An author should be allowed his vanities. In the case of the historian Sir Martin Gilbert, the vanities fill two whole shelves of his library in North London. These are the books he has written since he graduated from Oxford in 1960, more than 75 of them. ‘This is where I start,’ he says, tapping the spine of one. ‘And here is my latest.’ He taps another, Churchill and the Jews, published this month. ‘Two shelves in chronological order. And over here….’ he rakes the backs of his fingers along another shelf, playing the spines as if they were piano keys. ‘… over here are my new translations.’ The steady, resonant tock of a grandfather clock can be heard in the room, dulled by the wall-to-wall books. ‘It’s a little vanity every author must be allowed.’
Actually this is a house, not a library. ‘I bought a five bedroom house, turned the smallest bedroom into my bedroom and put up shelving in the rest. Three floors of books. ‘What can you do?’ he says, almost apologetically. ‘An historian has to read.’ A tour of his shelves is revealing. Here is a book inscribed by Harold Wilson, for whom Gilbert once worked as an advisor. Here is the new book on cricket by John Major, for whom he also worked, advising him on the special relationship with America and accompanying him on trips there. On his most recent trip to the States, incidently, Gilbert attended the white tie banquet held in honour of the Queen at the White House. He was the only British guest present at the personal invitation of the president, as opposed to the British ambassador. ‘He remembered me from a talk I gave to his staff at the White House a few years ago.’
His subject?
‘War leadership.’
So he’s to blame!
‘No, no!’ Gilbert laughs wheezily. ‘It was after that.’
The 70 year old author has the energetic bearing and lucidity of a younger man, but his voice is subdued, his delivery careful. He is not afraid to leave long pauses as he mulls over a thought or searches for a precise word. Precision is his modus operandi. That and pedantry. ‘For me the word pedant is a paean of praise.’ He lectures regularly — he is a visiting professor at the University of Western Ontario, as well as an honorary fellow of Merton College, Oxford — and earlier today he gave a talk at University College, London. But most of his time is spend in scholarly silence broken only by the ticking of the clock and the rustle of a manuscript. This is where he works, when not in America or, the other country he visits frequently, Israel.
Sir Martin — he was knighted in 1995 for services to history and international relations —  is on his third marriage (he has a 40 year old daughter from his first and two sons in their twenties from his second). Clearly industriousness does not come without a domestic price. A measure of his output is the ‘by the same author’ page at the front of his books. Most authors have one. He has two. Among his most important works listed there are his one volume histories of the first and second world wars and his seminal history of the Holocaust. But it is for his eight volume biography of Churchill — as well as its numerous companion papers — that his reputation rests. In addition to these he has written more than a dozen themed books on Churchill, such as Churchill and America. But his finest and best selling work is the single volume Churchill: A Life, published in 1991, written in long hand with a new fountain pen bought for the task, and running to almost a 1000 pages. It is definitive.
He has had one huge advantage over the countless other pretenders  to the Churchill biographer crown: he is the official biographer and therefore the only man with, as it were, an ‘access all areas’ backstage pass. The story of how he pulled off this coup is an object lesson in timing and networking. In 1962, while working as a junior research fellow at Oxford, he approached Lady Diana Cooper, widow of Duff Cooper who had resigned from the cabinet after Munich, and asked if he could read any of her late husband’s unpublished material. She was impressed by him and wrote to ‘Darling Randy’ her friend Randolph Churchill: ‘Martin Gilbert loves Duff and hates the Coroner and is full of zeal to set history right. Do see him.’ (The Coroner was Chamberlain.) Randolph, who at  the time was researching his father’s archive with a view to writing a major biography, began sending Gilbert telegrams asking to see him. Gilbert was reluctant at first because, well, I’ll let him tell it: ‘Randolph invited me to Stour, his seat in Bergholt, Suffolk, but I was loathe to go because I had seen him drunk and loud mouthed at the Randolph Hotel bar and had heard about his unpleasant, extreme right wing views — views bordering on the fascist. He had a reputation for being what was then known as a fascist beast.’
Randolph was, indeed, known as ‘the beast of Bergholt’. He proved friendly enough though. One of his first questions to the young Gilbert was: ‘Are you musical? all Jews are musical.’ He was eccentric, too. He would refer to archive discoveries as ‘Lovely grub’. ‘History was for him a feast, full of delicious morsels,’ Gilbert says. ‘And so, despite his unpredictable rages, it became for me.’ Randolph would explode frequently, blowing hot and cold, but he took to his protégé because he didn’t ‘wilt under fire’. Gilbert recalls having to stay up until 2am on his first night at Stour, standing his ground. Next morning as Randolph was cheerfully pottering on his terrace, ‘his dressing gown blowing in the wind, his slippers shuffling on the flagstones’ he asked Gilbert to work for him, as one of a team of five researching the Churchill papers. ‘I thought it would last six months. It lasted a lifetime.’ When Randolph died in 1968 at the age of 57 Gilbert was the chosen successor. The Churchill papers were brought across country from Stour in a pantechnicon, under police escort and put, for safety, into the basement of the Bodleian library. They weighed 15 tons. ‘Merton gave me a sabbatical in 1970 and it lasted several decades.’
It’s a massive archive, and Churchill is a massive subject, arguably the most important in history — was he not overwhelmed by the scale of his task? Gilbert smiles thinly. ‘I’ve arranged the archive material for my next book on Churchill in my studio next door. I’ll show you if you like. You’ll be the first person to see it.’ He leads the way out of the house and around the corner to a modern looking studio. There are 25 desks lined up end to end, each with a pile of green papers on it, stacked according to years. ‘I’m beginning to think that it was a mistake laying them out like this. It does look daunting, doesn’t it? I aim to go through each file systematically. I decided not to use the catalogue. If you skip files that say “miscellaneous” then that is the file where the nugget will be.’
Initially the Churchill books took an age to research because of the official secrets act. ‘When I started working for Randolph in 1962 you couldn’t see anything after 1912. I remember visiting John Profumo to ask his permission to see just one or two files from the thousands on Churchill at the War Office in the  First World War.’
Although he never formally met his subject, he does remember being struck by how short he was the first time he saw him walking out of Downing Street in 1955. When I ask what the one question is he would ask Churchill if he walked into the room now he  reflects for a full minute, drumming his fingers. ‘Did he believe in 1903 that when he set up the Unionist Free Traders that he might be able to persuade the Tory party to adopt free trade. Or did he accept that he would have to become a liberal at that stage and that that was his way of signalling to the Tories and liberals that tariffs were an issue that he was not prepared to compromise upon.’
Oh. Well, I did ask. But given all the intrigue in Churchill’s life I had been expecting something more colourful. I try a different tack: does Gilbert ever catch himself talking to Churchill as he is working, you know, muttering to himself? ‘No, I don’t. And I’ve only twice dreamt about him. Once when I was having a real problem with the Dardanelles chapters and I was walking along the seafront and there he was in front of me. I rushed up to ask this pedantic question that was bugging me. The other time was a few weeks ago. He was being affable and pleased to see me.’
Gilbert has dedicated many, many years to the study of this one man — a lifetime, indeed — does he feel his subject has overshadowed his own life? ‘Not really, because I very deliberately tried to do some other pieces of writing in between the Churchill volumes. And I’ve always made an effort to read writing other than his own, so as not to lapse into a parody of his style.’
As well as a being an adventurer, a hard drinker and a maverick, Churchill had experience of war and understood its exhilarations and traumas. He also, of course, made history, rather than observing it from the sidelines. Sir Martin is 70 now. When he looks back at his own life does he feel a certain ennui, a sense of having lived a flat life by comparison with his hero’s, as an observer of history rather than a maker of it? ‘I know what you mean but no, I don’t think…I did my National Service but I had no aspirations to be a solider. I just published a book on the Somme and every page was difficult to write. I kept thinking back to my mindset at 20 and wondering whether I would have survived a day and kept sane. Churchill did, incidentally. He wrote a letter to his wife after two months in the trenches: “All the excitement dies away and there is only dull resentment.”’
His latest book is the marriage of his two big subjects, Churchill and the Jews. There was some controversy about it early this year when a Cambridge academic claimed to have found an anti-Semitic article that had been ghost written for Churchill — the article, which was never published, described Jews as ‘Hebrew bloodsuckers’. Gilbert swatted the academic away like a fly, pointing out that 1) he had first unearthed this document 20 years ago and quoted from it in a book and that 2) Churchill had refused to have the article published because he disagreed with it.
He asks to see my copy of  his new book. I hand it over gingerly, pointing that I have annotated it throughout. He tells me not to worry and turns to a page in which he quotes Churchill’s instructions to the ghostwriter. When he has read it he says: ‘… So we do know what he was thinking…’ This leads me to ask about something that has been bothering me. Even though he can claim to know the mind of Churchill better than anyone, he never speculates about what Churchill was thinking. Why is that? ‘Well I was fortunate with this book in that I didn’t need to because I had access to the secret evidence Churchill gave to the appeal commission on Palestine. It reveals his true positive feelings towards the Jewish state and his contempt for the Arabs. He had wanted his evidence destroyed in 1937 but his secretary Mrs Hills, who I knew, never threw anything away. She kept the proof copy. Thank you, Mrs Hills. She performed a service to history. Other prime ministers were more successful in destroying their archives. I had two spells of working for Harold Wilson and he used to just screw up documents and drop them in the waste paper basket. I saw him do it. “That is my archive,” he would say.’
Although speculation is not Sir Martin’s game, he has tried to piece together the substance of  Churchill’s private conversations. ‘I found an account of him warning Lloyd George that he must not have too many liberal Jews in his cabinet. Three being too many. That was in 1917.’
One of the difficulties in having Churchill as an historical subject was that he wrote so much history himself. Would it be fair to say that the difference between them as writers of history is that Churchill liked to tell a story whereas Gilbert prefers to stick to documented evidence? ‘Yes, Churchill liked the purple passages and the grand sweeps which are fun to read but they don’t advance the narrative.’ Historians who resort to the word ‘perhaps’ are simply trying to mask their failure to get to the truth, he adds. Perhaps, I say, but at least that is more fun. Gilbert smiles the thin smile. ‘I believe in true history. What happened in the past is unalterable and definite. Failure in historical research is no crime. It is one of the hazards of the profession.’ He also thinks you have to be careful not to leap to conclusions that the evidence does not support — ‘Wanting something to be the case does not make it so.’ This may be why he is regarded in the profession as more a chronicler of history than an interpreter of it. Perhaps.
Bearing in mind the current success enjoyed by TV historians such as David Starkey and Simon Schama, as well as the astonishing sales of books such as Stalingrad, I ask him why he thinks we are all suddenly so obsessed with history. ‘I think because it is now history. My generation lived through that war. It wasn’t history to us then. Now it is far enough in the past to seem very different from our lives. When I was writing about the Somme I thought: how do you describe what Britons went though? At least the Second World War had movement. But there is no movement in the First World War and I think that is why Americans are now anxious about Iraq. There is no movement. It has become a war of attrition.’
Speaking of which, I cannot help noticing a small stars and stripes flag on his desk. ‘That? The first President Bush gave it to me. We were filming in the White House and I gave him a copy of my Second World War book. Six months later, when Saddam invaded Kuwait, I started getting messages from journalists asking: “Did Churchill believe in assassination?” “What was Churchill’s view of one country invading another?” I was puzzled then I was told that on Air Force One that morning the president had produced my book and said: ‘I’m going to go into Kuwait. This book is proof I should do it.” The journalists had assumed it was my Churchill book. It wasn’t. It was the Second World War book I had given him.’
Timing and networking again. In his memoirs Bush describes how he had read the first 15 pages of the book, the ones which describe how the Germans had  begun killing civilians within days of invading Poland — mayors, priests, clerks. ‘Bush said he wasn’t going to allow history to repeat itself.’
So Gilbert was to blame for that war, too, I say.
He laughs wheezily, his face creasing momentarily before resuming an expressionless composure. A thought hangs between us unsaid: the historian did have a hand in history, after all. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.


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.