As you enter Professor James Lovelock’s whitewashed cottage on the border of Devon and Cornwall, you see a contraption on a stand, a small box with a few curved wires. It’s an invention of his, one that should be in a museum. He used it to alert the world — via Margaret Thatcher —  to the dangers of CFCs, specifically the damage they were doing to the ozone. In the next room there is a photograph of him with the Queen, on the day she made him a Companion of Honour (honour is the word, there are only ever 65 people entitled to use the letters CH after their name). And beyond this is his study, sprawling with wires and cables. He writes his elegant prose in here, a series of bestselling books. But this is also where he likes to keep his inventor’s hand in, working on projects for the Ministry of Defence, the sort of gadgets Q makes for Bond. Back in 1954, he invented the microwave oven but, not being that interested in money, left it to others to realise its commercial value. He had another discovery to preoccupy his agile mind — a theory so radical and lyrical it would one day lead to his name being mentioned in the same breath as Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, one of our greatest, and most controversial, living scientists.  We shall come to that.

There is also a model of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic rocket in here, the one that Lovelock will be flying to space in later this year, shortly after his ninetieth birthday — the ‘ultimate upgrade’ he calls it. The trip will be a sort of present from Branson — who credits Lovelock with inspiring him to pledge billions of dollars to fight global warming. Lovelock is not worried about the dangers. ‘If I die, I die,’ he says with a shrug. ‘Doesn’t bother me. I’ve had a long life and it would be a good way for a scientist to go.’

His training has involved going in a G-force simulator. Three Gs so far, rather than the full six he will experience with vertical take off. His doctors have advised against it, not least because he once had a heart bypass. ‘The centrifuge beats any fairground ride,’ he says. ‘Great fun.’

I’m not sure his wife Sandy, an American 30 years his junior, is quite so nonchalant about his trip into space. She is protective of him, making sure he wraps up warm when we go outside, for example. They met at a science conference when he was 69, (shortly before his first wife, and the mother of his four children, died after a long illness). ‘The age difference did not occur to us,’ she says, speaking with a warm, St Louis accent. ‘When you are in love you are in love.’

Certainly, Lovelock does not look his age. He has a full head of silver hair, a glint in his eye and a strong and rolling voice, albeit one with a slight lisp. When we sit down for lunch, homemade vegetable soup, he says: ‘This soup is the secret to my longevity. I have it almost every day.’ If he looks fit, it as nothing to his mental agility. In conversation, he never hesitates or has to search for a word.

‘I imagine Sir Richard’s medical and legal advisors are assailing him,’ he says, ‘warning him of the adverse publicity if I drop dead in the spacecraft. But I’ll be fine. They keep making me take all sorts of tests to see if I am still alive. There was a funny one I had to do in St Louis a few months ago. They injected me with three millicuries of thallium-201, which is a gamma-emitting isotope, then got me to ride a bicycle and did a scan of my heart to see if it was working properly. It was fun watching the scan on the screen to see if the ventricles were contracting properly, expelling all the blood they should. The medical team were all cheering because it was working so well. What they would expect for someone much younger than me. So they have no excuse not to let me go up on medical grounds.’

He grins. ‘To be honest I am so carried away with the thought of doing this trip, I don’t care about the consequences. When I was young I was daft enough to do rock climbing in plimsolls, without ropes. I had some scares but I’m glad I did it. I’ll be the same before this flight. I’ll be scared but I’ll be glad I did it. It will be important, this chance to see the earth before the ice caps vanish. It will be an important moment for me personally.’

This is something of an understatement. Lovelock has spent a lifetime contemplating our gently spinning, green and blue planet — its beauty, its poise, its apparent luminosity in the blackness of space. Even before the first colour photographs of it were taken —  40 years ago this summer, when Neil Armstrong took his one small step for a man — he was able to ‘see’ it with his mind’s eye, and understand it, in all its spherical glory.

In 1968, his neighbour, the novelist William Golding, helped him with come up with a poetic name for his theory that the earth and all the living plants and creatures upon it are inextricably bound together, interacting in complex ways to ensure that the environment can sustain life. While walking with Lovelock to the village pub one day, Golding suggested calling it ‘Gaia’, after the Greek goddess of Earth.

‘Bit of luck,’ the professor says. ‘Living next to door to a man like that. Who would be interested in the theory if I had stuck with its original name, Earth System Science?’

According to Gaia theory, ours is a living planet, the only one we know of in the universe, and the human beings upon it are transitory and irrelevant to its survival — though not to their own survival, if they go on over-heating the planet with the Co2 emissions they cause. Lovelock’s belief in Gaia was reinforced by research showing that, even though the energy reaching the Earth from the Sun had increased during a certain period, the temperature and chemical makeup of the atmosphere remained unchanged. The only explanation, he decided, was that the Earth was a self-regulating system that had found a way to preserve its equilibrium. The organisms on Earth had kept their environment stable. This seemed to be Gaia in action.

The hippies loved it. The idea of Gaia caught the imagination of academics everywhere, too. It prompted John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, to describe Lovelock as ‘the most important and original scientific thinker in the world today.’ What appealed, of course, was its metaphorical potency, Gaia seemed to be giving us a subtle lesson in the physiology of a planet. Was he aware of the poetic power of his metaphor right from the start? ‘No, my first feelings about it were “Oh yes, that’s a nice word.” I have a bit of poet in me, I suppose, and I like words with a ring to them and an interesting provenance. But I was shocked by the way the American scientific community went berserk. They thought it was dreadful usage. Still do.’

Because it is too whimsical? ‘They call it trying to mix myth with science. It was all nonsense, they said, because it was too much of a threat to their comfortable way of living. You see science has sold its soul to the politicians. It has got so bad nowadays, the wooliness of political argument about Green issues. And the Greens themselves have becomes so fanatical. I feel the Green attacks on the airlines particularly half baked; all this stuff about carbon footprints is hogwash. Greens can be such Nazis.’

Um, isn’t that rather an unfair comparison? ‘Not really. Compared with the amount of fuel we use just keeping ourselves warm, the amount you use per year flying is trivial.’

But surely it’s not just the fuel used, it’s what jumbo jets do to the atmosphere. ‘They hardly do anything to the atmosphere. I suppose the jet contrails might be harmful but it depends where they are produced. In some areas it will produce warming, in others cooling. There is a lot of argument still among geophysicists about what effect it has. The way I look at it, if you add together the CO2 produced by the nearly seven billion people in the world, and their livestock, it is ten times the amount of CO2 produced by all the airline travel in the sky. So if you want to improve your carbon footprint, hold your breath. The number of people is the problem, and it’s all happened so fast. When I was born the world population was two billion. In my lifetime that figure has more than trebled.’

He has a solution to this which is chracteristically unexpected. ‘If women were more empowered around the world there would be fewer children. The chief increase in population occurs in the Third World because there the women have so little power. If there were more women politicians around the world there would be a natural curb to population growth.’

I ask if he ever catches himself straying into misanthropy when he contemplates these global issues. ‘I suppose so. I think there is a lot of misanthropy in all of us. Think of that song “if you were the only girl in the world and I was the only boy.” I’m a little agoraphobic and can’t think of anything worse than a crowd. I’m a non-joiner.’

Is that a mark of eccentricity? ‘You would know, not me.’

Eccentric means outside the circle. There is something in his character to which that applies, the way he is always thinking outside conventional wisdom. ‘Possibly, but it is not a deliberate act of thought. It comes naturally. I tend to see in more dimensions than most people, I suppose. I used to get cross with your profession because they always referred to me as a maverick. A maverick really is an outsider. The village idiot. As far as science goes I am far from being a maverick. I belong to all these important societies, and didn’t join them, they elected me.’

Is he a contrarian then? ‘Not for the fun of it.’

According to Dr David Weeks, a clinical neurophysiologist at Royal Edinburgh Hospital, an eccentric tends to be intelligent, curious, outspoken, unmotivated by greed, dogged and healthy. Eccentrics don’t know they are eccentric, moreover. They think their abnormal behaviour is perfectly normal. Because they are not concerned about conforming, they are naturally much less prone to stress. And because of their humour and happiness, they tend to live longer. This definition seems to apply to the inscrutable Lovelock in spades. He is entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd. Though he is a Fellow of the Royal Society and has worked for NASA, Shell, MI5 and various universities, he has always preferred to plough his own lonely furrow, funding his research with his 40 or so patents and the various prizes he wins. Eccentrics tend to be only children, as Lovelock was. Brought up by a grandmother, he saw the world as ‘very cosy and comfortable’.

At school he made his own working short-wave radio receiver from scraps of wire, jam jars and pencils. Later he would make his own explosives with which to blow up obstructions on local footpaths. He grew up with Quaker principles, and became a conscientious objector in the Second World War. I suspect he enjoys being a member of the awkward squad.

In name and in spirit, Gaia seemed to represent the opposite of rigid scientific enquiry. It advocates a ‘holistic’ view of the Earth, rather than the traditionally ‘reductionist’ breaking down of systems to their constituent components. No wonder the Prince of Wales is a fan. Last summer he invited Lovelock to ‘teach the teachers’ at his Education Summer School at Cambridge University. But that doesn’t stop Lovelock voicing his approval of GM food, one of the Prince’s bête noirs. The Greens don’t know quite what to make of him either. In some ways, as the father of Gaia, he is an environmental guru, a folk hero. In others he is the devil. His biggest thought crime, as far as the Green movement is concerned, is his enthusiasm for nuclear energy. He believes it is now our only hope in a  fight against global warming that may already be lost. All other options — biofuels, wind energy, solar heating and so on are a waste of time and money.

‘I’m not a religious person,’ he tells me, ‘but if I were I would say, look, nuclear energy is the energy of the universe. God has given it to us and what do you fools do with it? You use it as weapon. It could have resolved all your problems.’ He believes that when London is flooded around the middle of the next century and 10m people have to be relocated, that generation will be cursing us for burning fossil fuels. ‘They’ll be wondering why we were so stupid not to accept the beneficence of nuclear power.’ The real dangers to humanity and the ecosystems of the earth from nuclear power are almost negligible, he reckons. As for Chernobyl, ‘thirty-odd brave firemen died who needn’t have died but its general effect on the world population is almost negligible. All around Chernobyl, where people are not allowed to go because the ground is too radioactive, the wildlife thrives. It doesn’t care about radiation.’

But what shall we do with nuclear waste? ‘Stick it in some precious wilderness. If you wanted to preserve the biodiversity of a rainforest, bury nuclear waste in it to keep the developers out. The lifespan of the wild things might be shortened a bit, but the animals wouldn’t know, or care. Natural selection would take care of the mutations. Life would go on.’

Blimey. He also believes that if we must have cars, then they should be electric vehicles charged by nuclear power stations. ‘They’d have much less range than the present models and so they’d be much less nuisance.’

Though he is in no doubts that man-made global warming is a reality, possibly an irreversible one, he doesn’t agree with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change consensus that the increase in temperatures will be smooth, slow and continuous. He thinks they will be more like a mountain, a concatenation of slopes, valleys, flat meadows, rock steps and precipices. We are in a brief chasm at the moment, for example, caused by the melting ice caps lowering the temperature of the Atlantic and temporarily stopping the Gulf Stream. ‘The problems is that climatologists base their projections on models, not observations and measurements. Actually the sea level is rising twice as fast as they estimate. This is shocking. Even the economists are doing better than that. And it is mad of politicians to try and make predictions about the climate 60 years from now. The models suggest that if you cut back CO2 by 80%, all will be well. But they cannot possibly know, based on modelling.’

In his latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, he writes: ‘We do not seem to have the slightest understanding of the seriousness of our plight. Instead, before our thoughts were diverted by the global financial collapse, we seemed lost in an endless round of celebration and congratulation.’ For all this, his new book is less pessimistic than his last, The Revenge of Gaia, which rather shocked the world with its bleak, nothing-can-be-done, outlook. ‘I’m less pessimistic and more,’ he says. ‘We’re not clever enough to get out of this mess at all. But we are tough animals. We are going to survive because we, our generation, don’t represent the end point. We will go on evolving and hopefully, further down the line, people will evolve who are clever enough to tackle this thing.’

Does he feel frustrated by global warming deniers? ‘I’m not Dr Strangelovelock gloating at what is going to come, but it is going to come, I fear. What is the point of being cheerless though? My message is, if we are all doomed, enjoy it while you can. My memory of the War is that war is more exciting than peacetime. I suppose we are in the Phoney War now and the equivalent of building shelters in the garden for the coming blitz is putting up wind turbines. They won’t do much good. Other that the psychological benefit of feeling you are doing something.’

I can see that windfarms that blot the landscape are a mixed blessing, but what about at sea? ‘I have no objection to them putting them out at sea, if that is what Brown wants to do to create jobs, and keep the Germans happy, and improve his changes of getting a job at the EU when he retires. Good luck to him. But they are utterly pointless as a source of energy and not in the least Green because they all have to be backed up with coal-fired power stations. Blair was disgraceful on nuclear. Major was just as bad because he rescinded Thatcher’s instructions to renew the older nuclear power stations. She was pro nuclear because she was a scientist.’

Like Thatcher, Lovelock was a chemistry graduate. As a young man he was tempted by communism, but he later became a huge fan of the Iron Lady, especially when she embraced his theory about Ozone depletion (she was the one who fought for the global ban on CFCs in aerosols and fridges). ‘Margaret Thatcher and I got on like a house on fire. She really understood CFCs. We were so close, it was quite funny. But whenever I tried to talk about other issues such as the health service which I thought she was damaging she would say, “No, I only want to talk about the environment with you.” She could be very tough minded.’

His clash with Richard Dawkins, the author of the Selfish Gene, was not quite so amicable. Though you could argue that the Gaia Theory brings Darwinism home, replacing the shocking bleakness of its revelation of our animal ancestry with a living, breathing and ultimately consoling sense of our place in nature, Professor Dawkins hated the name. For him it reeked of unscientific New Ageism. He hated the concept too, arguing that, actually, our Goldilocks planet — not too hot, not too cold — manages life, not the other way around. A living Earth, moreover, would never have evolved by natural selection. ‘Well he’s been proved wrong now,’ Lovelock says. ‘He brought up the point that there can be no natural selection of things larger than the phenotype, but the latest theory is that, in the case of social insects, it is the nest that evolves, not the bees. Group selection is coming back.’ He grins again. ‘The neo-Darwinists were far too dogmatic. It was almost like Newton storming out and saying there is no such thing as relativity. That wouldn’t have been a very scientific way to behave. I suppose Dawkins couldn’t help it. He is a dogmatist. He can’t be an agnostic, he has to be an atheist. It’s his nature. But he was useful to me because he made me realise it wasn’t life that did the regulating, it was the whole system.’

In his ninetieth year he does not hold out much hope of being around long enough to see how the Gaia story continues — see if we really are doomed by global warming — but this, he says, does not frustrate him. ‘That would mean worrying about my own end point and I’m not worried about that. If you can stay healthy you can reach 90. So 100 is my next step. A long way away. No need to worry about that.’

He seems to have absolute certainty about Gaia Theory. Never a doubt. ‘Oh no, that’s the worst thing you can have. No scientist should have certainty about anything. I’m confident. There is a difference.’



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.