Everyone seems to have a soft spot for Matthew Parris – apart from Matthew Parris. So why on earth has the Tory MP turned star columnist written an autobiography? Nigel Farndale finds out

As an experiment I’ve been trying to think of something rude to say about Matthew Parris. But whatever I come up with I find he has already said much worse about himself.

By his own estimation he is cowardly, feeble, sour, lightweight, calculating and prissy. There’s also a faint odour of sanctity about him. And he has a scrawny build and buck teeth. These are some of the descriptions he uses in Chance Witness, his autobiography, which will be published on Friday.

The self-flagellation is intriguing, given that, as a broadcaster and columnist, he seems to inspire nothing but affection in the British public, just as Alan Bennett, Michael Palin and John Mortimer do. He is held in high esteem by his peers, too; indeed the famously acerbic Auberon Waugh once called him ‘a prince among journalists’.

“Yes,” Parris counters, in his soft, clear, breathy voice. “But before Auberon Waugh met me he said he supposed from my literary style that I was a small man with an unsatisfactory moustache.’ He grins. ‘Actually I had a rather splendid and luxuriant moustache.”

We are in Matthew Parris’s garret-like flat in Limehouse, east London, overlooking the Thames, accompanied by the sound of lapping water and crying seagulls. The room is a mixture of bohemian sophistication and student digs: fat half-spent candles, maps on walls, open atlases on tables, paintings, kilims, a rucksack, an ironing board and a clothes horse on which washing is drying.

There is a hammock stretched between two supports and across this a sleeping bag is draped. Parris returned from a walking holiday in the Carpathian mountains yesterday and has yet to finish unpacking.

Tomorrow he is heading for his house in the Peak District, the one where he keeps the llamas he mentions so fondly in his Spectator column. He spent most of the summer in the Pyrenees, in the manor house he is restoring there.

Although Parris has a disarmingly boyish grin (his original crooked front teeth had to be removed and replaced with capped ones in 1986 before he was permitted on screen to present a current affairs programme), he often talks with his hands self-consciously covering his mouth.

He maintains contact with his big, mild eyes, though. Fixes you with them. He’s embarrassed about writing an autobiography, isn’t he? That’s what all the self-deprecation is about. “Yes.” Grin. “If I found myself asked to review a 500-page autobiography by a jumped-up columnist who had reached the age of 53, I would file just one word: ‘Why?'”

So, why? “This may sound tortured but perhaps the best way of selling the fact that I am, despite appearing vain, publishing an autobiography is to display my sense of guilt at writing it. That way people might forgive me.”

He’s right, that does sound tortured. “It’s not self-loathing, it’s just I’m highly critical of other people and I apply the same standards to myself, and I find I really don’t come up to scratch a lot of the time.”

He need not feel so apologetic about the book. It is as whimsical, outrageous and deftly written as you would expect a book by Matthew Parris to be, and his life story has more than enough picaresque mishap, as well as sexual and political intrigue, to justify a biography.

He was born, the first of six children, in Johannesburg, where his (British) father, an electrical engineer, was working at the time. He attended schools in Cyprus, Rhodesia and Jamaica, and became a solitary, sometimes bullied child, but also an impatiently strong-willed and precocious one.

When, aged 19, he came to England to read philosophy at Clare College, Cambridge, he decided, rather bullishly, to become either a diplomat, a spy or an MP. He had known for some time that he was attracted to men, though, and, for the sake of his career, he resigned himself to a life of celibacy.

This proved hard and, feeling miserable and lonely, he turned to his moral tutor for advice: he was sent to see a psychiatrist. “In retrospect, I didn’t need a psychiatrist. I needed a ‘Gay Guide to London’.”

He changed subjects, to law, took a first, and was recruited by MI6, only to turn the job down on the grounds that he thought himself too unreliable: “I am not discreet, not self-effacing, not patient, not heterosexual.”

He was also offered a job as an administrative trainee at the Foreign Office, one which would be held open for him while he took up another offer, of a fellowship in America, to read International Relations at the Ivy League university Yale.

He dropped out after two years, returned to take up his job offer in England, found he hated the civil service, or at least the protocol that went with it, and applied to London Transport for an apprenticeship as a diesel-fitter. He was rejected (for being overqualified) and so went to work as a speech writer for, and personal assistant to, the then leader of the Opposition, Margaret Thatcher.

In 1979, at the age of 29, he was selected as a Conservative MP for West Derbyshire, beating a shortlist that contained Peter Lilley and Michael Howard. (Naturally, in his book, he puts this ‘fluke’ down to newspaper reports of how he had jumped in the Thames on a wintry night to rescue a dog, an act of bravery for which he was awarded an RSPCA medal… and the British do love their dogs.)

He held the seat for seven years – ‘The Tory Party itself was ghastly and many of its members unspeakable; but it became mine” – before prompting a by-election when he resigned to take over from Brian Walden on the political discussion programme Weekend World, a job which lasted for two years before the show was axed.

(He had come to the attention of television executives in 1984 when he agreed to take part in a documentary to see if an MP could live off social benefit for a week in a Newcastle council flat: he could, but only just.)

His parliamentary career reached its modest peak when he was verbally offered a job as a parliamentary private secretary to Patrick Jenkin, the then Environment Secretary. But the offer was sheepishly withdrawn when Parris took a principled decision to make it clear that he was gay and wasn’t prepared to pretend otherwise for the sake of the party’s image.

“But I don’t think being gay was the only thing that kept me back in politics,” he says. “I was also the wrong type.

“I get irritated with gay men who say everything they ever failed at was because people were prejudiced against them. I’m pretty sure John Major would have made me a minister, and I wouldn’t have been any good at it, and he would have had to sack me.”

This comment seems typical of his style: big claims, undercut by modest disclaimers; a blend of playful confidence and hand-wringing diffidence. Was it that the Establishment just didn’t think gays were trustworthy?

‘That they must be deviant, you mean? No, I don’t think so. There has been an irrational hatred toward homosexuals for centuries, and society has tried to find a way of justifying it.

“They said that being gay in public life made you blackmailable, which is unjust. So unfair. It made me so angry.” He thinks his party has come a long way since then. “It’s rather sweet. It’s like a dad trying to be cool. At least they are trying.”

But, as he reveals in his autobiography, his first sexual encounter was with a woman. It didn’t sound terribly romantic. “No!” he says with a laugh. “It really wasn’t!” It was with a tipsy Jamaican woman, on a beach. She had sex with a friend of his who then rolled off her and was ready for sleep.

She was not and so Parris took over. “I didn’t especially dislike it [heterosexual sex] after that. It’s just I could take it or leave it. I left it.”

Has he ever thought about what it would be like to have children? “Oh, I would love children. I don’t entirely rule the possibility out.

“When I’m 58 I might go to Bolivia and marry a South American Indian and have nine children, if only for the astonishment it would cause among my friends. I should like half-caste children, partly for aesthetic reasons, partly because it strengthens the human race.”

Does he have a partner at the moment? “No, I never have had really, in that romantic/domestic sense. I’ve got one very good friend who is definitely my best friend in the world but it’s not a sexual relationship.”

Is it that he finds it hard to fall in love? “I’ve never fallen in love. I fancy people every five minutes but that isn’t the same as falling in love. At times when I haven’t had companionship or comradeship – chap-like words – I’ve missed it very much.”

He tried ‘cruising’ for the first time on Clapham Common, at the age of 26, and never looked back, not least because it made him a more confident person generally. “Before that day, my hands had always shaken. They have never shaken since.”

Once when out on the Common he was beaten up by ‘two queer-bashers’. And in 1998, when Ron Davies, then Welsh Secretary, had his ‘moment of madness’, it prompted Parris to recount in print his own ordeal.

This in turn lead to him being invited on to Newsnight and to his being asked by Jeremy Paxman to name the other gay ministers in the cabinet. He now regrets ‘outing’ Peter Mandelson, not least because it left him at the eye of a media storm.

But friends and political colleagues soon forgave him, simply, it seems, because he is Matthew Parris, the cheeky boy at the back of the class, the calm-voiced exhibitionist. If it had been Peter Tatchell, a militant gay activist, who had outed Mandelson, it would have been a different story, wouldn’t it?

“Yes, but my air of innocence in that case was 95 per cent genuine. I thought everyone knew already. But you’re quite right. I got away with it where others might not. It’s a truth about sketch- writers that we can deliver ourselves of all kinds of prejudice but because it is in the garb of humour it is accepted.”

He clears his throat. “Sorry, it’s a cough I picked up in the Ukraine. Yes, I’m quite conscious of having got away with more than I deserve by just doing my Noddy act, the, “Oh, Mr Plod, please don’t arrest me,” bit in this slightly breathless ‘where-am-I?’ voice.”

So he isn’t naive at all is he, really? “When John Redwood stood against John Major, who was a friend of mine, I didn’t want Redwood to win so I thought the more ridiculous I can make his launch look in my Times parliamentary sketch the more it will hurt his campaign. That wasn’t a humorist’s response but that of someone with a political axe to grind.”

Others may forgive and quickly forget his indiscretions, but Parris rarely lets himself off lightly. He gives a moving account in his autobiography of an occasion in Mombasa when, aged 18, he was attacked and bound at knifepoint while his companion, Trish, was raped – an episode about which neither have talked publicly since.

Was he trying to exorcise demons? “I don’t believe in therapy by confession. The best way to forget is to forget.” For a long time, though, he hated himself for having submitted so passively to his attacker. “I understood then how shame could make a man want to kill himself.”

He likes to challenge himself physically as well as psychologically. Two years ago he spent five months on an inhospitable sub-Antarctic island, partly out of existential curiosity, partly because he got a documentary out of it.

He regularly runs marathons (in an impressive two and a half hours), climbs mountains, crosses deserts and freefalls from aeroplanes. “Actually, when I first tried parachute-jumping I managed to persuade myself that it might be a plot to kill me, and I was really scared and sick, and I nearly fainted.

“Now I’m determined to do it again and again until I’m not afraid any more. It makes you feel more alive to face your fears.”

He has also faced some unpalatable truths about himself in the book. He relates a story about how he teased a boy, a former friend, who was bullying him at school, by saying, “No wonder your father committed suicide with a son like you.”

He reproached himself from the moment his ‘bitter little voice’ had died away. While writing his book, he took that passage out and put it back in several times. There is another story in which he describes taking LSD at Yale and feeling an urge to kill a repulsive-looking tramp he saw on a bench.

Does he suppress these homicidal feelings when not under the influence of acid? “I’m sure it was worse, in fact. Worse than ‘I want to kill him.’ That would be an understandable if unpleasant human emotion. The feeling was that I want him to be killed. I’d probably rather not have seen it happen.” He hasn’t touched LSD since.

Matthew Parris seems a restless spirit, a contrary man who appears to trade in honest expression but feels he is an impostor; does he feel fulfilled?

“I’m not bothered about having failed to get to the top in politics because it wasn’t the right mountain for me to climb. My main feeling about journalism is of being very lucky, a feeling of gratitude, and a sense of what fun it is. I don’t think I’ve deserved it all.”

I remind him of a jokey note a friend of his left after a drunken evening: ‘Piss off, Parris, you overrated bastard.’

“Yes, exactly,” he says.”That’s how I feel.” Because he is the highest paid broadsheet columnist? “Am I? Golly! I doubt it. It’s probably because I write so much. But do I feel fulfilled? I would like to advance the boundaries of human knowledge in some technical way. But I’m not equipped to do so.

“And I would have liked to have been a good public administrator… Yes, I can see you yawning! But administration is so important. I think it’s from my colonial background.”

Does the urge to invent come from his father? “That may be true but I do happen to be interested in the things my father is interested in anyway.”

Is his father proud of him? “I think fathers are proud of success, but in the early years, when my brother said he wanted to be an engineer, my father said, “Well, at least one of my sons will have had a proper job.”

“I whimper about insecurity,” he continues in his earnest, whispery voice, “but I have always chosen professions where I would be insecure. I don’t think I’m alone in being unsettled by danger and risk and at the same time courting it. It’s a common human paradox.”

Matthew Parris does seem to be the sum of his contradictions: a liberal conservative, a shy show-off who never misses a chance to back into the limelight, an odd mixture of insouciance and vulnerability.

I dare say he plays these things up, for social advantage, and he may know that, ultimately, his reckless candour makes him seem more sympathetic, but essentially he seems an amiable, thoughtful and modest man.

He explains his failure as a television presenter, for instance, in terms of his having started tense and stayed tense. “I was never cut out to be a physical presence and have always had a hankering to be invisible.”

He removes his hands from his mouth and grins. “I think I lack natural arrogance.” But not moral courage. He really should stop being so hard on himself.


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.