertise Miracle-Gro on television, model sports casuals for the Freeman mail-order catalogue and still seem cool. He can even make a moustache look cool.
The only thing about which Des Lynam, 56, is not cool is his privacy. He hates being photographed. Loathes talking about himself. Indeed, according to his agent, this is only the third feature-length newspaper interview he’s given in his long career, and the first for which he hasn’t had proper copy approval, or at least a chance to correct errors and spellings. (Not that he didn’t request it. But, hey, when you’ve got an album of poetry readings to plug in time for the Christmas market, sometimes you have to take chances.)
His twitchiness is understandable. In September the News of the World ran a front-page story under the headline DIRTY DES! It concerned the kiss-and-tell confessions of ‘jilted Laura Ewing’, a 48-year-old widow who lived in Chiswick next door to ‘six-times-a-night Des’. Errant politicians could learn much from the calm and dignified way in which Lynam handled the situation. He issued a short statement in which he admitted cheating on Rosemary Diamond, his partner of 17 years, and added that he had made an error of judgement. The story fizzled out like a mildewed firework.
Traditionally, when there is an awkward subject about which a celebrity expects to be asked, the best policy is to get it out of the way as soon as possible and then everyone can relax. After we have been talking for perhaps ten minutes another tactic suggests itself: be a coward and don’t ask it at all. This approach doesn’t work. Like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Lynam feels the need to allude to the story himself, several times. So embarrassing. We are talking about war, death and patriotism, and I say I can’t imagine him panicking under fire, what with his relaxed demeanour in the studio. I mean, if he was at Rorke’s Drift he would be the sergeant gently reprimanding the terrified private for not having his top button done up as the Zulu hordes charged: ‘Remember you’re in the British Harmy, lad.’ Lynam is not so sure. Although he can understand that his on-screen composure might give this impression, he says that this is only because no one really knows his private persona, ‘Except when it’s paraded across the gutter press.’
Aggh! ‘But we’re not here to talk about that,’ I say too quickly. ‘Ha ha ha, we’re here to talk about the poems.’ Up to this point Lynam has been sitting rather stiffly, arms folded, sizing me up through narrowed eyes. He has seemed monochrome. Not cosy. He removes his glasses, folds them and slips them under his grey tweed jacket, feeling several times for a breast pocket on his button-collar shirt which is not there. He places them on the table, stretches out in his chair and props his head up on one hand, his elbow resting on the next chair along. The change of mood is palpable. The temperature in the room even seems to rise a little.
Another convention of the interview is that the plug – for the new novel, film, record, whatever – should be dispensed with quickly so that the celebrity can get on with talking revealingly about him or herself. In this instance, though, it would mean leaving a rich seam of self-revelation untapped. Lynam is, he says, very, very shy. Always has been. Doesn’t like to talk about himself. But he loves talking about poetry.
He has recorded 22 of his favourite poems to orchestral accompaniment on an album, Time To Stand and Stare, released this week on the BBC Music label. The idea for it came from this year’s World Cup. The final item in the BBC’s last programme from Paris was a reading by Lynam of Kipling’s ‘If’, with appropriate footballing highlights cut on film to match the words. The BBC was inundated with requests for it. Most of the poems Lynam has chosen are, frankly, maudlin. ‘Lot of Betjeman and Kipling,’ he says in a low even timbre. ‘Sad. Sure. But I don’t think you buy something like this to cheer yourself up. I hope it’s a bit thought-provoking. Stimulate people’s moods or whatever.’
This is Lynam as he would like to present himself to the world: a serious man, with texture, shading and just a touch of ennui. He never went to university, something he bitterly regrets, and this may have left him feeling frustrated intellectually. He could have gone – he got three A levels: English, French and Art – but he didn’t want to be a financial burden on his parents (his father was a mental health worker, his mother a nurse). Instead he sat his Chartered Insurance Institute exams at Brighton Business College and went to work for Cornhill Insurance. Did that for eight years, had the company car, the preferential mortgage and everything, but gave it all up in 1967 for an insecure freelance job in local radio. He moved to BBC radio two years later and there he remained for almost a decade before sidling into his present role as grand old man of BBC television sports – despite countless offers to move to ITV Sports for more money. Des is a great believer in loyalty.
Now it seems, like Rory Bremner, who longs to play Hamlet, Lynam suffers from gravitas syndrome. This is a condition which can strike popular entertainers quite suddenly. They go to bed feeling at ease with themselves then wake up next morning convinced that it is not enough for them to be brilliant at what they do: they have to be taken seriously as well.
Lynam is having none of this theory. ‘No. I came to this poetry thing by accident. It wasn’t a conscious decision to say, “I’m a bit brighter than they think I am. There’s a bit more depth than people think.”‘ Fair enough. But your favourite poems, Des, they’re so morbid. All about death. ‘Every day I think about dying,’ is one line he reads from a poem by Roger McGough. ‘He looked so wise but now I do not like to think of maggots in his eyes,’ is another, from Betjeman’s ‘On a Portrait of a Deaf Man’. It all points to a gloomy disposition. ‘I guess there is a melancholic side, otherwise I wouldn’t like these poems or be able to read them, but I’m not prone to depression. Not a manic-depressive type at all. Glums. Sure. Like everyone else. Good days and bad. But generally my spirits are sailing high. On an even keel. Emotionally steady.’
The delivery is just as laconic and homely as it is on television: pronouns and definite articles stripped away to make the speaker unobtrusive. He is doing that thing with his eyebrows too. Now I am just waiting for him to say, ‘Tell you what,’ and refer to his being ‘popular with the ladies’.
Rory Bremner, who features a lugubrious Lynam in his repertoire, says that Des is very aware of how to play Des. Lynam was always a good impressionist. In the Seventies he co-wrote a comedy show on Radio 2, How Lunchtime Is it?, in which he impersonated Harold Wilson and Ted Heath. And here today, in this cold room, you sense he is indeed playing Des, this character he steps into when performing.
‘I think I’m the same on as off,’ Lynam protests when asked if this is the case. ‘Pretty much the same sort of animal. I’m not Mr OK here and Mr Ruthless there. But I can be bad-tempered. And I’m not as confident as I seem on television. Actually, I’m shy. My best friends, male friends, would never know my problems. Keep my problems to myself. I talk to the lady in my life about them though. Problems between us even. We’re pretty frank and open with each other. Don’t hide too much…’
Aggh! Change the subject. Although Lynam finds he can sometimes be moved to tears by poetry, he normally keeps his emotions in check when listening to music or watching films. ‘Cinema is usually cold emotion and I keep a little distance from that. Some films, though, give me self-realisation. The Deer Hunter when the boys are being forced to play Russian roulette and are being thrown in the cage with the rats swimming round. I know I would crack. I couldn’t cope. The idea that you could die on a whim.’
Time To Stand and Stare includes a poem, ‘The Silly Isles’, which Lynam himself wrote in 1982. It’s a protest poem about the Falklands War. ‘I wouldn’t want to demean the efforts of the British servicemen,’ Lynam says with typical even-handedness. ‘They did what they considered to be their duty. But I also felt for the Argentinians who were killed. A conscript army.’ He recites: ‘Politicians without their guile,/army hawks without a smile . . .’ I feel more could have been done to avoid that war. I’ve only written a handful of poems. Listen,’ he laughs softly, ‘I haven’t got delusions of adequacy about it, even. It was the idea of the producer to put it in. Am I patriotic? Think I am. Up to a point. A questioning patriot. Wouldn’t be in my nature to just do as I’m told.’
Desmond Michael Lynam was born at Ennis, County Clare, on 17 September, 1942. His parents had moved to England from Ireland before the war, to look for work, but his mother had gone back there after his father was posted to India to serve in the Army Medical Corps. Desmond was three before he met his father for the first time. He was six when the family left Ireland again and moved to Brighton. ‘I had a very broad West Ireland accent,’ he recalls. ‘When we first lived in Brighton our neighbours couldn’t understand a word I said. It was kind of a laugh.’
He doesn’t think he made a conscious effort to lose his accent – and reinvent himself – just because people laughed at him. ‘But there was one incident where the teacher said, “Draw a line,” and I drew a little creature with four legs and a mane. I must have been stupid. Got a smack on the back of the hand. I suppose in my subconscious I thought I’d better get rid of this accent.’
Lynam’s shyness first became apparent when, as a 14-year-old, he was asked to read out loud in the classroom. ‘They would have to pull it out of me. I had lots of opinions but I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by expressing them. There’s still a reluctance to stand up and say a few words off the top of my head. The other day I was asked to do it and it was fine but I felt really nervous about it. Strangely.’
The paradox of a shy person choosing a profession in which he has to perform in public is not lost on him. He doesn’t think the career move was a deliberate attempt to face his fears, though. Nor does he think that if, in a parallel universe somewhere, there is another Des Lynam who remained an insurance salesman, he would be any different from the Des Lynam who became a television personality. ‘I think I’d have done it well. Probably made more money. I was an inspector. Partly sales. Partly doing surveys of buildings and all that thing. Technical stuff. Had to train for it. You know, people say, “Oh, he was a door-to-door salesman.” Well, I certainly wasn’t that. My bit of pride in my past profession comes out there. It was certainly more than that…’
Des Lynam and Rose Diamond, a 50-year-old interior designer, have a second home on the Sussex coast. There is nothing Lynam likes better than to walk along the sand there in winter, early in the morning, when the tide is out, contemplating the crashing waves and the seabirds wheeling and screeching overhead. ‘I am quite happy being alone with my thoughts there. Get some of my better ones.’ Brooding upon his own mortality, no doubt. ‘Yes, I think about death a lot. Horrifying. When you get to my age you find you are losing friends more and more. I’m very conscious about it and about making the most of each day. It’s an abyss.’
Although he was brought up a Roman Catholic and has recently taken to visiting a retired Monsignor to discuss matters spiritual and temporal, Lynam’s faith was badly shaken by the deaths of his parents. He felt disappointed because his prayers were unanswered and now, he says, the only real religious feeling he has left is a sense of Catholic guilt. His mother, Gertrude, died from a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 54. ‘It was a sudden thing,’ Lynam says, clicking his fingers. ‘The artery just burst. She didn’t die straight away. Hung on for a month. My father and I went to see her every day and we kept telling each other that she was looking better. We were desperate to believe it. Clinging to it. I thought I shall never worry about anything ever again because nothing can ever be as bad as this. I guess that feeling lasted two weeks. Mundane things come flooding back.’
His father, Edward, died from bowel cancer seven years later, in 1976. ‘We thought it was going to be a pretty straightforward operation. I wasn’t told enough. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t get the surgeon up against a wall to tell me everything. I felt alone in the world after he died because I was recently divorced and had no siblings. Well, I had a sister, but she died in infancy from meningitis. Anyway,’ he leans forward and rests his chin on his fist, ‘we mustn’t get too sombre.’
His nine-year marriage to Susan Skinner, a beautician, broke up in 1974. The couple are still on good terms and have a son, Patrick, who is now 28. Lynam’s name was romantically linked to a number of other women before he met Rose, but one friendship in particular was to come back to haunt him in 1995. The headline in the Sun read: TV DES BEDDED SEX SWAP BOND GIRL. Caroline Cossey, a former Bond girl also known as Tula, who used to be a man called Barry, claimed she had a two-year affair with the broadcaster. With characteristic insouciance Lynam commented at the time, ‘I found her very attractive. As any man would. But I don’t ever remember making love.’ The raised eyebrow that accompanied this added, ‘And if you had sex with a 6ft transsexual, you would remember it.’
Another poem on Lynam’s CD is Humbert Wolfe’s ‘Over the Fire’ (1930): ‘You cannot hope/to bribe or twist,/thank God! the/British journalist./But, seeing what/the man will do/unbribed, there’s/no occasion to.’ Bloody journalists, eh Des? You must have mixed feelings about us. ‘I have. The broadsheet press has been very kind to me down the years. But the invasion of one’s privacy by the tabloids is hard to bear. I’m not a Cabinet minister. I don’t decide how much tax you should pay. I’m a hack on the television. And apparently that makes me fair game to be plastered all over the papers if there is a hiccup in my private life. It is hurtful and difficult. The recent story was a very private matter involving three people. No one else.’
Lynam believes that the Press Complaints Commission is completely toothless. ‘The piece written about me broke all its guidelines. There’s a difference between public interest and the public being interested.’ He sighs heavily. ‘Clearly I am biased. But what is terribly unfair is that they only give one side of the story. And if someone is paid for their story it’s going to be embellished. Let’s be honest. Then if you give your side it just continues. It runs and runs. Another front page. No way out. The other option is to take it to law. Well, some of it is libellous, a lot if it isn’t, therefore you’ve got no real case and you might end up losing your house. I’m not depressed about it, just a bit fed up. I hope you’re not going to go too heavy on this aspect. I don’t want people to think I’m griping.’
He looks directly at me. It’s a penetrating look which says there is little point in trying to dissemble. It is telling how Lynam seeks to direct the course of this interview. It is consistent with the reputation he enjoys at the BBC of being a bit of a control freak, and, presumably, is why he doesn’t like to confide in his friends about his problems because this would mean compromising the control he attempts to impose on his private life.
In terms of his public persona, seeking to correct the presumption that he was a door-to-door insurance salesman, as well as the stereotype that he must be a sports bore who has no sensitivity toward literature, may be other examples of this need to control. The thing over which we have least control, of course, is death – his favourite subject – which is perhaps why the arbitrariness of Russian roulette is for him the ultimate horror. As for the discomfort he feels at having his private life discussed in the tabloids, this probably has as much to do with shyness as misplaced vanity. Dishy Des, as the tabloids dub him, is a victim of his own ‘popularity with the ladies’.
Mrs Merton called him a Tom Cruise for the menopausal woman. And in My Summer with Des, a television comedy about the Euro 96 tournament, one character says: ‘I’m trying hard not to like Des Lynam. It’s a form of mental exercise.’ Such is the price of being an institution. He admits that he is conscious of the effect he has on women and that he does sometime deploy his roguish eyebrows without quarter. ‘There is a tiny bit of ham in me. I do use it. A bit of a twinkle, or an eyebrow. I know when I’m being a bit naughty.’
He also has a naughty sense of humour. When he and Jimmy Hill were reminiscing about the 1966 World Cup final, Hill said, ‘I was employed even then by the BBC – though in a very minor capacity, of course.’ Without missing a beat Lynam said, ‘You’re still in a minor capacity, Jimmy.’
Yet Lynam is never flippant about football. And, unlike other anchors, he seldom overdramatises or resorts to clichŽ. Rather, in his mulling, deadpan style, he brings a welcome sense of perspective to our national obsession. To him it is simply glorious trivia. It is a source of regret that he was never a professional player himself. But if he could have his time again he would much rather come back as a comedy writer, specifically as John Sullivan, writer of Only Fools and Horses. Lynam used to fiddle about with satire, he says. Always threatened to do more, but was too lazy. What about his poetry reading, though? Wouldn’t he have liked to have been an actor?
‘No. Could never have been one.’
But, be honest, isn’t he acting now, in this cold room on the seventh floor? ‘Bit.’
Des Lynam defected to ITV the following year.


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.