Before I meet Gerald Ratner I meet his wife Moira. She is in their kitchen, wearing sportsgear, on her way to pilates. The couple live in an Edwardian house with electric gates on the outskirts of Bray, Berkshire. It’s not the sort of grand house they once lived in — ‘The house that crap built’ as the Sun rather cruelly called it — but it is comfortable, and big enough to have a tennis court. That is where he is now, with our photographer. Just wrapping up.
I tell her that a friend of mine heard her husband give a speech recently on the rise and fall and rise again of Gerald Ratner, and thought him not only funny but engaging. ‘Oh,’ she says, in a deadpan voice. ‘I think you’ll find he’s pretty unengaging in person.’
I like him already, and her.
The ‘rise again’, it should be explained, relates to his on-line jewellery business We shall come to that. For now it is worth noting that, at its peak in 1991, the Ratners jewellery chain had a turnover of £1.5bn, with profits of £125m, from 2,500 shops in Britain and America. He had taken over the company from his father seven years earlier — when there had been 100 shops, most of which were making a loss — and had expanded rapidly, swallowing up the opposition, including H Samuel and Ernest Jones, to become the most successful jewellery business in the world.
Then came his infamous — and much misquoted — speech to the Institute of Directors at the Royal Albert Hall, the one in which he joked that the reason his cheapest sherry decanter was so cheap — £4.95 — was that it was ‘crap’. He had told the joke in public several times before — it had even been reported in the Financial Times several months earlier — and, because it always got a laugh, he thought that the line would be the perfect way to lighten what was to be a heavy speech about the business and the economy. But by the time it was reported in the tabloids the next day the quote had turned into him saying that all his jewellery was crap. Overnight, Ratners had become, to quote another Sun headline, ‘Crapners’. The Mirror’s front page informed its readers that they had been taken for “22 carat gold mugs”.
The company unravelled with astonishing speed. Women no longer wanted to wear jewellery that came in a Ratners’ box, however cheap it was. Shares plummeted. Within 18 months, Gerald Ratner was not only out of a job but broke, and broken. Gone was the yacht, the helicopter, and the chauffer-driven company cars, including a Rolls Royce and a Bentley. Both his town and country house had to be sold. He even lost his family name — the people who took over his company wouldn’t allow him to trade under the name Ratner in future business projects.
When Gerald Ratner saunters into his kitchen now, the photographs done, he does indeed seem a little disengaged, with a resigned, Eeyore-ish manner and a delivery even more deadpan than that of his wife. But there is a friendly openness about him that is disarming, and a certain vulnerability, too. Like Uncle Tom in PG Wodehouse, he has the look of a pterodactyl with a secret sorrow. But not that secret…
He takes off his tie, opens the collar of his lilac shirt, and leads the way into his sitting room. ‘My eldest daughter Suzy,’ he says, when he notices me noticing a framed photograph of an attractive young woman. ‘She works on The X-Factor. A producer. I never watch the show on principle, because I’m a music snob.’ It seems the habit of saying what he thinks, however tactless, dies hard. ‘I tend to listen to new Indie bands, which I download from iTunes. I keep telling my wife the stuff she has on her iPod is abject. There is no excuse for Westlife.’
If there was vanity once, it seems to have gone now. ‘Back in the old days someone took my photograph from below and it made my already big nose look twice as big, which I wasn’t keen on, but now I don’t care how I’m photographed. Your photographer asked me to lie down on a bench, which I would never have agreed to back then.’
Yet he did pose for that ironic — and now iconic — photograph in which he held a toy gun to his head, shortly after he became the author of his own downfall in 1991. ‘Yes, I felt cursed by that because it kept being used whenever there was a story about me in the papers. I only agreed to it because Kelvin MacKenzie, who was then editor of the Sun, said they would be more positive and lay off me if I apologised to my customers. So I played the game, and it didn’t work.’
Did he feel he was going mad? ‘It was like being in a Greek tragedy. I remember walking in Hyde Park with the dog, and there had been stories about the collapse of the company in the Sunday papers that day, and I was thinking: “This is horrendous. How could it go from the crest of wave to this in such a short space of time? How did I ever let this happen?” I was cursing myself. That was when it hit me. Up until then I thought I would get through it.’
He went to see the banks to try and find a way of rescuing the company, but he soon realised that there was an elephant in the room. ‘And the elephant was me! No one would mention the fact that I was the problem. Eventually someone did and said that I was the one who had brought all this bad publicity on the company. What could be done about it? I said there was nothing that could be done because, for the press, this story ticked all the boxes and wouldn’t go away. I mean, they only stopped picking on Jade Goody when she got cancer. Then she was popular again.’
Actually, Ratner was told he might have cancer around that time. He had an emergency operation to remove a suspected tumour from the roof of his mouth and, at that point, felt so low he considered killing himself. ‘Jewellery was all I knew. The only thing I was in interested in. Losing my family company was like loosing a child, God forbid. I suppose I become inward looking and self-absorbed but I was also as miserable as hell and there was one day when I was walking around a shopping mall that I thought, well, if it had been on the second floor, who knows? I thought of my father and grandfather building up the business only for me to destroy it. I thought of my kids growing up being called Crapner for the rest of their lives, and I just thought: “It can’t get any worse than this.” It was probably the lowest point in my life. But as Joan Rivers said, suicide is so Eighties.’
It is an odd subject for him to make light about, given that when he was 19 his sister Juliet killed herself. A defence mechanism, perhaps. ‘Religion has a lot to answer for,’ he explains. ‘I still have an affection for it and I have started going to synagogue again because it’s my roots, but Jews don’t welcome non-Jews into their family. They have this ghetto mentality. My parents certainly did. They disapproved of my sister’s boyfriend because he wasn’t Jewish and when they drove him away she became depressed and eventually took a fatal overdose.’
His parents were certainly domineering to their children. He had what amounted to an arranged first marriage the following year, with his parents buying the engagement ring and giving it to his first wife before he had a chance to propose himself. The marriage didn’t last. They had two children then got divorced. ‘I think because of what happened with Juliet, my parents were going to the other extreme of not standing in the way with me.’
His father died of the hospital superbug MRSA shortly after Gerald Ratner had re-made some of his fortune in 2001, so that was a blessing of sorts. But his mother died right at the height of the ‘Crapner’ episode, just as he was having his cancer scare.
A dark period followed in which he sank further into depression. Saw therapists. Stayed in bed all day. ‘I felt everything was against me. I did take some pills. A type of Prozac. And that was a terrible mistake because I needed to get back on my feet and you can’t do that if you are feeling half asleep. I did a lot of damage in that state because I was meeting people and not making a good impression.’
Did he confide in his wife, as well as his therapists? ‘Well I was in a bit of denial for a while, so I probably didn’t talk to my wife as much as I should of done. I was hoping it would go away and everything would be back to normal. I suppose there was an element of pride in it too.’
He found therapy, meanwhile, a fairly pointless exercise. ‘I went to see one shrink and I was the only one in the clinic apart from the actress Charlotte Rampling, so that was a nice experience, even though I was quite drugged up. She said it was all-wrong that the press had driven me to that clinic.’ The shrink didn’t cheer him up particularly. ‘One I saw just kept saying ‘OK’ and left me to do all the talking. Another one did give me one good tip. He said the man who has 2000 shops is no happier than a man who has one shop, and that helped because I realised that material things were not that important, that it was all about self-gratification.’
Talking of materialism, why did he buy a Bentley when he made some money again? ‘I thought if I got a Bentley again it would be a way of proving to myself that I had made a come back. But I’m over that now. I sold it last month because I realised how ridiculous I was being. That’s the old Gerald. It’s not me anymore. I guess I wanted to prove to everyone that I could still have it.’
The removal of his chauffer when his own company fired him in 1992 was, he felt, a particularly gratuitous insult. ‘And I wasn’t equipped to deal with it. I drove myself home that day through pouring rain and nearly ran out of petrol. I found a garage just in time, and as I pulled up to the pump I realised I didn’t know what side the petrol cap was on: the chauffeur had always filled up. After a bit of fiddling around, I eventually got the petrol cap off, but it had been years since I’d used a pump and I only succeeded in covering myself in petrol. I must confess, I actually found myself in tears at that point.’
This black dog lasted for about seven years. ‘In all that time I didn’t have a sense of humour about what had happened at all, because it was quite serious and meant all my staff — we had 27,000 — might lose their jobs. I resented what had happened because I had become known for one thing only, and that thing was stupid and negative.’
He became obsessed with fitness, especially cycling, and he still clocks up 28 miles a day. ‘Cycling beats the depression and makes your mind much more alert. I get my best ideas cycling. I’m totally addicted to it now. When I’m not cycling I go mad. Whatever the weather I have to cycle.’
He also started doing public speaking and found that when he made jokes at his own expense, the audience really warmed to him. ‘My delivery is quite deadpan, I suppose. Moira is right; I come across as quite dour and hang dog, so no one expects jokes. I think they laugh because they have such low expectations of me.’ People often come up to him after his speeches and say how much they enjoyed them. ‘They also admit that when they heard it would be me they thought it would be a miserable person feeling sorry for himself. Some people say: “You really cheered me because your situation was worse than mine.” I suppose there is an element of schadenfreude to it.’
But if his audiences come away feeling better about themselves, that is as nothing to how his after dinner speeches make him feel. ‘I do find them quite cathartic. I should point out though that if I’m self-deprecating in these speeches, it’s only because I’ve got a lot to be self-deprecating about.’
Boom, boom. Does he ever think his ordeal by tabloid might have been a positive experience, in that it has given him a form of immortality? After all, ‘doing a Ratner’, has entered the language as a synonym for being the author of your own downfall. ‘I know what you mean. In those lists of History’s Worst Decisions, I always come top, ahead of Nero allowing Rome to burn and the guy who failed to install a Tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean.’ He rubs the back of his neck. ‘I was doing a speech at a university in the Midlands and a professor came up and said: “Do you realise you will be remembered 500 years after you die for this?” And I said: “I knew it would be with me till I die but I was hoping that would be an end of it.” It is a fact that people know me for that. I was in the Isle of Man not long ago and a taxi driver just said out of the blue: “Why did you say it?” It is extraordinary. I don’t know why it stuck, yet here we are talking about it 19 years later.’
Actually, he is being self-effacing again, because the story of his come-back will also surely feature in the obituaries. After seven years of feeling sorry for himself and, as he puts it, ‘watching too much Countdown’, he decided that the best therapy would be to start again. Realising how therapeutic he had found his cycling, in 1997 he decided to open an upmarket gym, converting a warehouse in Henley. Because no investors would go near him, he hit upon the idea of selling membership for the gym before it was even built. By 2001 it was making £75,000 a year and he was able to sell it for £3.9 million. With the money he bought himself this house, and that Bentley. He also set up his on-line jewellery business, which now has annual sales of around £25 million. Ratner says his best days are Mondays when customers have been round the shops, seen what they want, and then go online to buy it cheaper.
‘The gym was the stepping-stone and I did it with no money, selling membership in advance for a non-existent club. It was a great way of market testing something without any risk. Now with Geraldonline I am trying to manufacture products after we have sold them, because they are so quick making them for us in India.’
Has this enterprise given him almost more pleasure than Ratners, given that this has been his baby from the start, rather than something passed down to him? ‘I was happier sitting in the portacabin in the site for that gym than I was in Ratners’ huge, lavish office on Stratton Street. I felt I was really achieving something. I’d had my success taken away from me and so to get it back I really appreciated it. As Joni Mitchell sang, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone.’
Now that he can run his business ‘from a deckchair in Southend’, he finds it a bit soulless though. ‘I’m stuck in front of a computer all day. That’s why I love doing the speeches because it means I meet people. I miss that from Ratners. My trouble is, I spend too much on the Internet when I’m bored. Buying cycling stuff. And one-clicking on ITunes. Looking out for new bands.’
He may get bored and restless from time to time but he does seem comfortable in his skin these days and reconciled to his peculiar fate. A couple of years ago he even published a memoir,  The Rise and Fall… and Rise Again, which he found a therapeutic exercise.  ‘Because I’ve made some sort of a come back I can put my head above the parapet now.  I didn’t want to write that book before because my story didn’t have a happy ending.’
It is time to wind up, so before I go I feel I ought to ask my Mrs Merton style question: So, Gerald Ratner, any regrets? He has the good grace to laugh. ‘What do you think!’
OK, here’s another one, why was his jewellery so cheap? ‘Actually that is a good question. I only achieved the success I had back then because the jewellery business was so conservative and traditional. Like they wouldn’t have prices in the window, which was crazy. I came up with the idea of having one price for everything on a display. But the reason we could be so cheap was that we cut the margin, bought in bulk and used gold that wasn’t of the highest carat. It was a simple formula and other jewellers hadn’t thought to do it because they considered it beneath them.’
Gerald Ratner has acquired a degree of composure these days, it seems. The only thing that annoys him now is if the press call him hapless, as one tabloid did a few week ago, when making an analogy. ‘Such lazy journalism,’ he says with a shake of the head. A final question then. What has he learned from his extraordinary experience? ‘That there is a certain kind of peace that comes with accepting bad luck.’ Pause. ‘It was Noel Coward who said that the secret of success is the capacity to manage failure, and I have managed to be successful two or three times now, despite making that dreadful mistake.’
There is something else he has learned of course, that the only way to stop it hurting when people laugh at you is to laugh at yourself. They are making Gerald Ratner the Musical, he tells me with a grin. ‘Simon Nye is writing the music and the BBC have put money into it. I’m told the first line is “I had it all in my lap, until I said the word crap”.’ He gives an Eeyore-ish shrug and adds: ‘And I don’t even like musicals.’
It is time for us to part company — he has two children from his second marriage, as well as his first, and it is time to do the school run. Parked outside, I notice, is a smart Volvo 4×4. It’s not a Bentley, but it is new.


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.