Warm, clubbable, avuncular, human – these are some of the adjectives that can be applied to the left-wing barrister John Mortimer. They don’t canter to mind, however, when attempting to describe that other high-profile left-wing silk – and champion of the Bradford Twelve, Bridgewater Four and five of the Birmingham Six – Michael Mansfield QC.
It comes as something of a surprise, then, to find oneself sitting upstairs at the chambers which Mansfield founded 13 years ago in London’s Took Street – at a symbolic arm’s length from the Inns of Court – listening to the man brooding upon the dream he had last night. In it, Mansfield is running to catch a train which is to take him to a conference – held in a canteen – but the suitcase he is carrying slows him down. He misses the train and decides to walk there. Everyone else is moving faster than he, and the gravel in the pathway is getting deeper – until it’s like ploughing through thick snow. The briefcase is getting heavier and heavier, he’s going to miss the conference…
It’s all in there: vulnerability, insecurity, the desire to please, the urge toward nonconformity (according to arcane ritual, barristers shouldn’t carry briefcases). And the canteen touch is masterful. It’s almost as if someone had whispered in Mansfield’s ear that it’s endearingly human to have anxiety dreams – that they show there’s more to you than the cold detachment of your public persona – and so he’s rather chuffed about being able to deliver an archetypal example. All right, so the dream is work-related, which makes it rather less revelatory about the inner man than one would have hoped. But it’s still a good dream, by any standards, and it has taken two hours of ruthless cross-examination to coax it out of him.
That’s not strictly true. Interviewing the radical conscience of the Bar does not really involve much in the way of hard questioning. Point a tape-recorder at him is like turning on a tap. And, while Mansfield spouts, you’re at liberty to have an out-of-body experience if you want – a wander over to the window, perhaps, to watch the comings and goings of the young, multi-racial, red-brick-university-educated barristers who gravitate instinctively toward Mansfield’s democratically run chambers like spermatozoa to an ovum. Every half-hour or so, you have to return your body to flip the tape over and brush away the cobwebs that have formed on the upper slopes of your motionless mouth. But otherwise the room is yours to snoop around in as you will.
The monologue seems well-rehearsed – the official version of the rise and rise of Michael Mansfield – but a rather clever oratorical device is assumed to keep it from sounding stale. Although Mansfield has a firm, confident drawl well used to carrying across courtrooms, he puts an unreal emphasis on arbitrarily selected words, as if running on weak batteries that can only occasionally muster a power surge.
Thus, when he’s telling you, unprompted, about the incident that inspired him to become a barrister, he will say: ‘My mother, who was the most law-abiding person you could ever meet, was wrongly arrested for  parking too close to a pedestrian crossing. She fought it and won because, in true Perry Mason style, there was a surprise witness. My father. He had been sitting in the car. The policeman hadn’t noticed him. That was it for the boys in blue because, even when she gave her version, they wouldn’t back off. They just stood up there in court and lied.’
Occasionally, Mansfield will vary the lurching pace of his speech with an impersonation you suspect has been honed down and polished by many years of crowd-pleasing at Islington dinner-parties. When discussing the iniquities of land-mines, for instance, he will offer a passable Nicholas Soames: ‘Of course we can all see limbs blown orf. But that’s missing the point.’ And when explaining how, in the bad old days of the Sixties and Seventies, confessions used to be regarded as the best kind of evidence, he will tuck his thumbs under his lapels and assume the voice of a doddering old judge: ‘Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, what better evidence can there be than the words coming from the lips of the defendant himself? Can you imagine why anyone would want to confess to such a heinous crime?’
While all this is going on, you are given a chance to study his unconventionally handsome face. At 55, Mansfield looks how you imagine Sylvester Stallone will look when he’s 65: bulging eyes, hooded above and bagged below, the loose skin of one who has lost weight, a nose that looks like it might have taken a useful left hook at some juncture, and a bouffant of greying hair that trespasses over the collar at the back. The body language is magnificent. Most of the time Mansfield assumes a Paxman-esque slouch, with the occasional forward shift to rest his chin on a veiny hand. What he never does, however, is make eye contact.
This is a technique of his in court. While speaking, he will close his eyes as if reading from an autocue on the inside of his lids. For the party of the second part it feels like sensory deprivation; after two hours of this isolation treatment, I would have confessed to anything.
Research has shown that given the right circumstances, almost anyone will confess to something they haven’t done. Can Mansfield imagine a situation where he would be forced to confess? ‘I suppose I can really, if pressure were put,’ he says. ‘If you were in Nigeria, say, and you’d been questioned for seven days, the isolation and uncertainty would probably get to you.’
This is why Mansfield believes no prosecution should be allowed based solely on an uncorroborated confession. On the shelves in his office there are ranks of red, yellow and green lever-arch files which support this argument, for they chronicle those cases of miscarriage of justice which Mansfield has made his name fighting. One file reveals how he claimed that two West Midlands police officers had forged one defendant’s signature on a fake statement in order to persuade another to confess to the killing of Carl Bridgewater. In February this year, three of the Bridgewater Four were released on bail, after serving 18 years in prison (the fourth, Patrick Molloy, died in prison in 1981). Three weeks ago they were acquitted.
These files, these cases, are what inform Mansfield’s call for sweeping reforms of the judiciary, the police, and the Crown Prosecution Service. In 1993, following one of the cases – Mansfield’s successful appeal on behalf of five of the Birmingham Six – it looked as if he might get his way. However, the  Royal Commission on Criminal Justice – set up in response to that trial – did not offer the reforms for which he had been campaigning. Indeed, much to his chagrin, it was the Commission which took up the idea of restricting the right to trial by jury – something the then Home Secretary Michael Howard eagerly encouraged – as quid pro quo for its overall support for the maintenance of the right to silence, something which Howard had been against.
Mansfield believes that both rights are sacrosanct. It was with no little irony therefore that in another high-profile case earlier this year Mansfield found himself questioning men who took advantage of their right to remain silent with a sneer. He was representing the family of the murdered black teenager, Stephen Lawrence. The collapse of the inquest meant that a video of the white defendants and their friends, which was secretly shot by the police, was never shown to a jury. In the film, recorded by a camera and microphone hidden in a plug socket, one of the accused men was seen brandishing a knife and boasting to a group of white youths of his desire to maim and kill black people. It made for sickening – and for Mansfield frustrating – viewing. Again three weeks ago, however, Jack Straw announced that there was to be a wide-ranging inquiry into the death of Lawrence. It is a testament to Mansfield’s ubiquity that the announcement was made the day after the acquittal of the Bridgewater Four.
Now that Michael Howard is yesterday’s man – and liberal-minded, anti-Establishment barristers everywhere have been deprived of their bogeyman – you would imagine it is time for the outsider Mansfield to come in from the cold. After all, New Labour is awash with lawyer types sympathetic to the Mansfield mission to overturn every unsafe conviction: there is the prince of champagne socialists himself, John Mortimer; there’s the new Lord Chancellor and friend and mentor to Tony Blair, Lord Irvine of Lairg; and, of course, there’s the Prime Minister’s wife herself, Cherie Booth QC. Surely the Establishment ground has shifted enough for even Mansfield to feel comfortable with it? Not quite. During the election,  Mansfield’s chambers raised £1,250 in support of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party for a candidate to stand against Jack Straw in Blackburn. Although Mansfield himself has always voted Labour, on 1 May this year [1997] he hummed and hah’d and was tempted to put his cross against the more radical Lib Dem candidate’s name. In the end he stuck with Labour and now concedes that he is cautiously impressed with Jack Straw’s record so far.
‘But he’s on the same pitch as Howard,’ he qualifies. ‘Jack Straw’s playing the same kind of game with the same kind of balls. The politicians have a unspoken club and it needs someone from outside to force them to look at the British legal system anew. I have always avoided organisations. They corrupt people and bring with them power structures and jealousies and you find yourself not talking about the issue but going over the minutes. I suppose, in this respect, I’m an anarchist.’
There are other ways to describe this man. When you canvass opinion about him, certain words recur. Ambitious is one. Vain another. Arrogant and chippy also crop up more than once. Fellow barristers are wont to sigh heavily at the mention of his name (although, tellingly, they usually go on to speak of his achievements, and his integrity, in tones of  begrudging admiration). His trouble, as far as the Bar goes, is that he’s not ‘one of us’. Instead of being flamboyant and urbane in court – as barristers tend to be – he doggedly nibbles away at a subject. He will frame his arguments in a systematic, rhetorical, almost proddingly forensic way: abruptly make a point, ask bullyingly if witness, judge and jury agree with it, give it a mental tick and then develop the next phase. Sir Frederick Lawton, the former Lord Justice of Appeal, accused him of obstinate behaviour that exasperated the court. ‘Not a congenial advocate,’ he once sniffed of Mansfield. ‘It never does your client any good.’
On a personal level the suspicion seems to be that he is too good to be true, and too, well, smug about being it: all that liberal posturing, the riding to work on a bike, the vegetarianism, the holidays in the spiritual home of New Labour, Italy – it’s just too much to stomach.
His domestic image isn’t so polished, however. In 1992, he parted from Melian Bordes, his first wife, and five children, then married Yvette Vanson, a TV producer, with whom he has a son. Although the second marriage is going smoothly now, 18 months ago there were reports of an extramarital affair. Mansfield says it caused a great deal of distress and  anxiety for which he is deeply sorry. So there you go.
Professionally, the resentment probably stems from Mansfield’s ability to combine a hectic career at the Bar with his second job as a media lawyer who writes for newspapers and pops up every week as a panellist on Radio 4’s The Moral Maze. The most unforgivable things about Mansfield are that he doesn’t seem to mind what people think of him and, worse, that he somehow manages to wriggle out of the right-on civil-rights lawyer pigeonhole. He can’t disguise the sneer in his voice when he talks about politicians, for instance, but when you ask if there are any that he does actually admire and respect he will say Tony Benn, which is what you expect, and Ted Heath, which isn’t. In addition to all this, the man has the gall to have a hinterland: he plays the drums – jazz mostly – well enough to have been in a band at one time and, for the past year, he has been taking piano lessons to boot. His father, a railway controller at King’s Cross, died unexpectedly from cancer at the age of 62, before he had a chance to get to know his teenage son well. He did, however, have time to teach him the drums and encourage him to take piano lessons from a teacher who, bizarrely, always wore white gloves and galoshes. The trouble was, the young Mickey Mansfield objected to being taught Strauss instead of Duke Ellington. In an act of petulance, he took a kitchen knife and stabbed the middle C wire on the piano at his home.
Some might say this wistful side of Mansfield’s nature has continued into adulthood. One legacy from his childhood which definitely has is his romanticism. As an eight-year-old he was obsessed with The Defenders, an American TV courtroom drama from the Fifties. ‘The heroes, a father and son duo, nearly always lost their cases,’ Mansfield recalls. ‘But they did it with great style. It was the struggle for justice that excited me. Unlike in real-life courtroom dramas, the stories always had a clean beginning, middle and end.’
He doesn’t believe, though, that this formative influence led him to glamorise in his adult imagination the role of the barrister as noble righter of wrongs – even if he has given his own authorised version a neat beginning, with the incident in which his wronged mother fought the law and won. ‘I don’t see it as a particularly glamorous job,’ he says. ‘But I do see it as providing an avenue of justice for someone who is vulnerable who wouldn’t otherwise have access. When I joined I suppose I was in the vanguard of a new approach. At the time you weren’t meant to identify with the client. You were meant to stand back and be objective, like a surgeon. But I believe you should have feelings. That helps you relate to a client.’
Evidence of the romanticism of his childhood – his image of the lawyer as the man in the white hat who comes to the rescue of the underdog – surfaces when you ask him which case he is most proud to have been associated with. ‘It would have to be the defence of the Orgreave miners – ordinary working men striking to save their community – in 1984. They stood their ground.’ During the trial, Mansfield went with his family to live in Yorkshire on a farm overlooking the Orgreave mine – he had to be there for the trial, but he also regarded it as a chance to see first-hand the social effects of deprivation. Method defending, Daniel Day-Lewis would call it. ‘It made me think there was another England I had never seen before,’ he says in a rather unguarded confession of class ignorance. ‘Families would have sold all their furniture and have nothing much to live on apart from charity. Yet I would come out of their houses thinking, “My God, they gave me more than I gave them.” Amazing courage.’
Mansfield often refers to courage. It’s what politicians need, it’s what judges lack, and it’s what Mansfield believes he’s got in taking on the Establishment. After all, it’s what enables him to empathise with his downtrodden clients. But doesn’t getting too close, being too sympathetic, ever cloud his judgement? ‘No,’ he says. ‘The passion makes sure that you keep your eye on the real issues that are behind the case. You have to start thinking as the defendant might think and this helps you put questions you might otherwise not have thought of.’
He says he is often moved to tears in private – ‘especially when there is a conviction of one for whom I have fought very hard. I suppose the way I deal with it is by channelling it into anger,’ he says. ‘I’ve always felt anger is the most important emotion. It keeps me going. It’s like when I didn’t get into university, anger made me want to do something about it.’
After Highgate School, Mansfield did go to Keele University to study philosophy –  but only because he refused to accept his initial rejection and turned up unexpectedly on the admission tutor’s doorstep. The tutor was so impressed by his determination, he offered him a place. Mansfield was called to the Bar at the not-very-progressive Grey’s Inn, in 1967, but not before he had doggedly retaken his Bar exams after first failing them.
Sometimes, he says, he can find himself shaking with anger. ‘Anger can help you focus. Give you clarity. It can also give you courage, well, maybe bravado is a better word. Sometimes you get to the stage, in a case where you think I must find something else.’ He clenches his fist. ‘There has to be an inner truth. I do find it gives me a feeling of where the weakness in the case really is. You begin to spot when you are reading statements that there is something funny going on here. This doesn’t fit. This doesn’t flow. This isn’t working. Something is missing from all these statements.’
It tells us much about Mansfield that his anger is invariably directed at the evil Mr Bumble of the Establishment rather than at the Oliver Twist of the accused: even when his personal involvement in a case is more than emotional. In 1973, in the first major case of terrorist explosions on the mainland, he defended the Price sisters – after one of their Old Bailey bombs blew up his own car. Its burnt-out shell was towed to his house in Hampstead. In the small hours of the following morning, Mansfield came downstairs, dressed only in underpants, to answer the door to two policemen who had terrible news for him: his car had been vandalised. ‘No,’ he replied with a yawn and a scratch as he turned to go back to bed, ‘it was blown up.’
He was also mugged once, only to find himself apologising for the mugger afterwards, arguing that he was probably a victim of his environment with nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. Does he ever worry that John Major might have been right when he said that we should condemn a little more and understand a little less?
‘Well, fundamentally, I have a positive view of the people,’ he says. ‘Not necessarily politicians – but ordinary people. The people who sit on juries. Because we are living in an ever more materialistic and polarised society, where there is an ever greater concentration of wealth in fewer hands, I think you can never have enough understanding for those vulnerable people who live in poverty.’
It is a shamelessly, refreshingly idealistic answer. And his idealism is symptomatic of his youthful outlook. In middle age, he may now suffer from work-related anxiety dreams. But in his heart, Mansfield is the boy who never grew up. In his daydreams he is still sitting in front of his parents’ television, watching The Defenders lose their cases romantically, heroically, and with great style.
This appeared in 1997. In 2001 Michael Mansfield unsuccessfully defended Barry George, the man convicted of the murder of Jill Dando. He did, though, come up with the quote of the trial when he declared that ‘the prosecution case is hanging by the merest thread.’


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.