Magnus Carlsen earns £1m a year and is mobbed by screaming fans wherever he goes. Why? Chess… and attitude. Nigel Farndale meets the 22-year-old Norwegian who next month aims to become world champion

Over the course of an hour, on a cloudless afternoon in Oslo, Magnus Carlsen sinks from an upright sitting position to an open-legged slouch, to an almost full stretch, as if on a psychiatrist’s couch. And that, I’m sure, is where his opponents would like to see him, preferably after he has unravelled mentally, in the manner of one-time chess world champion Bobby Fischer.

Carlsen jokes that he’s only 22, so there is “still plenty of time for the crazy”. But for now the crazy seems a long way away. And before then the young Norwegian is likely to become chess world champion himself, when he has his first shot at the title in November. In one of the most anticipated clashes since Fischer-Spassky in the 1970s and Karpov-Kasparov in the 80s and 90s, Carlsen will be taking on the 43-year-old five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand in India. Vishy, as he is known, has been in intense training for the match for three months. Carlsen has a much more relaxed approach. It is part of his genius.

You might think that an overused and ill-defined word, but no other will suffice. This genius is the reason Carlsen is known as “the Mozart of chess”. It’s not so much to do with his mercurial gifts – such as his ability to memorise thousands of games, or to beat 10 strong players simultaneously, blindfolded – but his style of play. He makes his moves more by intuition than analysis, feeling for them rather than thinking them through. And there is harmony in his moves – music, you might say.

Not surprisingly then, chess fans, too, might like to see Carlsen on the couch, or rather hear what he has to say and get inside that beautiful mind of his. For he is still an enigma, despite his very public rise from child prodigy to youngest world number one at 19 and finally, last year, becoming the highest-rated player in history.

I first met Carlsen when he was 13, at his grandparents’ house overlooking an inlet of sea, on the outskirts of Oslo. He had just become the world’s youngest grandmaster and had never done a newspaper interview before. He wasn’t shy and introverted quite, more… bored. His father, Henrik, an oil executive who was a keen though average chess player, filled in the gaps in our conversation and revealed that from an early age Magnus had been able to perform impressive feats of memory, reciting countries, populations and so on, but that it wasn’t until he was eight, when sibling rivalry drove him to beat his older sister at chess, that he really began to focus on the game. Back in 2004, young Magnus humoured me when I asked if I could play a game with him. It may not have been pretty, but at least it was over quickly, and he looked bored throughout. I have no intention of reminding him of that painful drubbing today.

The look of boredom is to do with his brooding features, a sulky mouth and a heavy, almost Neanderthal brow, which furrows when he concentrates. These looks, I should add, led to him being named one of “the sexiest men of 2013” by Cosmopolitan, and have earned him lucrative modelling contracts, appearing alongside the Hollywood actor Liv Tyler in advertising campaigns for the fashion brand G-Star. And they are combined with a slow-burn, lopsided smile that starts on one side of his mouth and creeps across his face like a shadow. He does that during matches, when he realises he has a checkmate in his sights. It must put the fear of God into his opponents.

I ask him if he ever feels sorry for them. “Not really,” he says in a low, measured voice, traceried with Norwegian. “But I find it more difficult to play opponents who I feel, for whatever reason, aren’t approaching the games with a sufficient level of seriousness. For instance, once at a big tournament I saw a player I was due to play the next day have a couple of drinks. Knowing that just ruined my concentration, because I thought how can I play seriously against someone who has drinks the day before?”

We describe him as a genius; does he think he is one? Carlsen sinks lower on the sofa. “No, I am not. I’m just really, really good at what I do. I’m fortunate to do something I love, but I’m not a genius.” How would he describe himself then? “I guess I’m pretty laid back.” As he says this he sinks lower still into the sofa, as if to illustrate what he means. Is it a pose? I don’t think so. The posture suits his personality, his languor. “But I am also determined when it comes to chess. I don’t like conflicts, apart from on the board. In general I am very different to how I am on the board.”

From the age of 13 he was a household name in Norway. Did he get picked on at school for that? “Not really. Some people I didn’t like, and they didn’t like me and would occasionally call me names, but it didn’t really bother me. I used to like provoking people and occasionally they would retaliate.” I ask him if his three sisters kept his feet on the ground, teased him. “Yes, they didn’t give me any special treatment.” His father told me that he could be stubborn. “Yes definitely, especially with my sisters, because they are also stubborn.”

An example of this stubbornness was his decision to forgo a university education. ‘My parents wanted me to go, but at some point I lost interest in formal education and they were OK with it. I wasn’t paying much attention so I wasn’t great at school.” That low boredom threshold again. Does he get bored easily? “Yes, in my later years at school I was bored, not necessarily because it was too easy, but because it didn’t interest me.”

Today Carlsen is wearing a grey blazer adorned with his sponsors’ logos, and the steel and glass building I meet him in is home to another of his sponsors, an investment bank. Unusually for a chess player he makes more than £1m a year in sponsorship, and he doesn’t seem to mind performing stunts as part of his contractual obligations, such as the blindfold simultaneous games. In fact, he seems to enjoy doing them and says he wants to take on 20 players next time. “When you think about chess all the time you are playing blindfolded anyway, sort of. But I can understand why other people find it freaky. One of the beauties of chess is that you don’t need a board either to play or analyse.”

Boards are rarely set up around his home, he adds, because he doesn’t need them to train. Nor does he rely on computers as much as other leading players. “I use them to analyse my openings, but in tournaments my assumption is that I am the best player there. That is why I seek positions where computer analysis can’t play that much of a role, or where I can analyse it better than a computer.” Not short of self-belief then.

Back in 1997 when Deep Blue, the IBM supercomputer, beat Kasparov, it caused a sensation and there was much debate about man v machines. There is no longer a debate. The best machines can beat the best humans. Carlsen tells me he doesn’t play against them any more. “I never had any fun playing computers. It doesn’t bring me satisfaction to beat them and losing to them is always painful.”

Losing to Deep Blue disturbed Kasparov’s equilibrium, I note. Big time. “Yeah, but I think every loss damages Kasparov. He’s one of those people,” says Carlsen. “He didn’t think he was going to lose to Deep Blue, but towards the end of the match he was nervous and second guessing himself all the time, and I think basically he beat himself.”

Computers don’t suffer mental fatigue, of course. What about when Carlsen has been playing for seven hours at a stretch? Does he get headaches? “No, not really, but I do get tired. I can’t sit there for seven hours straight. I need to freshen my mind by going for a walk.”

Ah yes, the pacing, for which he is known. Is it gamesmanship? Chess, after all, lends itself to psychological warfare – Mikhail Tal’s infamous hypnotic stare, for example, or the kicks that Petrosian administered under the table to his rival Korchnoi. “No, the pacing is to let my mind wander before getting back to the game with a fresh perspective.”

There are more possible games in chess than there are atoms in the solar system — and even to try to think about that statistic makes you dizzy. Yet grandmasters welcome such intellectual vertigo and refer to being in “the tank”, a place where they can enjoy losing themselves, their sense of time, as they swim around with ideas. Even so, when he considers a move for a long time, for an hour, say, running variations round and round in his head, does he ever feel like he’s being driven mad?

“A little, maybe. But if I study a position for an hour then I am usually going in loops and I’m probably not going to come up with something useful. I usually know what I am going to do after 10 seconds; the rest is double checking.” He calls this process verifying his intuition. “Often I cannot explain a certain move, only know that it feels right, and it seems that my intuition is right more often than not.”

there are parallels between Carlsen and Bobby Fischer, the only other “western” chess world number one. Both made their name at a tender age with an audacious queen sacrifice, both had their childhoods distorted by fame and both are fanatical about physical fitness. Carlsen is a member of the gym in his new apartment complex; he is also a keen skier and football player. “I’ve recently started playing for a team here in Oslo. I play at left back where I can do least damage.”

And yet I’ve heard that, when not exercising, he is quite lazy. Is that fair? “Yes, I am quite lazy, I like to sleep in until noon. Most of my friends have jobs.” He does “a bit of yoga”, although he adds: “So far I haven’t thought of any brilliant chess moves while lying down.”

Does he dream about chess in his sleep? A long sigh. “Occasionally, but these dreams are usually connected with something negative. I am losing to players I never normally lose to and I am arriving late and being defaulted; that happens so many times in my dreams – I don’t know why.”

Fischer was single for most of his troubled life. Carlsen doesn’t have a girlfriend at the moment. “I haven’t had too much time to develop any serious relationships, recently anyway. I’m hoping after the world championships I will be able to change that.”

I imagine a girlfriend will have to be at least knowledgeable about chess. “Yeah. Probably. But it’s also nice to…” He trails off. “I really don’t like it when I go out and some girls start talking to me about how they played chess with their grandfather as a kid, I can’t stand that. It’s boring. I want to talk about whatever else.”

I ask about his emotional landscape: does he cry? “I was really upset yesterday when I tried to install my new TV and there was no sound. But that was more frustration. Cry? I don’t really. I get angry, but mostly about chess.”

I suppose the issue I am circling around is the one he jokes about, “the crazy”. Is he protective of his mental health, worried about losing his mind in the way Fischer did? “It was probably only the chess keeping him sane. He would have gone insane much quicker without it. His story is very different to mine. He had a difficult upbringing. Difficult relationship to his family. I have lived a much more sheltered, normal life. As normal as it could be, considering how much I travelled.”

Shortly before he became a grandmaster at 13 (Fischer became one at 15, Kasparov at 17) Carlsen’s parents sold their car, rented out their house and took him and his sisters out of school to explore the world for a year. Their travels took them to Reykjavik, Iceland, scene of the epic Cold War-by-proxy Fischer-Spassky match – and it was here that Magnus himself took a leap into legend when he found himself playing the great Kasparov. They drew, but not before the young Magnus had got bored and wandered off. Kasparov was rattled but has since become Carlsen’s champion, even working as his coach for a while. He has said, indeed, that such will be Carlsen’s dominance of the game for the next couple of decades, it will be known as “the Carlsen era”.

In August, Carlsen was out in Chennai, India, doing a recce, and was greeted by 2,000 cheering fans, mostly female. One reason for the trip was to try the food in the hotel where the tournament will be held, to check it wouldn’t make him sick. Still, he’s planning to bring a Norwegian cook along anyway.

“I generally try to eat healthily, avoid quick carbs that make your blood sugar go up and down, which is bad for concentration.” He eats one and a half hours before a game, and tries to sleep until as close to the start of the game as possible, “because my mind works best four or five hours after I wake up”.

In the nearby harbour a foghorn sounds. Carlsen’s manager enters and says our photographer is ready. As we head up to the roof terrace, he asks me if I play chess. Before I can answer, Carlsen says: “Yes, I played him when I was 13.” He has remembered. Of course he has. He then vaults athletically over the railings. A grandmaster, yes. A typical one, no.


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.