Gone are the bloated and waxy features of the career inebriate; gone the grey beard, the lank and lifeless mullet, the shell suit, gone, all gone. Indeed, as George Best steps out of his dark-windowed Range Rover he looks lean, tanned and casual in black jeans and a black T-shirt. Sunglasses hang from his neck. At 55, the sculpture of his cheekbones, dimples and sulky lips is dramatic once more.
It’s lunchtime on a flat and sunless day in Belfast. Alex Best – blonde, lithe, 29 years old – is by her husband’s side and, as the couple enter the hotel where we’re meeting and walk through its Victorian-Gothic hallway, they acknowledge with nods and shy grins the guests who stare at them. George Best coughs raspily to clear his throat and, with a tight Ulster accent, orders a pot of tea. Alex says she’ll leave us to it and heads off to read a newspaper.
On closer inspection, I see a vestige of George Best’s former fashion sense – a gold bracelet – and I note the mysterious absence of laces in his lace-up shoes. I also see that his skin is not so much sun-tanned as sallow; that below those distinctively long and dark eyelashes the whites of his eyes are yellow; and that, presumably because chronic liver damage stops you absorbing protein, he is not so much trim as thin.
Whenever John Diamond was asked how he was feeling – and people always did ask – he would smile and answer, ‘I’ve got cancer.’ It seems a similarly daft question to ask Best, but I find myself asking it anyway. ‘I’m feeling good, thanks. Yeah. Really good. I’m starting to…’ He doesn’t finish the sentence. ‘The longest problem has been with jaundice. It’s been showing in my eyes a bit. Well, a lot. But the last couple of weeks it has started to clear up. You can try and help it along, but it decides when it goes.’
We are sitting by a window overlooking Belfast Loch. A ferry is sailing past on its way out to the Irish Sea. In 1961, when he was an ‘unbelievably skinny’ 15-year-old, George Best boarded a similar one. Matt Busby had invited him to join Manchester United as an apprentice after one of the club’s scouts had telegrammed from Northern Ireland: ‘I think I’ve found you a genius.’ Wee Georgie from the Cregagh Estate, as he was known, felt so homesick he returned to Belfast two days later.
A fortnight passed before he summoned the courage to go back to Old Trafford. There he remained for the next 11 years, scoring 137 goals, mesmerising the crowds with his repertoire of skills, becoming a pin-up, a superstar, a legend before abruptly, it seemed, announcing his retirement, two days before his 26th birthday. His team-mates weren’t that surprised. For some time, Best’s playboy life had been getting in the way of his football – he had been missing training sessions and even matches. The transition from heavy drinker to alcoholic followed swiftly. He came back from retirement every so often to play for any club, however lowly, that would pay him – Dunstable Town, Stockport and, for a year, the Los Angeles Aztecs. He gambled heavily, dated actresses, pop-singers and two Miss Worlds. In 1978 he married Angie Macdonald Janes, who was Cher’s personal fitness trainer, had a son, Calum, went bankrupt and, in 1984, after driving drunk and assaulting a police officer, spent two months of a three-month sentence in Pentonville Prison and Ford Open Prison (where the warders asked for his autograph). Angie grew tired of George’s drinking and philandering – in one furious row she stabbed him in a buttock with a carving knife – and, after eight years of marriage, the couple divorced. In 1990 Best appeared on Wogan as a giggly, boastful and, above all, pitiful drunk. In 1995 he married Alex, a public-school- educated air stewardess for Virgin Atlantic. The reception was held at a pub near Heathrow Airport, and one guest recalled that Alex’s parents ‘stood in the corner, looking shell-shocked’. In March last year George Best made the headlines again when he was rushed to the Cromwell Hospital, west London. He had barely eaten for ten days, drinking wine with brandy chasers for breakfast instead. He remained in hospital for six weeks and was told that his liver was so severely damaged one more drink could kill him. Four months later, after a row with Alex, he went on a binge and, according to news reports which he has since denied, was found at 7am lying on a bench in Battersea Park clutching a champagne bottle. In February this year he was diagnosed with bronchial pneumonia and admitted to Belfast City Hospital, where he was constantly disturbed by autograph hunters. When he got out he went on another binge, this one lasting for three days. He then took the drastic measure of having Antabuse pellets – which will make him violently sick if he touches alcohol — implanted in his stomach. So far they seem to have worked. The tea arrives, and Best pours it with a steady hand. ‘I found it hard not drinking at first,’ he says with a nervy smile, wide enough to show the boyish gap between his front teeth. ‘But the longer it goes the easier it gets.’ He gives a short, soft, sad chuckle, a tic of his. ‘This is probably the first time I haven’t felt like a drink, whereas before, when I’ve been getting better or recovering, I’ve always thought that at the end of it I would have a drink. I once went a whole year without booze and then, with the logic only an alcoholic could understand, I went out to celebrate with a bender. Even in AA meetings I would be looking at my watch wondering when they would end so I could get out and get the drinks in.’
He and Alex are here because, in October, the couple rented out their Chelsea flat and moved to a four-bedroom house on a hill overlooking the beach at Portavogie, near Belfast. Dickie Best, George’s 82-year-old father, still lives in Belfast – he was an iron-turner in the Harland & Wolff shipyard – indeed, he still lives in the same house, on the same Protestant estate where he has always lived. ‘Dad’s got himself a bird now,’ Best says. ‘His “lady friend” he calls her. He goes dancing once a week.’ Two of Best’s sisters live on the estate, too (he has two more sisters, and a younger brother who is in the Army). ‘My sisters have been, suuportive. They have never preached to me, even though one of them is very religious.’ Does he think, in retrospect, that perhaps they ought to have preached a little? ‘It wouldn’t have made any difference.’
When Best became ill last year strangers began offering him advice – and they haven’t stopped since. ‘It drives me nuts, to be honest. Most of them haven’t been through what I’ve been through, so how can they know how to help me?’ The soft chuckle again. ‘I’ve been told to try deep-sea diving, jumping off bridges, and eating a melon in the morning to stop the craving.’
Best believed he was almost indestructible. Given that he once went without food for 30 days, surviving on drink alone, and that, with the grandiosity of the true alcoholic, he will boast that he has outdrunk every hard drinker he has ever met, this seems an understandable delusion. But in 1998, he tells me, planned to commit suicide by taking a bottle of Nurofen tablets but didn’t go through with it because be couldn’t bear the thought of Alex finding him dead. ‘Yeah, when I’m on my own I do get depressed,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t last long, though, and things always look better in the morning. But when I was in hospital last year I did feel suicidal.’ If someone had offered him a cyanide pill, would he have taken it? ‘Yeah. The pain was dreadful, as though a knife was being twisted in my stomach. When Alex took me to hospital I couldn’t stand up, I couldn’t move. I was coughing up blood. And when I came out, for a long time I couldn’t do things like get out of the bath. When you’ve been fit for most of your life, that’s hard to deal with.’
Ann Best, George’s mother, drank herself to death in 1978. She had worked in a cigarette factory all her life and died at 54, almost the same age George is now, having turned to drink only ten years earlier. She is still a sensitive subject for her son. Although she could become vicious when drunk, she was, for the most part, a shy and private woman who felt threatened by her son’s fame and later notoriety. ‘She couldn’t handle it. Found it very difficult when strangers came up to her. My dad could fob them off – he found it easy to adjust. But my mum found it impossible. At first her death affected me terribly because I thought it was my fault. It’s a terrible thing, guilt.’ Why didn’t the shock of his mother’s death put him off alcohol? ‘Even then I didn’t know I had a problem as well.’ George Best’s fame meant he couldn’t see as much of his parents as he wanted to – whenever he came home to Belfast he would be mobbed. His sister Carol once said, ‘We always loved it when George came home but found it a relief when he went away again.’ Best shakes his head at the memory. ‘I tried to get them to move to England, but they didn’t want to leave home. My visits became a nightmare. We were just a normal, quiet family, and whenever I arrived that would be disrupted – people would be banging on the door, there would be cameras flashing, reporters shouting questions.’ In the 1960s George Best was often called the Fifth Beatle. He wore stripy flares and velvet Nehru jackets. He was pictured at parties surrounded by mini-skirted models, filling pyramids of champagne glasses from foaming bottles. He opened his own fashion boutiques and nightclubs, drove an E-Type Jaguar, was screamed at by teenage girls at airports, and employed three full-time secretaries just to answer his fan mail, as well as a hairdresser to blow-dry his hair. His dark hooded eyes, grooved chin and mischievous grin became framed by long sideburns and a mane of luxuriant black hair. On the field, he cultivated a distinctive look – socks rolled down, shirt untucked, face unshaven – at a time when footballers were still soberly turned out, on and off the pitch.
Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of manchester united, says of George Best that he was ‘unquestionably the greatest’. So do Pele and Maradona. And when you watch footage of George Best in his glory days – the two goals he scored in the first 12 minutes when Manchester United beat Benfica 5-1 away in 1966; the crucial second goal he scored in extra time when the team again beat Benfica two years later, this time 4-1 in the European Cup Final at Wembley; the six goals he scored in one match, against Northampton in 1970 – you can see why. His elasticity was freakish, his balance and control of the ball almost supernatural. One commentator compared him to a dark ghost because of the way he could start a shimmying run from the halfway line and glide past half a dozen men before gracefully sliding the ball into the net. The Manchester United midfielder Pat Crerand remarked that one of Best’s markers, Ken Shellito, had been turned inside out so often he was suffering from ‘twisted blood’.
Was Best’s skill down to hard work or does he think he was born with a gift? ‘I can’t analyse it. It was just natural, not something I ever had to work at. When I coach kids and they ask me how I did it, I can’t tell them. I cheat a little and say it is just hard work, but I know it’s not. Maybe I was blessed.’ He’s talking about genius, isn’t he? He takes a sip of tea before he answers flatly: ‘Yeah.’ On one level this is a remarkable boast, but from Best it sounds banal. George Best is an intelligent man. He has an IQ of 158 and was the only child in his class to pass his eleven-plus. But this ‘yeah’ is clearly, understandably, a tired answer to a question he has been asked far too many times. He has, after all, been told he is a genius so often that it seems unremarkable to him. Other players of his generation, such as Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, had great skill but you would hesitate before using the word ‘genius’ to describe them. The fact that Best combined his genius with glamour, as a well as a raft of all too human flaws, perhaps explains why he was deemed a superstar, and why his fame, unlike that of many of his sporting contemporaries, has lasted.
The years of being analysed by other people, as well as his own occasional attempts at self-examination, have left George Best with a singular lack of curiosity about himself. People who have known Best a long time often comment upon his detachment. He will become lost in his own thoughts; seem remote and self-contained, as though on autopilot. ‘Whatever I do,’ he has said. ‘I can always find a way to be there but not there.’ He doesn’t really want to know why he has been so self-destructive, he just accepts that he has been. Even so, he will trot out theories for you about how he was a lonely and introverted child who always played truant from school, and about how he always ran away from his problems, he will tell you, never confronted them. His nervousness about speaking in public was such that he would sometimes avoid having to make an after-dinner speech by climbing out of a lavatory window and running away. He even missed his own birthday party once, and his own wedding (Alex forgave him, and the couple were married a few weeks later). Shyness may be one explanation for his drinking. He also cites escapism, guilt and boredom. The boredom theory is the most convincing. Though he felt inspired on the pitch, he found football too easy and the routine of football life – the training, the team politics, the travelling – boring. Life after playing for Manchester United seemed like a dreary anticlimax to him. It must have been hard for him to adjust to normal life after the vertiginous heights he has scaled. ‘Well, that is why so many footballers struggle when they retire,’ Best says, taking a sip of tea. ‘Because they can’t replace it. You feel empty. I’ve never replaced it.’ Was it the applause he missed, the approval of the crowd? ‘Success I crave. Funnily enough, I teach my son the opposite. I tell him there is nothing wrong in coming second. But I don’t actually believe it.’
Best also became tired of seducing women, probably because he found that became too easy as well – in one night alone, he once told a tabloid reporter, he slept with seven. Does he think his promiscuity was a way of filling the vacuum left by football? ‘No, nothing ever comes close to scoring goals.’ Did sex become meaningless for him? ‘No, I was a normal healthy male and I enjoyed it as much as the next man. Well, I say the next man but nowadays you don’t know, do you?’ He grins. ‘It was still a challenge because woman didn’t always throw themselves at me. It could be the opposite of that – because of who you were, even if they wanted to, they wouldn’t.’ Did he keep count? ‘Nah. There was no way you could keep count. Well, I certainly didn’t, anyway.’
He never became bored with drinking, but did he really enjoy it? Did he like himself more as a drunk? ‘I can’t analyse it in those terms. It’s like, why can my dad go out with his pals for a drink and have two drinks and stop? Whereas someone like me has to stay out with his pals till three in the morning?’ Best’s wife says he did most of his drinking on his own. Was it that he feared facing reality again when the night ended? ‘No. I don’t know. There are no easy answers. I’ve tried everything – private sessions, meetings, pills. I’ve gone through it all. Alcoholics Anonymous might have worked for me if I had been anonymous, but I wasn’t. People kept asking for my autograph.’ Even a charitable assessment of George Best’s character would have to allow that he has been immature, self-centred, vain, bloody-minded and possibly cynical in the way that he has made a lot of money out of talking about his illness – ‘I use the press as much as it uses me,’ he says. But if he has behaved like a spoilt child at times, it is only because people have always spoilt him. And low self-esteem may be as much a part of his alcoholism as the lying, the stealing cash from handbags and the blackouts, but he never seems to have felt self-pity.
Meeting him is disconcerting because he is like a ghost from a different era. He is the man on the faded posters, in the history books, on the black-and-white television screens. It seems like a corruption of folk memory that he is still with us. I tell him that I remember singing songs about him on the bus on the way to primary school: ‘Georgie Best, superstar…’ He finishes it: ‘Walks like a woman and he wears a bra.’ He laughs and then starts coughing. ‘Hopefully those are two things I’ve never done.’ But he did once advertise a bra, didn’t he? ‘Yes.’ Grin. ‘Playtex. I’ve done everything. Aftershave, chewing gum, Spanish oranges, milk, Sausages…’
Why does he think his fame hasn’t faded? ‘Apart from the sporting side of it, I don’t think I’ve ever been’ Pause. ‘Nasty to anyone, or hurt anyone, except myself. I’ve never beaten anyone up or molested somebody. I just got drunk!’ It’s not quite true. In a fit of jealousy he once dangled a girlfriend from a third-storey window, and he was once found guilty of hitting a woman in a nightclub (she was drunk and abusive and ended up with a hairline fracture of the nose). His wife Alex has also said that while he is loveable most of the time, he can have a Jekyll and Hyde personality when drunk, becoming vindictive and even violent. Isn’t this the case? ‘Well, drink does change your character. Aggressive people become subdued and subdued people become aggressive. But I only ever got aggressive with people who were aggressive with me.’
There is a story that George Best tells when he is giving an after- dinner speech. One night, while out with his girlfriend Mary Stavin, who was Miss World 1977, he won £15,000 in a casino. Later, in his room, with his girlfriend down to her underwear and the notes spread on the bed like a counterpane, he rang room service and ordered a bottle of champagne. When the waiter arrived he looked at the money and the semi-naked Miss World sprawled on the bed, shook his head and said: ‘Where did it all go wrong, George?’ At the time the waiter was making a good joke. But later… Where did it all go wrong, George? ‘Well, people still think I’m struggling, apart from the illness. People think I’m begging and going out and doing things for money, well, I don’t have to. I don’t have to work again for the rest of my life if I don’t want to. I do it because I don’t want to get bored.’
The Antabuse pellets only last for three months at a time and this is the fourth time George Best has tried them since 1981. Though he doesn’t drink at the moment, he says he cannot imagine going the rest of his life without another drink. ‘I’ve started sketching again,’ he says, changing the subject. ‘Alex and I are talking about moving to the sun somewhere. It would be nice to sit and paint. I could knock ’em out. I could sell them for 100 quid a go because they would have my signature on them.’ I point out that he could probably charge more, given that his first pair of football boots are now thought to be worth at least £50,000. He smiles. ‘The boots and the medals and so on are for Alex and Calum. Eventually. That will be their legacy. But they are not going anywhere yet. They are stuck in a bank. I often thought about selling them but I know what people would say.’
Alex rejoins us. They are planning to have children, she says. ‘For the moment though we have an 18-month-old red setter as a child substitute.’ George touches her hand. ‘We’d love to have children,’ he says. ‘But that’ll be, well, we’ve decided that that is for when I get fit again.’ With this he stands up to leave, and a hotel guest, who has clearly been waiting for his moment, approaches and asks for an autograph.


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.