The chairman is running late. Half an hour. His PA has been popping her head around the door every ten minutes to convey his apologies. The sound of him barking out orders carries through the walls and, alongside me on the squeaky leather sofa in the corridor, I sense the spectral presence of employees past: broken and wretched minions summoned here to squirm a while before finding out if they’re to be sacked. There is a chill in the air and, to the imagination, the cough of a nearby secretary becomes a hollow groan; the tapping of a keyboard mutates into the rattling of a chain.
It must be quite something, being mythologised – even if it is as a foul-tempered bully who could kill rats with his teeth and think nothing of impaling 500 work-shy personnel on pikes before breakfast. For one thing, it must be a hoot watching the way strangers react to you. And it must be so good to know that, thanks to the negative expectations they must harbour, their first impressions of you are bound to be positive.
Sir Jocelyn Stevens, the 66-year-old chairman of English Heritage, certainly revels in this reputation. And when you meet him he does indeed confound your presumptions by being all backslapping heartiness and bonhomie. He is a tall, barrel-chested man with smooth, pink skin that looks freshly scrubbed. There is a manly cleft in his chin and his nose is broken, a constant reminder of the Public Schools’ Boxing Championship final he lost in 1949.
The next thing you notice about him is that he is wearing a watch on each wrist. And with his thick white hair and blustering, distracted manner this eccentricity morphs him momentarily into the hopelessly late but time-obsessed White Rabbit. You are taken further through the looking-glass when Sir Jocelyn ushers you into his office on the fourth floor of an imposing Thirties-style building in Savile Row. There is a wooden dog the size of a pony next to his desk. It is the sort of object which your instincts scream at you to ignore in the hope that it will go away (a reaction psychologists call perceptual defence).
For the first 40 minutes my side of the conversation goes like this: ‘I’d like to start by…’; ‘Yes I see but…’; ‘Wouldn’t it be…’; ‘You say that but surely…’ Sir Jocelyn does not brook interruption – just shouts you down – and when you do manage to lob in a question he sighs impatiently, gulps air, and fidgets until you’ve done asking it. Although his delivery is clipped and plummy, he slurs odd words and, in his eagerness to crack on with the next thought, he doesn’t always finish his sentences. He has no volume control, emphasises words erratically and punctuates his monologues every so often with a friendly, snuffling laugh.
At the moment, he says, his mind is focused on the grand unveiling of the Albert Memorial by the Queen. As he warms to this theme it becomes clear that Sir Jocelyn considers himself to be a living embodiment of the Victorian spirit. He is half-right. He does get on and do things; and he is sentimental. He often catches himself weeping when he listens to military bands. And recently, when he visited a community of immigrants who were living in a formerly derelict Victorian square in Brixton, he felt moved to tears. Thanks to a conservation scheme he had introduced, they had formed a square committee. ‘The civic pride they had. You wouldn’t believe it!  Absolutely splendid people. Newly arrived from the Caribbean. They laughed and laughed and laughed. And afterwards they did this tin-drum song about Queen Victoria.’
But the image he is stuck with is that of the free-marketeering, union-bashing, archetypal Thatcherite. While it is true that Margaret Thatcher admired the Victorians for their enterprise and their family values, she had no time for their liberal paternalism. And neither does Sir Jocelyn. Though he says so himself, his career has been all about saving great institutions – Queen magazine, the Evening Standard, the Express, the Royal College of Art and, since 1992, English Heritage – by making them more efficient and commercially viable, for which read clearing them of the dead wood. He knows he has made a lot of enemies doing this, but he says he doesn’t mind. ‘Not at all. I think you have to make enemies. England is in a funny state at the moment; a lot of people who talk a lot and not many who do a lot.’
In order to make English Heritage work, Sir Jocelyn offered voluntary redundancy to 700 members of staff.  But being ruthless in the name of efficiency is one thing. Appearing to take pleasure in humiliating people who work for you, or whom you are about to sack, is quite another. According to clause 384, subsection ii, of the Journalist’s Code of Conduct, there are certain stories about Sir Jocelyn’s ferocious temper tantrums which must appear in any article pertaining to his life and times. So let us dispense with them: (1) The time he got so angry with a fashion writer he threw her typewriter out of a fourth-floor window.(2) The time he got so angry he snipped a telephone wire with a pair of scissors in order to cut a caller off. (3) The time he got so angry he sacked a secretary over the Tannoy. (4) The time he got so angry he roared to someone: ‘Get out of this office! And what do you mean by bringing this ghastly little man with you?’ (The ghastly little man was a highly regarded City surveyor who was hunchbacked from having had polio as a child.)
‘Most of the stories that you hear are true,’ Sir Jocelyn says with a shrug. ‘But in a long working life, which is now 40 years, people only remember…’ The sentence is unfinished. ‘I mean, the lady with the typewriter is now dead. So often printed. Very boring.  They’re things I can’t escape now because they’re in every cutting. It doesn’t allow one to mature very much. And people do exaggerate. I was once called before the Permanent Secretary because they were worried about morale at English Heritage and Peter Brooke said in my defence, “You don’t know him as well as I do. When he was at the Royal College of Art he once sacked 19 professors in an afternoon. It was wonderful!” Sir Jocelyn gives a wheezy chuckle at the recollection of this. ‘Well, that was an exaggeration. You see it was only 11. And they were all useless.’
It seems a bit rich that Sir Jocelyn, the arch self-publicist who will gladly dress up and act the clown for a photo opportunity, should complain that he is a prisoner of his cuttings, even if he does add, ‘I suppose it hasn’t hurt me. People tend to ring me up to ask me to do things because they know I will get them done.’ He is obviously pretty thrilled with himself and with his belligerent public image. This, after all, is a man who once wrote to a paper to complain that it had libelled him by describing him as charming. Only someone who is sure he can charm if he wants to would joke about that. But it does reveal a curious paradox. On the one hand you have to assume, given his spectacular rudeness, that Sir Jocelyn is someone who genuinely doesn’t care what people think about him. On the other, he cared enough about his image to go around every newspaper library removing any cuttings file about himself (in the days before cuttings could be called up on computer).
‘I’ve never confessed to that before!’ he says with a snorting laugh. ‘Terrible of me, really. But I wanted to be able to start again, otherwise anything you’ve done in the past is constantly repeated.’ It makes you wonder what dark secrets from his past he wanted to erase. Was he worried that people would find out about his two musically gifted brothers, Shakin’ and Cat, the ones he kept locked in the attic at home? More likely he wanted to play down his image as a Sixties dandy and playboy because it undermined his Eighties reputation as a fire-breathing monster who gets things done.
On his 21st birthday he came into his inheritance – £750,000 – left him by his mother, whose family had made its fortune in newspapers, owning the Evening Standard in the Twenties and Picture Post in the Fifties. He immediately bought himself an Aston Martin and wrote it off the same day. On his 25th birthday he bought himself the ailing Queen magazine, and called in his chums Marc Boxer and Tony Snowdon. When bored with that, he says, he sold it off to a man who happened to be sitting at the next table at Claridges.
Vain enough to reinvent himself, then, and reportedly to storm around his office shouting and slamming doors whenever a hostile profile is written about him in a newspaper. That is, whenever a profile is written about him in a newspaper. Yet, whenever there is a new milestone in his career to commemorate, he always agrees to be interviewed about it. It could be that he’s a glutton for punishment or an optimist. Or maybe it’s that all he really cares about is getting attention in whatever form, and by whatever means, including screaming for it petulantly like a baby. The obvious Freudian reading of this is that he craves the attention he never received from his father, the late Major Greville Stewart-Stevens. When his mother, Betty, went into labour with him there were dangerous complications. The child lived but she died a few days later. His father, Jocelyn believes, never got over the death, blaming it on the Roman Catholicism of his wife’s family, and always regarded his son as the murderer of his wife.
As a small child, Jocelyn was sent to live in his own flat, off Baker Street in central London, with his own nanny, priest, cook and maid. He was driven around Hyde Park every day by his own chauffeur in his own Rolls-Royce. His father lived in another house and, when he remarried four years later, Jocelyn went to live with his stepfamily in Scotland. Although his stepsisters claim that Jocelyn exaggerates this rejection, it is clear that the boy never felt close to his father. After Eton, he did his National Service in the Rifle Brigade. Though he won the Sword of Honour, his father declined to come to the passing-out parade.
Sir Jocelyn Stevens does not see a connection with his unorthodox upbringing and the need he feels today to always get his own way. He does not believe he was spoilt. ‘I don’t think so. Not particularly. I don’t think it’s about getting your own way because quite often you win by going someone else’s way. I don’t work alone.’ Given the privileges he was born to, it would have been understandable if Sir Jocelyn had opted for a life of idle luxury. Instead he became a workaholic, regularly putting in 14 hours a day, and in 1979 this took its toll on his marriage of 23 years, to Jane Sheffield, Lady-in-Waiting to Princess Margaret.
He has been with his present partner, Vivien Duffield, for 18 years. With an estimated fortune of £45 million inherited from her father Sir Charles Clore, she is one of the richest women in Britain. And with her own assertive and unembarrassable manner she is said to be more than a match for Sir Jocelyn. When kept waiting in reception for him once when he was managing director of Express Newspapers she sent a message saying if he did not come down immediately she would buy the paper and fire him. The couple divide their time between houses in London, Hampshire, Scotland, Geneva and Gstaad, and are famous for their extravagant parties.
You have to wonder, then, where Sir Jocelyn gets his motivation to carry on working as fanatically as he does. ‘It’s just that I have always been very determined and have always hated losing. Very bad losers, my family.’ He is not sure why this is. ‘One is born that way or not. I don’t think it happens.’ Not nurture then? ‘No. I don’t think so. Although it may have had something to do with being brought up in the War, quite a tough upbringing.’
His account of how he was offered the job of saving English Heritage is telling. He was in Scotland cleaning leaves out of the gutter when Michael Heseltine rang. ‘There was a thunderstorm and I was soaked to the skin and took ages to come to the phone. He asked me what on earth I’d been doing and when I told him I’d been cleaning the gutter because the house was leaking all over he said, ‘Very appropriate to the job I am about to offer you: chairman of English Heritage.’ I said I didn’t know much about English Heritage except that I hated it and he said, ‘Got it!’ They wanted a fox in the chicken coop.’
It is obvious why Michael Heseltine admires Sir Jocelyn. They are both protected by the same armour of the deliberate philistine. In his new history of the Tory Party, Alan Clark describes Heseltine’s aggression and vanity; he also refers to his unpredictability, cunning and low intellect. There are other parallels. Both are self-parodying, single-minded and ruthless in their pursuit of power. Both are electrifying orators. Both love it when they are the victim of satirists or cartoonists. Heseltine tried to buy his Spitting Image puppet. Sir Jocelyn has on his office wall several large cartoons which depict him as a tyrant. All the staff I talked to referred to Stevens as ‘The Chairman,’ presumably at his insistence. Heseltine liked to be called ‘The President’ (of the Board of Trade) instead of the more usual ‘Minister’ (for Trade and Industry).
Above all, both men are as hyperactive as children. You can see Sir Jocelyn getting more and more excited as he talks. He is sitting in an armchair which whizzes around on its rollers as he rocks back and forth. The mental image of one of those toy cars which you wind up by chaffing its back wheels against the carpet is irresistible. Any moment now I fear he may stop rocking and the armchair will scoot off to the other side of the room.
Even on brief acquaintance it is obvious that Sir Jocelyn is a force of nature: that this is why no one has ever dared to stand up to him and why he assumes he will always be forgiven for his obnoxious behaviour. He could never be accused of being a dull conformist and this – along with his vitality and brio – is his saving chracteristic. He seems civil enough to me, jolly in fact; perhaps, dare one say it, even a little charming in his way. But having never witnessed him become incandescent with rage, I have no claim to objectivity. That’s not to say I haven’t heard first-hand accounts of his tantrums, though, including one occasion when he was overheard on a street corner screaming into his mobile phone at his chauffeur who was late in picking him up: ‘You are a worthless fucking worm.’
Mercurial, then; and volatile. And quite the Dominatrix. But it is difficult to gauge whether his bluff manner and irrepressible enthusiasm conceals extreme cleverness or bestial stupidity. Although everyone thinks of Sir Jocelyn as an arch Tory, Tony Blair was happy to see him re-appointed as chairman of English Heritage for another three years, which suggests that Sir Jocelyn has good political instincts. It is clear from listening to him that his passion for conserving England’s heritage is genuine. He believes that a nation which doesn’t care about its past has no future. ‘I am an old-fashioned patriot,’ Sir Jocelyn says. ‘Always been. Love this country. Hugely proud of it.’
The trouble is when I ask him whether he would have been equally committed and enthusiastic if Michael Heseltine had rung and asked him to save a football club instead of English Heritage, he says, ‘Yes. Anything.’ For him it is not the cause that is really important, it is the not losing. He’s competitive; not a good sport. ‘Yes. One is in competition with oneself, in a way. One is not racing against someone else’s monument. It’s inbuilt. I can’t bear people who don’t finish a job. You have to overcome the carpet of bureaucracy in England. If you look at the people who succeed in beating it, it is usually impatient people.’ He means angry people. ‘Well anger, I am afraid, is sometimes the only way to get things done.’
It is comments like this which make you suspect that the anger may sometimes be an act. ‘Well, now it’s mostly controlled,’ Sir Jocelyn admits. ‘It wasn’t before. I was quite proficient in the martial arts and I would get physically angry. Even now if someone rammed into the back of my car I would get out and shout, ‘You fucker!’ at whoever did it. It’s a sudden thing. But I have no instinct to throw my weight around any more. One is helped by one’s growing reputation when one arrives at a new job. When I arrived at the RCA, a lot of resignations were already waiting on my desk. These were professors who hadn’t been working. Turning up and getting paid for nothing. They knew they wouldn’t last. They knew that when I arrived here, too.’ He springs from his chair, marches across the room and peels off a sheet of paper that someone has Sellotaped anonymously to the back of his door. ‘Terribly funny, this,’ he says as he hands it to me. Written in black felt-tip pen are the words: ‘We must create an environment where everyone knows and feels that a failure to fulfil orders means death.’
What seems to worry people most about Sir Jocelyn is that he might be a genuine sadist, that he really does enjoy being a bully. ‘No,’ he says. ‘No pleasure. But I do get annoyed. If one is harsh on people, it certainly isn’t with juniors. Most famous example, I suppose, was when Miss Page, now chief executive of the Dome, was stolen from us by the hapless Stephen Dorrell. I was so angry that he hadn’t bothered to tell me that I stormed round, crashed my way in and said, “Right, that’s it. I work like a bloody dog. I expect to be treated civilly.” Someone should have rung and told me. I was angry because it offended my code of trust. He had made a massive breach. I said, “I’m attacking you for bad manners and I will not sit down again in your company, to remind myself of what a shit you are.” So for a month when everyone was sitting down in meetings I would be standing up. It is eccentric but it had an enormous effect. He knows I don’t fear anybody. I’ve never been frightened of anything.’
To overcome your fears in adversity means you have courage.  To have no fears in the first place means you are just or odd. Does Sir Jocelyn acknowledge that there is something a little inhuman about his fearlessness?  ‘It does sometimes puzzle me. In the military I was never frightened. Not at all afraid of dying. Maybe something is missing. I’ve never been to a psychiatrist. Never felt the need to. It’s just the way one sees things. It’s just…’
Frenetic people who throw themselves into their work sometimes do so because they dread being left alone with their own thoughts – for fear of discovering that they are the empty vessels who make most noise. Anything that will distract them from contemplating their inner life will do. ‘No, I don’t have a fear of that,’ Sir Jocelyn says, twiddling one arm of his half-rimmed spectacles. ‘I just want to win. I have obsessions. I’m a perfectionist. That is the curse. It means one is permanently unhappy.’
Another curse seems to be that he always feel bored and restless as soon as things start running smoothly. Like a successful wartime prime minister, he feels disconnected and aimless in peacetime. His feeling of permanent unhappiness, though, is a surprising admission. You’d think he might feel just a teeny bit fulfilled from time to time. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be content because there is always something to do. I mean, as exciting.’
All this is not to suggest that his life has been without its black days. As a young man he got into Trinity College, Cambridge, on the strength of his rowing prowess, only to be sent down for bunking off during term time to go skiing – and sending his tutor a postcard from the Swiss Alps saying, ‘Wish you were here.’ He was sacked from the Express in 1981 when he attempted a management buy out. He had four children, two boys and two girls. One of them, Rupert, was disabled with palsy and died at the age of 22 in 1989.  When another, Pandora, became a drug addict, Sir Jocelyn broke into her squat, carried her out, checked her into a rehab clinic and then had her dealer hunted down and arrested.
‘Oh, you can’t help but get depressed some times,’ he says blithely. ‘God, I feel low some times. But my first reaction is not to take things personally or give up but to pick myself up and start again.’ But if you are thick-skinned enough to keep bouncing back, does that not make you shallow? Sir Jocelyn pinches the bridge of his nose. ‘I’m not that thick-skinned. One does have bad moments but not very often. One has been very lucky. Come and have a look at this.’ He jumps up again and shows me two giant rectangular photographs of Stonehenge; one shows the site with a road, one with it airbrushed out. ‘See how much better it looks.’
He looks at the watch first on his right hand, then on his left, he really must get on and finish proof reading his report on Stonehenge right now.  The nagging question still has to be asked. Why two watches? It turns out this is the first day Sir Jocelyn has worn both. He is trying out an old one, which he doesn’t trust. The only other person he’s ever known to wear two was Lord Mountbatten. Sir Jocelyn was being driven by him one day in his Land Rover when he made the mistake of asking the time as they were approaching a gate. He mimes Lord Mountbatten taking both hands off the steering wheel to check his watches. ‘Crashed right into the bloody thing!’
He roars with laughter, slaps me on the back and sends me tottering unsteadily into the pony-sized wooden dog which I have been trying so desperately to ignore.


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.