Your first impressions upon entering Lord Weidenfeld’s stately Chelsea apartment are puzzling – but not contradictory. A butler greets you at the door and as he takes your coat you can’t help noticing the erotic art hanging on the wall. It is by Klimt. Of naked women. In lascivious poses. With pubic hair. The butler leads you from the hall to the airy, book-lined study, which looks more like the smoking room of a gentlemen’s club. There is an ornate marble fireplace with brass and leather fender, fresh flowers on the table and, from the window, a view over the Thames to the pagoda in Battersea Park. Your eye is drawn from this to the forbidding portraits from the 16th and 17th centuries. Of popes.
The man I am about to meet is defined by these unlikely contrasts – bohemia and grandeur, pornography and power. He is dignified, formal and courteous. Indeed, he has the courtly manners and discreet civility of an old-world Viennese gentleman – he even fought a duel once. He is also the man who published Lolita, which is still considered, even 40 years on, to be one of the most sexually corrupting novels in the English language. With his four marriages – and what he once described as his ‘casual infidelities’ – he is a famed seducer of women. He is also a legendary giver of parties, at which the likes of Henry Kissinger might be seen clinking champagne flutes with Bianca Jagger or Martin Amis.
Lord Weidenfeld is the next thing you notice in the room. Sitting in a reddy-brown leather armchair in the corner he is almost camouflaged. He wears a well-tailored brown suit with a brown patterned Herms tie, brown shoes and brown socks pulled well up over slim ankles and calves. His skin is sallow, liver-spotted in places and he has brown, rheumy, bulging eyes. It is 9.30 in the morning. He looks well breakfasted. Probably had brown bread. Silently he rises from his chair, bows his head slightly and proffers his hand. He is not tall but he has considerable presence. The cataract operation he had 24 hours earlier is dismissed with a shrug. ‘I had to wear an eye patch for an hour,’ he says in a precise yet softly lisping Austrian accent. ‘But I am fine now. Thank you. Would you care to sit down?’ He indicates an upright chair a good ten feet from his. I notice on the table next to him a copy of the day’s Die Welt, the German broadsheet, open at his regular column. The byline is Von Lord Weidenfeld.
It reminds you of the other contrasts in his life. He is a Jewish immigrant who escaped persecution by the Nazis only to be honoured in later life by the Germans for services to their reunification. He is a Zionist who specialises in Nazi memoirs and who is, in his own words, a walking card index of the Third Reich. His friends include Helmut Kohl, Placido Domingo and Pope John Paul II. He managed to be chief-of-staff to the first prime minister of Israel for a year, as well as a member of Harold Wilson’s kitchen cabinet, and even now, in his 80th year, he has the ear of Ehud Barak, the new prime minister of Israel, as well as a number of New Labour Cabinet ministers. Eyebrows were raised when, just after the 1997 election, Peter Mandelson left a Weidenfeld dinner party early to go to Downing Street. Sir Nico Henderson remarked: ‘Not even Kissinger or De Gaulle leaves one of Weidenfeld’s grand dinners before the end.’ Lord Weidenfeld will be 80 tomorrow. There will, of course, be a party. ‘My friends in Germany and Israel also want to do something,’ he says, leaning forward and causing the armchair leather to creak. ‘So it will be like a birthday season, I think. It coincides with the 50th birthday of the firm [Weidenfeld & Nicolson]. We celebrated our first list in 1949 at Brown’s Hotel, and I keep thinking of all the people who were there who are no longer with us. Members of the Bloomsbury Set and the Gargoyle Club. The politicians of the time. The anniversary will have many memories.’
When celebrations and eye operations allow, Lord Weidenfeld keeps a schedule that would exhaust a man half his age. Already this year he has made 40 foreign trips; giving lectures; organising conferences between senior politicians in his Club of Three – Britain, Germany and France – an initiative designed to build bridges between these countries; setting up meetings for another of his forums, the German-Jewish Dialogue; working on his project to link six of Europe’s most distinguished universities with Oxford, in order that they work together in the field of European affairs.
The importance he attaches to solving great problems by encouraging great men to sit down and discuss great ideas is admirable – it’s very Enlightenment, very 18th-century, very Voltaire – but it can also look, in a certain light, a bit like social climbing. Where does he find the energy? ‘Well, the extraordinary thing is this: if you have the right state of mind, travelling can be calming. Not at all tiring. Barring delays in airports, and traffic jams in the holiday season, a foreign trip that is well prepared allows plenty of time for leisure, theatre and talking to friends. And you have hours on a plane where you can read and think undisturbed.’ Given that he seems to spend half his time in the air, it is safe to assume he has no fear of flying. ‘No fear at all. I’ve always been fatalistic about accidents. During the War, I did most of my reading during air raids. I couldn’t be bothered to run for the shelter. It was not a question of bravery or virtue, it was sluggishness.’ He says he has no real fear of death. ‘Not really, but then I don’t like to face the question in a detailed way. And I suppose people my age should. But I plan and predict and every so often I think, good God, delivery of manuscript in 2007! That’s a long way off. Am I going to see it?’
Weidenfeld was born in Vienna in 1919, an only child, part of a Jewish rabbinical aristocracy that dated back centuries on his mother’s side. His boyhood was spent in the company of adults, reciting Ovid every evening and listening to Wagner. Max Weidenfeld, his father, was an insurance agent who yearned to be a classics don. Max was also a Don Quixote figure, according to his son, always painting glowing pictures of his son’s future. ‘Temperamentally I aligned myself with him, sharing my father’s sense of fantasy. I grew up in a sort of hall of mirrors.’ It was generally thought that his father had a long extra-marital liaison with a good-looking blonde. His mother suffered the triangular situation and never showed her feelings. George, or Arthur as he was then known, seems to have been unaffected by this, at least in his youth.
He began studying law at the University of Vienna and, concurrently, at the city’s diplomacy college. It was at university that he learnt his skills as a womaniser – from a medical student who had a clinical detachment, an attitude more heartless than callous, which both impressed and disturbed the young Arthur. It was also here that he fought a duel to establish his credentials as a gentleman. As was the protocol of his Zionist fraternity, he approached a Nazi student and told him his shoe-laces were undone. Realising it was a hoax, the Nazi accused him of impertinence and demanded that their seconds meet. They bowed at each other stiffly. The Nazi’s seconds refused to give Weidenfeld satisfaction because he was a non-Aryan, so he had to proceed to the next degree of insult. He sought out the Nazi while he was dining in public and called him a coward. The duel took place, Weidenfeld sustained a few minor cuts and the honour of his fraternity was served.
This took place a week before the Anschluss. Five months later, in August 1938, Weidenfeld fled, arriving in London, via Zurich and Paris, with a small suitcase and a postal order for 16 shillings and sixpence. ‘The taxi driver took me to the wrong address for the boarding house – because he had mistaken an “o” for an “a” – and I ended up at a palatial house in Belgrave Square. The butler came out, looked me up and down and said there must be some mistake. He looked at the address and said, [It’s Belgrove, my dear fellow, King’s Cross.” The house belonged to Sir Henry Channon [“Chips” Channon, the Conservative politician].’
Arthur Weidenfeld soon found himself a job at the BBC, first in the monitoring service, then as a diplomatic correspondent reporting – under the name George Weiden because it was considered easier on English ears – about occupied Europe. In the evenings he would sit in the Waldorf opposite the BBC, and study the English rich, learning their manners, such as always arriving three minutes late for an appointment. Soon, the young Weidenfeld was being invited to join them. Once, when asked to tea at the house of a well-known landed family, the hostess said insouciantly: ‘I hear you come from Germany. Did you know the Goerings?’ Amazed at her naivety, Weidenfeld muttered something about having lived in Vienna, while the Goerings were rather busy in Berlin.
When I ask what advice he would give his 19-year-old self if he met him now, Lord Weidenfeld looks up at the ceiling and says: ‘Well, if I could live my life a second time I probably couldn’t avoid making certain mistakes again. I would have liked to have had a more conventional, more tutored education, though. I had to do so much extra learning myself because I couldn’t finish my university studies in Vienna. I wish I had in those days a more omnivorous appetite for acquiring learning, as oppose to socialising. Intellectual curiosity brings enthusiasm. But I also avoided drudgery and my high entry point into publishing gave me opportunities to enter into friendships with great galleon figures of English intellectual life: Ayer, Toynbee, Spender, Berlin.’
In 1948, he co-founded the Weidenfeld & Nicolson publishing house and, although he sold his shares for several million pounds in 1991, he remains chairman of the company. He describes his business partner Nigel Nicolson – son of Harold – as a great believer in friendship and loyalty and a true English romantic, who was always much more interested in quality than financial success. Among their earliest books was one about the coal industry by a young graduate called Harold Wilson. They were also the first to publish Antonia Fraser and Margaret Drabble.
Although there was a residual anti-semitism in Britain at the time of his immigration here, Lord Weidenfeld recalls, it was fairly harmless. ‘There was a strong sympathy of the upper classes for Nazism but, with the exception of such excretions as Unity Mitford, it was mostly mild. There were people who went to the Olympic Games and liked the German manliness but it was partly unthinking and they did it to shock bourgeois consciousness.’
Even so, he found it fairly easy in England to fit in. His father, who was imprisoned by the Nazis for a year, found it more difficult to adapt. The escape from Austria of Max and Rosa Weidenfeld was arranged from England by their son. ‘There was a role reversal with my father but I don’t think he found it humiliating. It was more a subtle transformation so that I became the father and he the child. I became the head of the family, taking care of my parents who couldn’t find their way in an alien land.’
On his death-bed in 1967 Max Weidenfeld began a letter to his son but never finished it. It read: ‘Whatever I may have done or failed to do for you, at least I tried to give you a sunny youth… ‘ I ask Lord Weidenfeld if he feels he, like his father, has any unfinished business. ‘Oh, I have an enormous amount of unfinished business. But I hope that it will be finished by others. At the moment I am hyperactive, I constantly take on new things.’ I point out that, actually, I meant unfinished more in terms of his emotional life, you know, his, um, relationships. He pauses to reflect. There is much to reflect upon. In 1952, Weidenfeld married Jane Sieff, the niece of one of the founders of Marks & Spencer, and they soon had a daughter, Laura. Jane left him for another man in 1954 saying that George’s work had come between them and that she couldn’t stand, ‘another breakfast with Trevor-Roper’. In 1956 he married again, to the statuesque bohemian Barbara Skelton. He had fallen in love with her while she was still married to his friend, literary journalist Cyril Connolly. Skelton wrote in her diary that she was obsessed with Weidenfeld sexually, especially with his fleshy, extravagantly hirsute body. In his autobiography, Remembering My Good Friends (1994), Lord Weidenfeld recalls how, soon after they met, Skelton invited him over to breakfast. He found her wearing a fur-lined jacket over pyjamas. She ordered tea. It was brought. ‘The moment the waiter left the room our love affair began.’ Some love affair: on their honeymoon he put to her the suggestion that she should release him without financial obligation after three years. In her memoirs Skelton was unkind about Weidenfeld. She described him as a magnetic but trivial man solely devoted to worldly values. She found his obsession with his work chilling. ‘Gush gush,’ he would whisper as she lounged sulkily at the head of a star-studded dinner table. ‘You simply must be more gushing.’
Their conjugal life, Weidenfeld recalls in his memoirs, was a disaster from the outset. ‘To my horror, Barbara imported a cat to Chester Square and hired a drunken butler who left taking all my shirts with him.’ The marriage was soon dissolved and she returned to Connolly. Weidenfeld’s third marriage was to a wealthy American, Sandra Payson Meyer. She, too, couldn’t stand the parties every night. Finally, in 1992, he married Annabelle Whitestone, a tall, blonde English Valkyrie, 25 years his junior, who was previously the consort of an even older Jewish man, the late Polish pianist Artur Rubenstein. ‘I might have made wrong choices or persuaded others to make wrong choices,’ Lord Weidenfeld reflects. ‘I am incredibly fortunate now – having not been incredibly fortunate in former marriages – to have found someone with whom I am very happy and fulfilled. Without wishing to sound sentimental this is the culmination of my life. The happiest period. To a large extent through this relationship. And I have a very good relationship with my daughter and grandchildren. They give me an enormous amount of pleasure and virtually no pain. Various elements in my life have been harmonised and I have few regrets. I am content.’
One way in which Lord Weidenfeld feels his life has been harmonised concerns his Jewish identity. Though he is an agnostic, he regards the survival of the Jewish people as being the central leitmotif of his life – and the founding of the state of Israel as being the most important event in the 20th century. ‘We have now reached a tremendous turning point for two reasons. Anti-semitism has been deprived of its two roots, homelessness and Christicide. First, the Jewish state has been consolidated into a critical mass of six million people. This is an irreversible fact of life. It gives a refuge and a chance for Jews, wherever they may be,to have a passport. This means that the icon of the wandering Jew no longer exists. Second, this Pope has now said that anti-semitism is a sin. He has said that the Jew is the elder brother of the Church. He has absolved the Jew of responsibility for the death of Christ. So all that remains of anti-semitism is a mild form of secondary xenophobia.’
In his autobiography, Long Life, Nigel Nicolson writes that Weidenfeld loves England. ‘Although I came to think that his spiritual home was Israel or the United States… I still have to think which nation he is referring to when he says “we”.’ So where do Lord Weidenfeld’s loyalties lie? ‘I am preoccupied with ideas of multiple identity and multiple loyalty,’ he says. ‘I have spent most of my time, and I hope this doesn’t sound too pompous, on bridge-building operations between Christians and Jews, Jews and Germans. My loyalties are not divided. They are cohesive. I think of myself as a British European Jew.’
But, come the day, where would he like to be buried?  Surely it must be Israel? ‘As you know, I don’t think much about death.’ A smile. ‘I would be very happy to be buried there. If there is room on the Mount of Olives, certainly. But my answer can’t be emphatic because I haven’t really considered it.’ Weidenfeld is an incurable optimist. He believes we have to be positive about Europe, and especially about the Germans. He recently attacked a British journalist for writing, ‘Admit it, we all hate the Germans.’
But if he doesn’t hate the present generation of Germans, surely he must hate the Jew-hating generation that was in power in the Thirties and Forties? ‘I hated the Nazi regime,’ he says. ‘I never hated the German past or German culture. I never hated Richard Wagner. I feel very happy with the present and the last generation of Germans who, as Helmut Kohl put it, have the great mercy of late birth. But if I were a Freudian, I would say the British have an almost erotic relationship with the Germans. Underneath all the hatred, they mean a great deal to us. We need them.’
For all his old man’s sweetness and his still youthful enthusiasm, impulsiveness and profligacy, Weidenfeld must have been, in his day, a pretty sharp operator. Nigel Nicolson notes: ‘He had greater resilience than me, an acuter mind, more daring… a gift for persuasion both in business and in friendship. In extremis he was a great fighter.’ Another friend describes to me Lord Weidenfeld’s incredible ability to look bored. ‘He sometimes has a look of utter tedium on his face and this makes people shrivel before him. But he is essentially a social animal. It doesn’t matter where he is, in a Vienna airport, a Manhattan apartment or the English countryside, his only landscape is human.’
A number of Weidenfeld’s achievements in business may have been facilitated, then, by his gift for manipulation – call it charm, call it social skill, call it conviviality. One friend recalls how, at his parties, he will grab you by both wrists as he talks intensely to you, then, the second he sees someone more interesting come in, he uses the grip to push you away, sending you spinning across the room. ‘Yet somehow,’ the friend adds affectionately, ‘one never minds.’
Weidenfeld really does know how to win you over, how to impress upon you his power and potency. It’s the erotic art and the papal portraits again. And, in what must now be self-parody, he really does offer just about everyone he meets a commission to write a book. It makes you wonder if there is a whole department at Weidenfeld & Nicolson devoted to fending off would-be authors that its chairman has recommended. Is the benign manner, the friendliness, something he can’t help then, or is it a more conscious affectation? ‘I like to be liked,’ Weidenfeld says. ‘A lot of people I have sneaking respect for don’t care, but I do. And it makes me a little vulnerable. But I also like to understand what is in the mind of a political opponent or a person who has done me wrong. At the same time I am consistent in people I disapprove of. Sometimes I show it, sometimes I don’t. There are certain people I would never have anything to do with, nor ever have. I’m not a great hater but I don’t approve of the Murdoch press. I think he has debased the British press. He has cheapened it and encouraged intolerance and prejudice.’
Lord Weidenfeld’s daughter, Laura, also speaks of his vulnerability. She says that all he really wants is acceptance. I would add that, for all his self-deprecation, he also makes himself vulnerable by wanting so desperately to be taken seriously. Not mocked, or thought trivial, or vain. Which is something of a paradox, really, because I suspect that part of his appeal with men has been that they find his earnestness endearing. How sweet, for instance, that he calls his autobiography Remembering My Good Friends. It’s a quote from Richard II. But unfortunately it sounds like one from Hello!. And with women, the attraction has been that, though he is clearly a survivor, they think him slightly hopeless: a brilliant man who needs looking after, who cannot drive a car, make coffee or work a video machine. They want to mother him.


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.