He would rather trash politicians than watch trashy TV. But how does our greatest living novelist unwind? Not easily…

As well as the hundreds of books on the shelves there are, on various other tables and surfaces in this high-ceilinged drawing room, further neat piles of books. It is as if Ian McEwan, the man who lives here, needs them to be within reach at all times, lifebuoys to a nervous swimmer.

But there are also hints of a life beyond books, a hinterland: the Bridget Riley paintings that frame the fireplace, the electric guitar on a stand and the drinks, a collection of bottles on a lacquered Chinese cabinet. One of them is Johnnie Walker Black Label, the favoured poison of his friend Christopher Hitchens. It is half empty, or half full, depending. “That? Yes, that’s his. No one else drinks it. I hope he will one day come back to finish it.”

The Hitch has cancer, a subject he has written about with great poignancy, wit and grace for Vanity Fair. “He still drinks, but more wine than Scotch. Because he’s so oxlike in his strength I don’t think he knew how to be ill. I’m going over to Washington to see him next week.”

You imagine that Martin Amis will also have a half full bottle of Black Label somewhere in his house, also keeping vigil. There are other members of this gang, such as Salman Rushdie and Richard Dawkins, but McEwan, Amis and the Hitch form the unholy trinity, as reflected in a photograph taken about five years ago in Uruguay. McEwan has a brotherly arm around Hitchens’ shoulder.

There must have been many philosophical discussions among these friends over the years about the nature of mortality, but now that one of them is having to confront his own, does that change the terms of the debate, from the abstract to the concrete?

“Well we’re all getting to that age, late fifties and early sixties, when people get ill. It all begins to feel horribly finite. But I don’t think it becomes harder to talk or write about. If anything it becomes harder to avoid. It becomes an inevitable subject, as it became for Roth and Bellow and Updike.”

At 62, Ian McEwan at least has the consolation of being described as our greatest living novelist, thanks to his having pulled off the unusual feat of writing literary novels that sell like commercial ones, by the million, most notably with Atonement in 2001.

He began as a writer of short stories, having his first collection, First Love, Last Rites, published in his mid twenties. It won the Somerset Maugham award in 1976 and, since then, his books have won just about every award going, including the Whitbread for The Child in Time (1987) and the Booker for Amsterdam (1998). His latest, Solar, is a little about global warming and a lot about a womanising Nobel Prize-winning physicist whose best work is behind him. It won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction.

More typical of his oeuvre is Saturday (2005), a meditation on the post-9/11 world, one that is far from comic. Its protagonist, the neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, lives in a large Georgian town house that is based on this one, overlooking the same square in central London. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

McEwan’s is an idiosyncratic literary voice, but if he can be compared to anyone it is the American novelist John Updike. They were friends and Updike’s death two years ago affected McEwan deeply.

“I did feel something really dropped out of my world. It was the death of an irreplaceable consciousness. He was such a great namer of things. From the time I read Rabbit Run at the age of 18, he had always been there. Always more essays, more poetry, more stories. I went to stay with him with my wife in 2008 and had a really nice time and we were making arrangements to go again.”

At least with Updike McEwan has three shelves of his books. “Yes, in that sense he is still a living presence for me. But like this idea of living on in the memories of others, that’s no real life for a fellow, is it?”

So it’s no consolation for him to think he might live on through his work? “Not really.”

What about through his genes, his two sons? “Yes, but you get watered down with each generation. Your grandchildren will have a quarter of your genes and their children an eighth. It’s a fade out.”

McEwan of course, like The Hitch and Dawkins, is an avowed atheist and when we talk about the Christian belief in an afterlife he says: “Do you think they really believe it? I’ve been to funerals where I was pretty sure the majority were atheists and they listened to the vicar say that the deceased had gone to a better place and everyone’s toes curled.

“We can’t prove it’s not so, but the chances that it is are rather meagre. If they did believe you all meet up again in this big theme park in the sky why were they crying? How can you say you believe in the afterlife and weep at the finality of death?”

There may be no immortality through books, but does he ever feel the urge to account for his life in a memoir, as several of his friends have done? “I would love to write a book as good as Experience, or Hitch-22, but I keep drifting into another novel. I’ve got notes.”

Is his “Ian McEwan shelf” an extended memoir, the story of his literary life in several volumes? “It’s a metafiction, I suppose. The row of books an author ends up with. It is not something you could have plotted, one leading to the other. Knowing that it’s finite, knowing that you might be two thirds of the way through, or even that you might be at the end now because you may run out of time and fall ill, or be knocked down by a bus, that’s a strange feeling.”

Like Hitchens and Amis, McEwan has had episodes in his life that have been stranger than fiction. In 2003, he discovered he had a long lost brother.

“Yes, and he wrote a book about it called Complete Surrender which was what the advert in the paper had said when he was put up for adoption. That had my father’s fingerprints all over it. ‘Complete surrender’ being a military term.” (His father, a domineering man, had been an army major who had been commissioned from the ranks.)

But would there also, I ask, be episodes in his life which he found too painful to write about? He is happily married now to the journalist Annalena McAfee, but there was an earlier marriage to Penny Allen which ended acrimoniously. The acrimony indeed made headlines in 1999 when Allen absconded with their youngest son to France, McEwan having been given sole custody of both their sons.

In the ensuing proceedings at the High Court in London, Allen was criticised by the judge for having conducted a “vitriolic campaign” against McEwan, and was barred from speaking publicly about their relationship. McEwan, for his part, was commended as “a model of courtesy and restraint”.

“Yeah well that would have to be dealt with if I were to write a memoir,” he says now. “I don’t think it would be too painful personally, it’s just I feel that since I’m the one who has access to all the channels of communication it would be unbalanced and unfair to use them. Also I don’t like reading people moaning on about their divorces. Funny how you always hear the version of the good person. Yet there are always two sides.”

One event I’d like to read about in his memoir, I say, is the fatwa; when it was issued Salman Rushdie took refuge in McEwan’s cottage in the Cotswolds. “Well it wasn’t my cottage. We were borrowing it from friends. I don’t think I ever admired a man more than him that night because it was so fresh and frightening as it was unfolding. We listened to the news together over breakfast the next morning and he was the lead item. Salman’s writing a memoir of the fatwa now.”

I guess for his generation that was when they were forced to face up to the meaning of Islamofascism. “Yes, that was why we fell out with parts of the Left. Salman’s experience was chapter one and 9/11 was chapter two.

“We had already seen the difficulties of reconciling freedom of expression with inclusivity and pluralism. The Left, or at least the SWP, were aligning themselves with Islamism because they saw them as the shock troops of anti-Americanism.”

Rattling the cage of the unreconstructed Left does seem to have become a hobby of McEwan’s. When I meet him he has just stepped off a plane from Israel where he has been accepting the Jerusalem Prize, much to the annoyance of the pro-Palestinian Left in this country.

As it turned out, he wanted to use the platform to have a go at his hosts, the Israelis. “I’m not a very political person actually. I found myself standing with this speech burning a hole in my pocket, talking to the mayor who I know is quite a tough guy and Shimon Peres. I thought how did I get myself into this? Not looking forward to this at all.”

When you go to a place like Israel though, he adds, it does affect your writing. “There’s only one subject in Israel. It’s a place fatally lacking in small talk, and I mean that as a compliment. I re-read the thing I am working on on the plane last night and it left me cold. Suddenly it didn’t look as interesting.”

Can he say what it’s about? “It’s too fragile to talk about. I might talk it out of existence. But it’s historical. Set in the Seventies.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if, before he gets to work properly on that, he feels the urge to write about the Arab Spring. His fiction, after all, often inhabits the space where public events overlap with private lives. And he is gripped by the rolling news coverage at the moment, not least because part of his childhood was spent in Libya.

“My expertise on Libya is limited by the fact that I haven’t been there since 1960,” he says. “But what a brute. I always thought Gaddafi was a vicious, crazy person. That footage of him making his long, rambling speech as he stands by the ruins left from the American bombing, that’s my old primary school. That’s where I went to school from six to 11 and he’s made it his headquarters.”

It is understandable that he doesn’t like talking about a book that is in its embryonic stages, but what about books that are finished? In his preface to A Move Abroad (1983) he wrote about the sense of betrayal he felt towards his books when he talked about them on publicity tours, becoming “practised at a certain kind of wind storm of words, a self-protecting blather”.

Does he still resent talking about his books? “I don’t resent it at all and for the first few months after publication I am a sincere double glazing salesman. I’m engaged, but inevitably repetition dulls that. On the positive side it does let you let go of a book, somewhere among all those explanations lies a useful death.”

In the film A Ploughman’s Lunch, written by McEwan, there is a scene in which two characters at a poetry reading mock a member of the audience for asking the poet where he gets his ideas. I tell McEwan I remember him giving a reading in 1986 and the first question afterwards was… where do you get your ideas? He answered politely on that occasion, but does he feel vague contempt for such questions?

“No, I feel very protective of anyone who asks a stupid question. I can’t bear it when other people laugh at them. We were in Dublin about five years ago and a girl stood up and said ‘What’s it like to be you?’ Everyone laughed at her and she blushed. I said it’s a very good question for a novelist because what it’s like to be someone is at the heart of what we do. Actually I don’t remember this happening, but Annalena does and now the memory has been planted as if it is my own.”

He says that when you agree to do a book tour you enter an agreement. “You have to give yourself to it and it is a self-selected group. You are animated by the good will. The people who loathe you aren’t there.”

Speaking of which, there was a rather bitchy piece about him in the Evening Standard last year, about there being a McEwan backlash. “Yes I saw that.”

Was it motivated by jealousy, does he suppose? “I think they were getting people to say what were the books of the decade. So inevitably someone said the worst book was Atonement and then they found some other examples of people saying that online and ran them all together, very kindly. An example of the road rage you get on the internet. Do you ever read the comment threads under your articles on the web?”

“God no! Never go below.”

Zadie Smith, among others, has referred to a certain writing style as being McEwanesque. What does he take that to mean? “I suppose it once would have meant weird, psychotic violence and the macabre. What do you think it means?”

An accumulation of detail. A certain realism. A belief that anything has the potential to become interesting if you examine it closely enough.

And there’s often a random event that acts as a pivotal moment for the characters, and they have to live with its consequences.

“But doesn’t all fiction have that? If you inhabit your own mind you feel free to do anything. We know what we mean by Pinteresque and Kafkaesque but I don’t really know what McEwanesque means. Perhaps it just means I have a name ending in an open vowel sound.”

He heads off to make us both mugs of tea and when he comes back he is holding something he has just opened in the post. It is a card with a black-and-white photograph on it of a child pushing a pram. Beside the child is a man in African dress. “Your starter for 10. Who’s that?”

I examine it. “You? As a child in Libya?”

“Richard Dawkins. It’s him as a child in Kenya. It’s an invitation to his 70th birthday party. Such a strange picture.”

It occurs to me that the term McEwanesque might apply to his life as much as to his work. He seems to regard the world with a mixture of wry amusement and bird-like curiosity. He also seems to be a methodical man, deliberate and unhurried. Indeed he tells me, rather surprisingly, that he is a slow reader, 30 pages an hour.

One imagines he’s not much given to frivolity. In fact, I say, I have an image of him gliding from one Hampstead dinner party to another, all fine wine and cerebral conversation.

Does he ever slum it intellectually? Watch My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding on telly while eating a Big Mac? “Er, I don’t eat Big Macs. Where do I let my hair down? Walking in the country with friends is where I feel completely free. I’ve never had a great taste, as Martin and Hitch have, for seeking out low culture. Violent films and so on.”

Or trying out a brothel in the name of research? “Yes, but they did that a long time ago. I occasionally watch a football match on television, but I cannot bear the commercials. I watch The Wire but I suppose that is considered high culture. I can never knuckle down to reading all the way through The Sun, as Martin can. That for me would be such an effort.”

He stares unseeingly out of the window. “I like the picture you paint of my life of cerebral conversation and fine wine but it’s not quite like that. I do like to go to a bar and listen to bands play the blues. That is an intense pleasure for me. I like to be 12 feet from the band, not in a seat, near the bar, beer in hand.”

So that’s what the electric guitar is for, the one in the corner of this room? “Actually it was a 50th birthday present from my wife. I had every intention of learning how to play it but I never seem to have had the time.”

Ah yes, time. In his early novels, it was often presented as something elusive and protean, a McEwanesque conceit. As he gets older he seems to be more accepting of the idea that time is also linear, that it can “wind polish” your life, and that, for your friends as well as for yourself, it can, and must, run out.


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.