The transport minister opens the door, plucks the cigarette from her lips and says: ‘Be with you in a sec. I’m just on the phone to Cherie.’ As she hastens back to her desk she steps out of her shoes and hops on one stockinged foot while massaging the toes of the other. ‘You were saying?’ she croaks, cradling the phone between chin and shoulder. Her office is still cluttered with unpacked crates bulging with personal effects. These include what looks like the long black Cleopatra wig she wore on the 1971 Morecambe & Wise Christmas Special and the smooth golden head of an Oscar protruding decadently from an art nouveau flowerpot. Along one wall of the room there is a Louis XVI chaise-longue against which is propped a large, luminous painting by and of Gilbert & George in the nude. Next to this there is an ice bucket in which is chilling a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. Catching my eye, Glenda Jackson cups her hand over the receiver, nods at the bottle and mouths: ‘Be a love and open that would you? It’s been a hard day …’
Of course it isn’t like this.
Power has neither corrupted nor mellowed the 61-year-old Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate. Nor has it compromised here reputation for being cold, puritanical and, as she herself once put it, totally charmless. Her office is barren – no pictures, no fronds of green rubber plant, no homely touches. She is, by her own reckoning, not at all sentimental – and she can’t stand untidiness. The only shred of authenticity in this opening scene is that Glenda Jackson has had a hectic day. She rises at 6.30am every morning and its now a quarter to six in the evening, 45 minutes later than the time originally scheduled in her diary for this her final meeting of the day.
We are six floors up in Eland House, the gleaming new glass-and-steel-fronted building into which John Prescott’s merged departments of the Environment, Transport and the Regions moved this year [1997]. From this height you can appreciate that a remarkable number of rooftops around Victoria have flagpoles – which fly Union flags and cast long shadows in the low Autumn sun. When Jackson invited me to sit down she shivers, rubs the arms of her magenta-and-black dog-toothed jacket, and mutters, something about the new air-conditioning. ‘God, it’s so cold,’ she adds in that distinctively deep and flat voweled voice. ‘My blood has stopped circulating.’
She isn’t even smoking, which is a bit of a disappointment given that she is said to get through 40 Dunhill a day and there is a rather wonderful rumour doing the rounds that she has requested a special £4,000 air-recycling unit for her new hi-tech, smoke detecting office so that she can puff away at her desk rather than waste valuable ministerial time by trekking back and forth all day along the corridor to the smoking room.
Small talk about the smoking story is dismissed by the Minister with the word ‘allegedly’. Mention of the clean and shining new offices is given similarly short shrift: ‘Have you looked out of the window?’ she asks. There is a thick layer of grime on it. Tch! That’s London air pollution, I say with an ingratiating nod that leaves me more abruptly than planned onto the topic of traffic fumes.
‘Only today I was talking to someone about the inequities between providing company cars and season tickets for employees. One is regarded as a perk on which tax has to be paid, the other isn’t. I also raised the issue of employers offering interest-free loans for their employees to buy a bike and this guy said, ‘I’d buy them all bikes now if I thought that I wouldn’t be taxed for it.’
I raise the point that one of the advantages of being in opposition is that you can make extravagant demands based more on ideology than practicality. Once in power, funds have to be found to implement big ideas, and targets have to be set in order to establish whether they work. Given that the Government is still pretty much enjoying its honeymoon period, Jackson is surprisingly defensive about this truism. ‘You talk about targets,’ she says with a short, forced smile that scares rather than reassures. ‘But there can also be aims you can have. And it is important to have them, otherwise nothing is achieved, nothing develops, nothing is shown to work. That in itself is bad. But is also breeds a sense of helplessness.’
It has to be said, though, that Glenda Jackson does not sell well the Integrated Transport Strategy – or ITS as it is bound to be known. It would be ungracious to quote verbatim one of her statements on the subject – not least because, on the occasion we meet, she seems fraught and distracted. And, though I’ve never met her before, in comparison even with recent photographs, she seems weary, drawn and under-nourished. There is no passion in her delivery. Her answers seem stilted, repetitious and, at times, quite inarticulate. The way she can get tangled up in a subclause, by slipping in expressions such as ‘by virtue of’ or ‘which is a movable feast’ (three times in one answer alone), makes the syntax of her boss, John Prescott, seems positively lucid.
All politicians are, of course, trained in the art of not giving answers to questions you never asked. It’s just some are better at it than others. When you hear flannel from, say, Kenneth Clarke you want to believe it because it’s said with a mixture of cheery confidence and bluster. He’s a performer. Why then, you find yourself wondering, does Glenda Jackson not call upon some of her formidable powers as an actress to do the same? We know from one performance at least, ‘A Touch of Class’ (1973), that she can act flirty, personable and funny when she has to; why then does she not deploy a little of this to counter her apparently natural freezing manner?
The only answer that makes sense is that she overcompensates for the bohemian image of her first career. After all, as ‘Gudrun in Women in Love’  (1971), she seemed to capture the Dionysian spirit of the late Sixties, early Seventies. She symbolised all the hedonistic urges of which politicians are supposed to disapprove, in principle if not practice. But what’s the problem? Hers was a distinguished career. She was appointed CBE. It wasn’t as if she was a call girl or a game show host in her previous incarnation. She feels, you suspect, that her flamboyant past undermineds the authority of her dour present.
Her acting career, of course, is the prickly subject which dare not speak its name. There’s not much she enjoys in life, she has said. She’s not really the enjoying sort. But her life in acting is something she seems to have actively not enjoyed. She found it artificial and strained. Now she looks back on it with neither affection nor regret. And her two Oscars lurk unloved in a box somewhere at her sister’s house.
There is then a perverse, giddy pleasure to be had from daring yourself to ask about it. Will the eyes narrow and the lip curl as they did so chillingly in Elizabeth R? As an actress Glenda Jackson was unconventionally beautiful, and then only when she was playing the part of one who was angry. Hers was the dark, Promethean beauty of the mountain range that could be truly appreciated only by the sufferer of vertigo who forced himself to look down from its peak. My question, then, when it comes, is so cunningly obtuse it seems not to be about acting at all – the equivalent of lying on your back with just your head over the edge of the abyss, looking down at the plunging precipice through a mirror held at arm’s length. Ahem. If she had gone straight into politics from working at Boots, would she have been a different kind of politician?
(Glenda Jackson, it should be explained, is the eldest of four sisters brought up in the small seaside town of Hoylake on the Wirral. Her father, Harry, was a bricklayer, her mother, Joan cleaned houses. She left West Kirby Grammar School at 15 and, before getting involved in amateur dramatics and then going on to RADA, she worked for two years at Boots. On the laxative and bilious attacks counter.)
‘I honestly don’t know. I don’t know,’ she says without any sign of hostility. ‘I think people’s attitudes to me would be different.’ But presumably she learned some presentational skills and actorly tricks that have proved useful when performing in the House? ‘You say that but the most salutary lesson you learn if you are fortunate enough to act a lot is how, little you know and easy it is to act badly. And how hard it is to act well. Yes I suppose there are benefits. I’m not bowled over by the thought of having to speak in front of a room full of strangers. But then again I never considered acting a process of covering up. It was more a process of stripping away. I think the best drama aspires to be truthful and so does the best politics. I am not frightened by speaking in public. The thing people are most frightened of, after dying, is speaking in public.’
Glenda Jackson does have fears, she says of flying and of dentists. But she is not afraid of being alone. She was married at the age of 21 to Roy Hodges, a theatre director. They divorced in 1976 and then she lived for five years with a lighting engineer, Andrew Phillips. She now lives in Blackheath with her 28-year-old son Daniel Hodges, who worked for a while as her parliamentary researcher before taking a job with the Road Haulage Association.
‘I think we generate our own fears,’ Jackson says. ‘And sometimes they can be useful and sometimes they can be crippling. I used to worry when I didn’t get stage fright. You have a heightened awareness which you can trace to physiological things. But you have to be as ready as you can be. If you watch an athlete, I noticed this particularly in the Olympics, I found I could know who was going to win in the single events because the people who won, and we are talking about minuscule time differences between winning and coming second, but the person who a fraction of a second before the gun went off just let go. Some inner voice, and that is a process I can relate to. It’s not about becoming free of self-consciousness it’s just about, well, letting go. Harder to explain than to do.’
Despite recognising the need to let go, Jackson has said in the past that she feels the lack of a brain trained to work in a particular way. For her, she said, things are a really hard slog. Has this ever made her doubt her abilities as a politician?
‘Of course. It would be a sad day if you didn’t. Just think what you are as a constituency MP. To represent the needs of 68,000 people is a huge responsibility. Surely you have to do the best you can just in terms of the hope people invest in you. If being up to it can be achieved by dint of hard work and acknowledging you don’t know everything and having no pride about saying to people that you don’t know what they are talking about. The people around you are very good about helping you get on top of the information. And, of course, you are informed by the principles of your particular party….’
Her party has principles? ‘My absolute belief that this country is the best by virtue of its people is very clear to me, and as I said, one of the things I found most heinous under the Tories was the sheer waste of this country’s greatest natural resource. It’s people. Their energy. Their imagination.’
Jackson resents the idea that she has only been engaged in politics since she won her first seat in 1992. ‘I’ve always been a supporter and voter for the Labour Party. And I’d been asked to do thing by them because I had a high profile. When I was approached to become a prospective parliamentary candidate I was motivated by an overwhelming desire to get rid of Mrs Thatcher because she was trying to turn the country in which I was born, and which, please God, I will die, into a country I couldn’t identify with. And turn vices into virtues and virtues into vices. And I think this is probably a myth I’ve created for myself – because I don’t think the timing is right – but I’m convinced that it was hearing that speech about there being no such thing as society which made me so angry I walked into a post. But anything I could do, anything to get rid of that appalling, immoral philosophy and to get a Labour government.’
When she first started canvassing to become an MP, people would ask her for her autograph because she was a famous actress. Now that she is a government minister has she noticed a difference in the way people treat her? ‘To be honest,’ she says, ‘One of the big differences about becoming a Member of Parliament was that people can talk to you as a representative. You do have that. There is no pretence that you are not who you are. There is no blurring of who you are. There’s none of that, “Oh I expected Queen Elizabeth and then you arrived.” There’s none of that. So, no, people always speak their minds to me.’
This said, she says she is aware of her hard image and thinks it has a lot to do with her portrayal of Elizabeth R. But her reputation for being cold and frightening is unfair, she thinks, because she is not like that royal sourpuss in real life. She doesn’t believe she has ever experienced an uncontrollable passion, for instance. Although she does loose her temper, she doesn’t lose it often – and then only over some minor irritating thing that has come at the end of a lot of other minor irritating things.
An abrupt manner is often a defence against feelings of insecurity. At school she suffered badly from acne and was self-conscious about being overweight. She had, she says, no sense of herself being physically attractive in any way at all, either then or now. No wonder she didn’t enjoy the close scrutiny of the cameras when she became an actress. Ironically though, the social awkwardness, brittleness and discomfort she often brought top her screen roles were precisely the qualities that made her such a compelling, sultry, unpredictable actress to watch. And they are exactly the same qualities which limit her appeal as a politician. She has no bonhomie about her, and this makes the attempts by her Transport Press Office to turn her into Our Glenda look farcical (GLENDA LAUNCHES SAFELINE SCHEME IN SHEFFIELD ran a headline on a recent press release. Not Jackson. Glenda.)
Perhaps a more rewarding tack would be to play to the small minister’s transport strengths and cite the description Oliver Reed gave of his co-star: ‘Working with Glenda was like being run over by a Bedford truck.’ Or, perhaps, the one given by Les Dawson, that hers was the face that launched a thousand dredges.
In terms of appearance, then, the minister for transport (and shipping) seems to have overcompensated for the ephemeral image of her youth by becoming Labour’s answer to the gloriously uncompromised Ann Widdecombe. Even Barbara Follett MP, who was charged with giving New Labour MPs a makeover, couldn’t remove the whiff of carbolic that lingers about her. She has strong cheekbones, her mousy-auburn hair is cut in a severe Bauhaus style and there is something about the arrangement of her teeth that makes her smile look like a snarl. Last year when Glenda Jackson – wearing a suit with temperatures in the eighties and looking like she’d just sucked a lemon – did her photo-opportunity walk on the beaches of Benidorm, in order to tell startled British sunbathers why they couldn’t trust the Tories, Sir Tim Bell, the Tory PR guru, was tempted to run the picture of her as an advert saying: ‘New Labour: less style more substance.’
The small minister for transport finds such considerations trivialising. As well she should. She says she sees herself as female rather than feminine, which is something she equates with being ‘frilly and pink and frothy and lacy’. And she cannot understand the fuss always being made in the press about what Ffion Jenkins or Cherie Blair is wearing.
‘I wonder why we waste time worrying about it,’ she says. ‘It is actually an impediment to the work being done. It really acts as a bar to women achieving what women are capable of in virtue of their abilities. But again I don’t think it is serious. And I don’t think we should allow ourselves to be trapped into an agenda which is irrelevant. And why should women be trapped into not being attractive or not being interested in fashion or not being interested in those kind of things? Why should we be? That’s got nothing to do with images, be they powerful or weak, it’s got to do with the story of the day. It’s coming from a different angle. It’s a different kind of scenario. The whole thing about image and image-making is in itself an artificially created area, I believe, for another scenario as well.’
Even so, she did take part in the group photograph of what the tabloids dubbed ‘Blair’s Babes’. Presumably she agreed because, like her famous, goosepimply nude scenes, the plot demanded it. The Prime Minister didn’t feel the need to have a group photograph taken of himself with all his male MPs, but perhaps to raise this point is to miss a greater one. After all, as Glenda Jackson points out, the number of women MPs now elected to the House of Commons represents a brisk stride forward. ‘I think it’s wonderful,’ she says. ‘But I would like to see an equal gender split sitting on those benches. What are we now? 658 MPs? There are certainly not 329 women sitting there. But I think it has made a difference already in the atmosphere of the place. It can make a difference in the practical reality of the place.’
You can just imagine that atmosphere when the female (not feminine) Jackson is around. The real essence of her intimidatingly graceless manner was defined by a long-serving Hampstead party worker who said: ‘She can be very cold and hard work. Even by the standard of the Labour Party she hardly has a sense of humour.’ There is evidence of wryness, though. On her first day at Westminster, she says she kept getting lost but no matter where she walked she seemed to end up next to a statue of Winston Churchill. She names her chief pleasure as reading Hansard in bed. And she once laughed approvingly when she heard that her ex-husband had said of her: ‘If Glenda went into politics she’d be Prime Minister. If she went into crime she would be Jack The Ripper.’
It is now dark outside and Jackson leans forward, squints at a clock on the opposite wall and says; ‘It’s quarter to seven. We’ve got to make a move.’ As she walks over to her desk in the corner of her office a light comes on above it. ‘They are movement-sensitive to save energy,’ she explains. ‘Sometimes when I’m working late and sitting very still they turn off.’
It leaves a melancholy image lingering in the mind. Glenda Jackson sitting very still at her desk, long after everyone else has gone home. She is looking thoughtful, determined. Her pen is poised in her hand. Suddenly the lightbulb above her head dims and she is left in darkness – without even the orange glow of a cigarette for comfort.


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.