The autobiography of Fay Weldon, published this week, is a spiky read. Its author talks to Nigel Farndale about sex, psychiatry, self-loathing and her early career as a hostess in a Soho clip joint

A RISKY business, capturing the essence of a seven-year-old on canvas – especially when you then have to show the painting to the child’s mother. Rita Angus, a New Zealand artist, managed it when she painted Fay Weldon in 1938 – really dipped her paintbrush in the murky stuff of her sitter’s ‘inner soul’. Fay’s mother Margaret, a novelist who was living in New Zealand at the time, hated it; thought that with its hard edges and simple colouring it looked like a caricature. When she returned to London with her two young daughters – following a messy divorce in which both parties admitted to infidelity – she tried to leave the painting behind.

A friend ran to the dock with it just as the gangway was rising, shouting, ‘You left this!’ Margaret considered throwing the painting in the sea but asked the friend to return it to the artist instead. It now hangs in the National Gallery of New Zealand.

In the painting Fay sits beside Jane, her older (by two years) sister. Both are wearing gingham dresses with white collars and ribbons in their hair. When I meet Fay Weldon – now 71, married for the third time, mother of four sons, author of 24 novels, most notably The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983) – at her home in Hampstead, she is wearing Nike pumps, black trousers and a black top. But I recognise instantly the girl in the painting. It wasn’t a caricature, after all. She still has the same icy-blue saucer eyes, the same moon face, the same high, pouchy cheekbones, the same bob of pale blonde hair. Her skin is still smooth, too – or smoothed, thanks to the tucks and nips she blithely admitted to having a few years ago. Even her hunched shoulders and no-neck posture are the same. Her expression, now as then, is one of mischief masquerading as innocence.

She takes a sip of coffee from a mug with himself written on it – her hand shaking slightly – and tells me why she has reproduced the Rita Angus painting on the dust-jacket of her autobiography Auto Da Fay, which is published this week. The book is partly about what she calls the ‘survival unit of three’: her mother, her sister and herself. ‘Writing about Jane helped me come to terms with her death [from cancer at the age of 39 in 1969]. At the time I felt total helplessness in the face of it. I had to be elliptical, though. Her children don’t know the extent of her illness. You can have too much truth.’ You can see why she might think that. The truth or facts of her autobiography can seem rather too much. Among other things she reveals that, as a young woman, she flirted with prostitution and worked as a hostess in a Soho clip joint. She thought herself plain and dull, she writes, or at least that is how her mother made her feel – but she soon learnt that it wasn’t beauty men were after, but availability. ‘Sit on a bar stool in a skimpy dress and look like you charge for your favours and perfection of leg doesn’t matter.’

One could be forgiven for wondering if these episodes have been included simply because she thought they might help sell the book, even if she does feel they represent ‘too much truth’. After all, she first found success not as a novelist but as the advertising copywriter who coined the phrase ‘Go to work on an egg’. She knows how to sell a product, in other words. This commercial sense was demonstrated admirably by the press coverage she generated for the launch of The Bulgari Connection last year. It was, she calmly announced, a product placement novel sponsored by the Italian jewellery designer Bulgari. There were howls of indignation from the literary world, who accused her of selling out and compromising her integrity. She just shrugged and said, ‘Have I betrayed the sacred name of literature? Well, what the heck?’ And when another book, Big Women, about a feminist publishing house in the 1970s, was published four years ago, she caused a storm by making the rather non-feminist comment that rape is not the worst thing that can happen to a woman. ‘No,’ she says now in a soft, breathy voice. ‘These things stir themselves up, it’s not me. And I don’t think they help with sales. If you were more mysterious and difficult as an author people would feel they had to read your books.’

Did she find it therapeutic to write about her youthful follies, then? ‘Cathartic maybe, which I do not believe is therapeutic. Things are not made better if you face them. They are just reactivated. I’m all for denial. It’s a tried and tested survival mechanism.’ She examines her nails. ‘And yet if things happened in your life, you should put them in your autobiography – even if life is less believable than art. When you make things up in a novel people recognise themselves and try to sue you for using their lives. They assume everything they do is unique. Yet we all have much in common.’

I can’t believe that many people would have had marriages in common with hers. ‘I suppose my marriages were unusual,’ she says with a gentle laugh. She is now married to Nick Fox, a jazz musician and poet 15 years younger than her, who has popped his head – bushy eyebrows, clipped beard, a cigarette between his lips – around the door to say a friendly hello. They married days after she divorced Ron Weldon, her second husband, in 1994. Ron, a jazz musician and artist, had been in psychoanalysis for ten years before he met Fay and soon persuaded her to take it up as well. ‘Both Ron and I went to see our analysts twice a week so really there was no need to speak to each other,’ she recalls drily. The marriage came to a sudden end after 30 years when, Fay claims, Ron switched to an astrological therapist who told him that the couple had incompatible star signs. Eerily, on the day their divorce was finalised Ron died of a heart attack.

But her marriage to Ron was straightforward compared to her marriage to Ronald. In 1956 she married Ronald Bateman, a headmaster at a technical college in west London who was 25 years older than her. She was a bohemian single mother not long out of university (St Andrews, where she read economics and psychology) and needed a roof over her head. ‘Poor Ronald Bateman,’ she writes in Auto Da Fay, ‘[I] was a heartless, practical monster.’

‘But actually it wasn’t so unusual,’ she tells me. ‘Marrying for convenience happened a lot. Most girls who got pregnant had the baby adopted or they had a shotgun wedding. Or the girl’s mother pretended to be the mother, so the child grew up thinking her mother was her sister. Extraordinary the lengths people went to to be respectable. When I wrote about that episode I did have a reaction. I was filled with self-pity and did think, “Poor little thing. What a stupid child.”‘

She had decided, she says, to donate her sexual and domestic services in exchange for bed and board. Ronald Bateman didn’t want to consummate his marriage, though, he just wanted ‘wife and son’ on his cv. Instead he offered his wife to his friends, telling her if she wanted to find a lover he wouldn’t mind. A ‘mean-eyed’ stallholder in the market then offered her a pair of stockings in return for sexual favours; she told Bateman who then vetted the man. She arranged to meet the stallholder, found herself trapped in his front room, was stripped, humiliated and forced into ‘painful and unwanted’ sex. Then, while she wept, he gave her the stockings.

Is Ronald Bateman dead? ‘Yes.’

Phew, in a way. ‘Yes, but I felt bad because he isn’t around to put his side. It wasn’t really his fault. Almost nothing is anybody’s fault, you come to realise. Everybody thinks they are doing the right thing.’

I get the feeling from reading her memoirs that she is amoral, or at least a morally ambivalent person. Is this fair? ‘Morality tends to be what you can afford. It’s like when I was in advertising and refused to work on a tobacco account. Had I not been able to pay the rent at that time through writing I might not have made such a principled stand.’ She absent-mindedly plays with the beaded neck chain attached to the arms of her Armani spectacles, coiling it and uncoiling it on the table. She sighs. She frowns. ‘To do things to your own advantage and at someone else’s expense seems an offence to one’s own dignity, so better not do it. I think that is my position.’

What about when she accepted the silk stockings in return for sex? ‘They weren’t even silk, they were nylon!’ She gives a snuffly laugh. ‘That was just masochism.’ She had low self-esteem? ‘Of course I had low self-esteem! No, I had a labile sense of self-esteem, sometimes very low and sometimes very high. The masochism was deeply ingrained in my psyche, as it is in all women. That is where the pleasure lies.’ She stares out of the window. ‘I’m not going to bare my soul completely but, of course, I was depressed.’ One manifestation of this depression was her comfort eating – which later became the subject of her first novel, The Fat Woman’s Joke (1967).

‘I wasn’t happy because I felt I was wasting time,’ she explains. ‘I wasn’t cut out to be a suburban housewife in Acton.’

Was her self-worth affirmed by having sex with strangers? ‘Yes. Intimate congress with another human being is very reassuring. It makes you feel alive and worthy of their attention. It’s like a drug. Heroin addicts enjoy the pimples and the dirt and the syringes and the self-disgust. The debasement is part of it.’

Her father Frank, an English doctor with a practice in New Zealand, died of a stroke in 1947. She never mourned him properly, she tells me, and she thinks this may be why she always ended up marrying men who were, in different ways, like her father. ‘Yes, that’s right,’ she says, pronouncing her ‘r’s as ‘w’s. ‘No, no, that’s not right at all,’ she adds, demonstrating another verbal quirk, a tendency to instant self-contradiction. ‘I think I always married my mother. Women are supposed to marry their fathers but actually the temperament of those they marry tends to be more like that of their mothers.’

Fay’s mother is a redoubtable woman. Once, when she came across a poem that Fay had written as a teenage schoolgirl – revealing an innocent crush on another girl – she overreacted wildly and declared that she had always suspected her daughter was a lesbian. ‘I didn’t understand what she was talking about,’ Weldon recalls in her memoirs, ‘or how I had suddenly become so loathsome: to be a lesbian was something perverse and horrible, not just something you did but what you were as well. Next day, on the No 9 tram coming home from school, I contemplated suicide – wondered how to set about it.’

Was it the sort of suicide fantasy teenagers are prone to, or had she been serious? ‘Suicide has never seemed to me to be anything other than a rational response to the world,’ she says with an incongruously fluffy laugh. ‘It’s mad not to be suicidal if you have a sense of the futility of life.

I don’t think it was a romantic fantasy. Perhaps it was. I don’t think it was depression, though. It’s like everyone saying Sylvia Plath [who was a friend of Weldon’s] killed herself because she was depressed. She didn’t. She killed herself because she was unhappily in love. Somebody [Ted Hughes] had spurned her. This is unhappiness, but it’s not madness.’

Surely love is a species of madness? ‘True. And therapists would say love is neurotic dependency, but what do they know? You have a whole range of emotions: some are pleasant, some unpleasant, but you need them both because, if you dampen one, you dampen the other. My quarrel with therapists is that they want to iron out emotions, render everything down and leave you with a lot of soupy feel-good – and that is only half living.’

Her own family’s emotions were decidedly unironed. An aunt of Weldon’s (Faith, her mother’s sister) and her own sister Jane both spent time in lunatic asylums. Given the hereditary nature of some mental illnesses, did Weldon ever worry for her own sanity? ‘No, I never felt I was losing my mind. I was too practical. Yet other people worried. And I suppose I have worried myself about patterns of behaviour. Maybe I am just in denial.’ Smile. ‘When I was growing up, insanity was the great dark fear of the age. Speaking openly about madness was not fashionable. We were more superstitious about words. If you didn’t use them, they didn’t come true.’

It is often said of Fay Weldon that, in the 1970s, she was a leading light of the women’s liberation movement, though no one can quite remember why. A few years ago, when she had a book to promote – naturally – she caused a stir by saying that she had changed her mind about women, and men. They weren’t so bad after all? ‘Men became OK. My position was reasonable in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a patriarchy, and men did abuse their power and spend their time despising women. It was a dreadful and humiliating time to be a woman. You see it in extreme example in the Taliban – the basic male attitude was not that different. But as soon as women began to earn proper wages and could control their fertility through the pill it all changed. To blame men now seems to be foolish. Women now talk about men in the same language men used to talk about women. Their only defence is that men deserve it because they were so horrid to us in the past.’

Did her attitude to men also change because she is now happily married and she wasn’t then? ‘Yes, how could it not be?’ she asks airily. ‘Nevertheless, I think there is enough truth in my position for me to universalise it.’ Well, she’s never been afraid of doing that. ‘No, I haven’t.

I sometimes take extreme positions because I want to be argued with, to see whether my position is defensible. Instead, you often get dismissed with people saying, “Pish and tosh, who does she think she is?”‘

When debating on radio or television she can seem nonchalant to the point of woolliness, but also fearless. Is this an affectation? ‘In my personal life I shy from confrontation all the time. I can’t bear to have a cross word with anyone – which is rather foolish.’

But I have read that her husbands always complained she was too argumentative. ‘Yes, they did, they do. I don’t think I am, though. It seems to me I am just putting facts forward, and when people disagree with them, which they should do, then I moderate them.’

So is she just dressing up opinion as fact – which is a rather arrogant thing to do? ‘Entertaining,’ she corrects. ‘When I do get into trouble it’s because I have abandoned truth for the sake of a witty reply. I do talk more than most people so I am bound to have a higher percentage of foolish remarks, like poor George W Bush.’

Did her time working in advertising leave her feeling cynical, in the sense that she learnt how easy it is to get away with lying? ‘No, I believed every word of it. I’m very good at self-deception. I like the material world. I like the difference between one washing powder and another. I could enthuse about eggs because I thought they were rather wholesome beautiful things.’

There is something of the insouciant, easy-natured dilettante about Fay Weldon. She doesn’t believe in doing much research: if something feels right, she thinks, it probably is. When she worked as a television scriptwriter – for Upstairs, Downstairs among other things – she would submit a first draft, wait to be asked to make changes, do them, deliver them and when she was asked for yet more changes, as she knew she would be, she would deliver the first draft again: as that seemed somehow familiar, it would, she says, be accepted at once. She is moreover, by her own admission, in possession of low taste – very much a gold taps, kidney-shaped dressing-tables and country and western music person. In her autobiography she comes across as a strange mixture of laziness, decadence and frivolity, a capricious yet rackety intellectual who is easily bored. Is it a true account of her life?

‘We all delude ourself about ourselves. One paper [a mid-market tabloid] yesterday said I was “a heartless scheming bitch”. No, what was it? “A monster.” That’s OK. I can live with that. There is an element of total irresponsible frivolity to me. But that may just be my mother’s view of me.’

Her mother was her opposite, a serious woman? ‘Extremely!’

Would Fay Weldon like to be taken more seriously? ‘No, I wouldn’t survive. At all. So, really, my frivolity is a defence mechanism. My sister was the serious one. I was the youngest child who couldn’t do anything but charm and chatter on merrily.’

And, as we have seen, contradict herself without blushing. She will make reckless assertions only to laugh them off later and she has no real consistency of thought: she used to be a freethinker, but as of two years ago she is a regular churchgoer (C of E); she was once very pro-therapy, now she is very anti; for a long time she believed passionately in ghosts, now she dismisses them as mere projections; she still considers herself to be an old-fashioned socialist yet, by her pronouncements on the purity of advertising and her endless quest for book sales, it is obvious she has now reconstructed herself as a capitalist. ‘Of course,’ she says, another conversational trope. ‘Of course people are contradictory. I see no real virtue in consistency.’

An English teacher, a friend of a friend, once said she had a shallow personality: was he on to something? ‘No. Absolutely not. On the contrary. I think it was because I would just sit and smile sweetly under attack. I wouldn’t burst into tears or react. So they would just dismiss me.’ Does that make her manipulative? ‘Yes of course. I hope so.’ She purses her plump lips. ‘No. No, I do not try to manipulate or blackmail or put thoughts into people’s heads. No. I think I’d get on much better if I did. But I can’t concentrate for long enough. My mind keeps reverting to fiction.’

She coils her beads on the table again. ‘I think women who didn’t have father figures are bad at flirting and being manipulative because they never learned to use their fathers to do their mothers down. I was no good at competing. At the sign of any competition I left.’

As a child she once accused another child of throwing sweets at her and wept until a nurse came to comfort her. ‘I knew it was an accident but preferred to be miserable, for the sheer drama of it. Later in life I’d treat lovers and husbands this way. Taking offence and suffering – knowing in my heart that they aren’t to blame, that I just wanted a drama, my turn to be victim.’

Is she difficult to live with? ‘I do often go into a world of my own and my children do complain of that and bang the table and shout: “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.”‘

In 1996 her son Tom, then 27, was caught in possession of 15,000 Ecstasy tablets in Amsterdam. He was given a three-year prison sentence. Did she feel responsible? ‘Of course, I wonder whether I should have done this or that, but I didn’t and I couldn’t, and actually it worked out well. It did him a power of good. Prison works in Holland. They thought he was a genius. He started to paint and learn computer graphics, and came out and slipped benignly back into society. But, of course, you worry.’

She believes it is impossible to be a good writer and a good mother at the same time. ‘It is. Of course it is. And I would always be a good writer. I sometimes sent my children out in odd socks.’ She smiles. ‘Being a good mother is often a matter of public display. The Jungian view is that the child is born perfect and it is the mother who determines its character and, if it goes wrong, then it is the mother’s fault. This is a terrible burden and I can understand why the birth-rate among professional classes has fallen. Who would embark on such a task?’

Her novels tend to be dark satires on the battle of the sexes. There are few sympathetic men in them, indeed most of her male characters are callous and idle. ‘I started writing because I felt a female view of the world should be registered. I couldn’t relate to any of the heroines written by men: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and so on. I had not the slightest understanding of what Madame Bovary was about. I just thought, “Why couldn’t she have gone on having lovers?” I always thought there was something wrong with me, but it was the writers. Then I got good at writing novels and felt I had a duty to carry on. The fact that I am still trying to get it right more than 30 years later amounts to a failure, I suppose. But everything you do is a failure, in as much as it wasn’t what you set out to do.’

It is an unexpected comment, not least because this is a not a woman burdened by self-doubt. Perhaps it is a part of her ‘truth therapy’, perhaps it is just another example of her charming, frivolous mendacity. After all, she gives the appearance of candour but she clearly inhabits, as she puts it, ‘a world of her own’ – a fiction writer’s world.

It is time for the unserious Fay Weldon to visit her serious mother, who lives in a retirement home nearby. Her mother doesn’t come out of the autobiography in a particularly favourable light, I point out. Has she been given a copy of it to read yet? The author mouths the word, ‘No.’ A ghost of a smile. ‘Not yet. I’ve been rather putting it off.”‘


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.