From his father, as Sir John Mortimer cheerfully tells everyone, he inherited bronchial asthma, glaucoma and a tendency for his retinas to become detached. He was also bequeathed a number of walking-sticks. On an autumnal Tuesday morning, as I approach the house his father built on a wooded rise near Henley-on-Thames, Sir John waves one of these sticks at me from his study window, which proves that his sight can’t be as bad as he makes out. His father went blind in middle life, though that was never spoken of, and his sticks were clouded malacca with large rubber tips – never white, as that would have been a demand for sympathy.

The study is capriciously arranged: bulging with books and photographs of Sir John’s children and his wife Penny, a pig farmer’s daughter and languages graduate 25 years his junior (he has been married twice, both times to Penelopes, and has eight children, half of them stepchildren from his first marriage). Alongside are children’s poems and painted daubs on yellowing paper; a framed letter written by Dickens; sticks on the window sill, the cupboard and hanging from the filing-cabinet drawer. Mortimer hobbles across this room to greet me, his shoeless feet shrouded in two enormous balls of dressings and socks, like a boxer’s fists beneath the gloves. With a snaggle-toothed grin, he explains that he has unfaithful legs, the result of falls in garden centres and down flights of stairs. I notice splashes of bright turquoise paint on his jumper. Has he been decorating? This tickles him. ‘Oh yes,’ he says. ‘I’m very active around the house.’ He lowers himself on to a creaky wooden chair, and props himself up with both hands folded over the top of his stick. He has a kindly face: heavy-lidded eyes small beneath large owlish spectacles; a crooked mouth with jutting lower lip; an occasionally lolling tongue. He hasn’t been active around the house, of course. As he explained to great comic effect in his third and most recent volume of autobiography, The Summer of a Dormouse, at the age of 78 he spends large parts of every day just planning strategies for standing up. No one should grow old, he writes, who isn’t ready to appear ridiculous. ‘When I do readings from that book,’ he says in a fey, crinkly Old Harrovian voice, ‘people do laugh about my not being able to put on my socks. The effort of having to pee all the time, descending precipitous restaurant steps [to the lavatory], that all goes down rather well, too. The laughter is a form of release. No one really wants to face up to what happens in old age. Even when you are old you don’t think about dying. You proceed as if you’re not going to.’ He laughs wheezily. ‘Very irritating, death.’ This is a typical Mortimer formulation.

When I tease him about accepting a knighthood, despite being an unreconstructed lefty, he says, ‘I just thought it was rather sweet of them to ask.’ Later, when I ask whether his first sexual experience, aged 17, on a common, was a disappointment, he says, ‘No, I thought it was fine. A bit surprising.’ And as an atheist and a liberal he has gone through life, he says, finding potentially unpleasant things, such as churches and Norman Tebbit, ‘unexpectedly charming’. His public insouciance about death, though, conceals a private terror of it. Timor mortis, as he puts it, is for him a vague but constant and unexplained anxiety. Work, as a QC, novelist and playwright, has always helped take his mind off it. (He is the author of 13 novels, including Paradise Postponed and Summer’s Lease, ten books of ‘Rumpole’ stories, ten plays, four translations of libretti, three volumes of autobiography, and several screenplays and television adaptations, including Brideshead Revisited.) Now, though, when he takes on long-term projects, such as writing a film, he wonders whether he will still be around by the time they cast it. ‘I do them anyway to save myself from total boredom. If I just sat here and vegetated I wouldn’t keep alive. I need people rushing around me.’ Next month he is publishing Rumpole Rests His Case, a new collection of short stories about Rumpole of the Bailey, the character who first appeared in 1978 and who has since accounted for a quarter of a million books sold in paperback. Mortimer was, he tells me, up at five this morning writing, as he usually is. I ask if he sees an element of failure in his still needing to write as prolifically as he does, when he is so far past retirement age. Hasn’t he got it out of his system yet? ‘But you could say that about anything. You could say it about sex. You’re never satisfied with sex. You still want to go on doing it. Any activity which is important to you, you have to go on doing. It’s all you have left. Dear old Muriel Spark said the young should just sleep around and look beautiful and not do any work. Work is for the old.’ Is that what he did when he was young? ‘I didn’t look so beautiful.’ But wasn’t he an aesthete, first at Harrow, then at Brasenose College, Oxford? My question is, inevitably for someone who has written so much about his past, a cue for an anecdote. I know it, he knows it, and he does not disappoint. ‘The future Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie was on the same staircase as me and he once asked one of the college staff why I wore purple corduroys and always entertained young ladies to tea. “Mr Mortimer,” he was told, “has an irrepressible member.”‘ He chuckles at the memory. ‘I read law at Oxford, which is the most useless thing you can read. I should have done history or English, then a second degree in law. I read law to please my father. It was predestined that I would become a barrister.’ This seems strange coming from one who is naturally rebellious: from a pillar of the permissive society; from a libertarian in favour of penal reform, fox hunting and promiscuity (he once said the trouble with orgies is that you have to spend so much time holding your stomach in); from a barrister who defended Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960 and the underground magazine Oz against obscenity charges in 1971. Mortimer has spent his whole career rebelling against the Establishment. Why didn’t he rebel against his father? He stares wanly out of the window. ‘Isn’t it funny I didn’t? I suppose it was because I was fond of him and because he was blind. Being a barrister, I thought, would be a good day job for a writer, like waitressing.’ At Harrow Mortimer wore a monocle, carried a cane and, to amuse the other boys, grew mustard and cress in his top hat. But he wasn’t a typical dandy; he was, was he not – and I smile in anticipation at the anecdote I know is coming – a Communist dandy? ‘It’s true,’ he says obligingly. ‘I had a one-boy Communist cell. It was the time of the Hitler-Stalin pact, and I got instructions to slow down production on my factory floor. So I told my fellow pupils to translate Virgil more slowly.’ He found the idea of the Spanish Civil War, ‘of bouncing around dusty olive groves with machine guns’, incredibly romantic. ‘Then came the War and I went into a film unit instead of the Army, and went to union meetings where the sparks called me “brother”. I, having had an upper-class education, was deeply moved. They didn’t judge me, they just thought me comical, I think.’ Where did his libertarianism come from? ‘It came from my dad. The big political moment in his life was the Liberal landslide of 1907. His God was Darwin, so I was never christened. And my mother was an artist who taught painting. She was an Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism type. Much more serious than my dad. I feel guilty about her because I’ve never really written enough about her.’ But he also felt guilty because he wrote too much about his father. ‘She hated that. Thought it ghastly. A lot of things I’ve done she would have thought ghastly. Like building a swimming-pool here. The pit of vulgarity.’ Clifford Mortimer, immortalised in the play A Voyage Round My Father, was by his son’s estimation an irascible, unreasonable and, in many ways, impossible divorce lawyer who drowned earwigs to amuse himself. John’s mother, Kathleen, was a snob. She said of his first wife that she had ‘really nice eyes; not at all the eyes of a divorced person’. She didn’t believe in expressing her emotions and never praised her son. When she heard that he had been made a part-time judge she laughed so much she dropped the phone. Is this why he can never take himself seriously? ‘Yes, perhaps it is. I hadn’t thought of that.’ It’s worse than that, though, isn’t it? Didn’t she leave him with low self-esteem? ‘Yes, but she was very nice to me. I remember one thing she did which was incredible, actually. My father loved Shakespeare [he could recite nearly all of it from memory], and I did all these plays for my dad and my mother, like Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice, with only one actor, me. So I was doing The Merchant of Venice, and my mum suddenly painted on herself a beard and moustache and became Tubal, which is a very minor role in the play. So we had a scene together, my mother and I, in front of my blind father, it was a very silly idea.’ He smiles fondly. Does he regret not having kept such memories private? His parents have become public property; and because he – an only child – still lives in their shadow, in their house, it could be argued that he has cannibalised his own life as well. ‘I have imitated my father. I followed him into the legal profession, I live in his house and I look out at a garden he designed. Maybe the character my father is now in my imagination has replaced the real one. When I wrote Voyage Round My Father I couldn’t remember which were lines he actually said and which I put into his mouth. He has been fictionalised and given to the public. He is rather like Rumpole now. They’re equally fictitious. He went away into a book. I lost him.’ He looks wistfully around the room, as if for a ghost. ‘When Lawrence Oliver did Voyage it was all filmed here. I watched my father dying in the bed upstairs here and then, years later, I watched Lawrence Olivier re-enacting his death in the same bed, with Alan Bates sitting beside him playing me, the whole place full of cameras.’ His father would never allow anyone to come to the house in case they dared to sympathise with his blindness. Having had such a lonely childhood, John was, he says, attracted to the idea of a ready-made family. Penelope the First (as he calls her) was the author of many books, including The Pumpkin Eater. She was aggressive, intense and pessimistic, often introverted and sometimes suicidal. She poured scorn on her husband’s writing, once boasting that she had never managed to finish any of his novels, and in her autobiography she painted a picture of her husband as a mentally cruel and manipulative man ineptly shambling through numerous affairs. She said that she felt like a day tripper to hell being married to him. For his part, John Mortimer said his marriage was bloodstained but never boring. They divorced in 1972, after 23 years, and, when Penelope the First died in 1999, Mortimer found he could remember only the happy times: their first visit to Venice, the No‘l Coward-style songs they wrote and performed for their children. In Summer of a Dormouse, he wrote of her funeral, ‘It is hard to believe that so much talent, anger, humour, dash and desperation could be shut in a long and slender box. The mere act of being alive seems somehow selfish, a cause of guilt.’ Now he says, with a sigh, ‘Although we had a tempestuous time, I can’t say anything but good things about her. I think writing what I wrote was, in a way, cathartic.’ Does he think his character has changed, in that he was faithless in his first marriage and faithful in his second? ‘Well, they were very different types of wives. I think I always thought in those unhappy times that I was going to meet somebody and it would all be much nicer. Which I did. Also, I think that achieving some of the things you want to do doesn’t do you any harm, does it? Or does it?’ He chuckles. ‘You become more comfortable with yourself. I think there was a time in my life when I was much more showing off, much more abrasive.’ Maybe he didn’t like himself that much as a young person, because he hadn’t proved himself, to himself or to his parents? ‘I think that’s true. I was probably this young barrister who was quite conformist, conforming outwardly with the law to begin with. Then I was more seething within. Then there came a time when I could be myself as a lawyer, too. I suppose that’s what you do, you fit into yourself. Also I think all humour, everything, depends on people taking themselves very seriously, having high opinions of themselves. It’s all about puncturing people’s image of their own importance. If my characters were Swedish undergraduates in a steam bath, there would be nothing funny about them.’ In his books he has often found humour in death. Has he thought of his own last words? ‘”The defence rests” would be good. But it’s always something more mundane in real life. My father had this beautiful one. I said, “Do you want to have a bath?” And he snapped, “No.” And I said, “Don’t get angry,” and he said, “I’m always angry when I’m dying.”‘ Sir John has a reputation for not being angry – he has spent years cultivating the genial buffer image – but there is a dark, bitchy side. He has always known that there is a great well of aggression inside him. He can be intolerant, he concedes, but he is better mannered than his father. Also, he has a low boredom threshold, is fickle in the way he drops people, and has never had many close male friendships. Penelope the First suggested he shied away from self-examination, turning everything into anecdote as a means of avoiding unhappiness; gossiping as a defence against introspection. Penelope the Second says that his public urbanity hides a professional insecurity; he is constantly worrying about going bankrupt, or never writing again. Is his reputation for niceness and politeness, his usually thinking the best of people, informed by a fear of making enemies? ‘I think I am a conciliator in arguments. My dad did shout and yell at people, so I don’t like that at all. I didn’t like it when I was young. But actually I think I’m genuinely curious about people, and they do tell me extraordinary things. I think that’s because all my niceness is directed towards [he laughs] pumping them for some ridiculous confidence. People like to confess things to me. They tell me anything. There’s a great division in life. You either think people are fundamentally ghastly and therefore need Draconian treatment and discipline and ordering about otherwise they’ll go mad and rape the traffic warden. Or else you think they are fundamentally decent and rather nice but sometimes they will stray and do misguided things – like trying to become leader of the Conservative Party – through no fault of their own. I definitely belong to the second lot of people.’ He must have met some really unpleasant characters in court? ‘My murderers weren’t real gangsters. I didn’t really do those cases. My murderers were husbands, wives, lovers, best friends – quarrelling, you know – an instant quarrel and then suddenly it goes too far. Those were not particularly nasty.’ Was it that he could relate to them because of his stormy first marriage? ‘I don’t think I was ever really well, I don’t know. We did have fights, physical fights.’ And he knew the weaknesses of the flesh? ‘Yeees, I knew that. I suppose that’s what is disconcerting about these Tories one thinks of, you assume they must be hypocrites or that they’re not fully rounded human beings, because they’ll pronounce upon other people’s moral values as if they are completely without never been unfaithful, which they always are, of course. Either that or they’re like William Hague – sexless men – so you don’t trust them for that reason. I’m quite tolerant on hypocrites, though. I don’t think it matters too much to your beliefs if you can’t live up to them.’ This seems an extraordinary moral code. Does he consider himself to be a moral person? ‘No, not especially. I am, in a way, too detached to be moral. I really regard myself as an observer, someone on the sidelines watching it all. Not judging.’ It’s to do with his being an only child, he thinks. He always wanted to describe his view of the world. At the moment he is writing a play about a hard-hearted judge who says that if you believe that everyone is fundamentally good, then there’s no point in being good. After all, if you forgive all the people who behave badly because they’re fundamentally good, all the decent people don’t deserve a reward for behaving well. ‘I thought it was quite a good point to make.’ Sir John thinks that prison is largely futile, and probably makes people worse. Rumpole Rests His Case contains an attack on Labour’s management of the criminal justice system. ‘My real bogeyman was Michael Howard. His views were poisonous. And then Jack Straw appeared and proved to be an identical twin. I don’t think Mr Blunkett is going to be any better.’ A phone rings. There are two on the table beside him, a black one, and a white one that only rings in the house, so that he can summon help. ‘Is that a white phone? No, I think it’s black. I’ll leave it.’ He returns to his theme. He has become not exactly disillusioned with politics but disappointed with it. ‘The idealism has gone out of it. It is sad. There is nothing left but efficiency, and Labour are not particularly efficient. Politics has become dull and silly. We were much happier in Thatcher’s time – it was comforting to have someone to really hate. I’ve never met her but I did hate Thatcherism, which is now a prevailing creed for this Government. All this idea of education solely for turning out middle managers in computer firms. There is no sense of education as a means to enrich your life or to become more interesting to yourself.’ Although the poignant and wry Summer of a Dormouse is written in the style of a journal – ‘A year of growing old disgracefully’ – it is short on self-revelation. Does he keep a private diary in which he purges himself of his dark thoughts and angst? ‘Oh God, I have angst! But no, I don’t keep a diary. I can’t think of writing as a private performance. What I think of is performing on a page. I think it’s a public showing-off.’ He craves applause? ‘Yes, I don’t know why. I think it does have something to do with being an only child and wanting to be noticed all the time.’ A slight, dark-haired young woman pops her head around the door. ‘Do you have Nick’s number, Dad?’ ‘This is my daughter Rosie. Green’s? No I don’t. If you ring directory enquiries’ She smiles and leaves. Mortimer thinks Rosie, who is a teenager, finds him totally embarrassing. For his part he says the thought that he might not be around to see her grow into her twenties makes him appreciate her more. ‘She went through a bit of a bad patch at school [Bryanston] because she does very little work but is very very good at exams, which irritates the teachers incredibly.’ He can’t have found being an Old Harrovian such a burden in life if he sent his daughter to a public school. ‘Harrow was a big disadvantage in my life in that I was writing in the John Osborne era when to have been to Harrow was, well, I had to keep deadly quiet about that. I’m not proud of having been to Harrow because I didn’t think it was a very good school.’ He has written about how the headmaster had a very laissez-faire attitude to homosexuality. Was he ever seduced by the idea? ‘I never felt that there was anything very wicked about being homosexual, though it didn’t appeal to me; it was about the only thing on offer at the time. I really didn’t meet any girls until I was at Oxford. But the common [near his home] was a great haunt of lesbians. You couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a lesbian – should you have wanted to hit a lesbian with a stone. My lesbian friends used to change into mess jackets for dinner. They were nice to me. Very sweet.’ His career as a womaniser began at 17, and his infidelities from then until his second marriage he now puts down to a delayed adolescence. He thinks Penelope the Second, Lady Mortimer – Penny – has made him less aggressive and sarcastic and much happier. They shout at each other occasionally, but it doesn’t last. As Sir John leads the way through to the kitchen, where a farmhouse lunch of cold meats, salads and pies has been prepared – and, of course, a bottle of Italian wine opened, Mortimer being the man who coined the term ‘Chiantishire’ about his beloved Tuscany – his wife appears and asks if ‘Hezza’, one of their neighbours, is now a lord, because she wants to write and ask him to sponsor her on a charity bike ride across Turkey. He is, I say. Sir John looks thoughtful for a moment. Lady Mortimer and I talk about hunting, her great passion. As a spokesperson for the cause, she has had many telephoned death threats and even razor blades and excrement posted through the letterbox. But she knows no fear – indeed, not long ago she agreed to be photographed wearing just her wellies, while feeding her chickens, for a photography exhibition. Sir John, no longer lost in his thoughts, turns round again and begins shuffling off in the direction from which he just came. A visit to the lavatory before he sits down for lunch, he explains, just to be on the safe side. Such are the amusing indignities of old age.


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.