There is, you sense, a discontent at the core of Michael Palin, one that gnaws away at him with steady purpose. It’s not to do with his manner, which is as amiable as you would expect. Indeed, when I tell him what my editor emailed — ‘God, I love her’ — in response to my email saying ‘Am interviewing Palin today’, he laughs vigorously. Says he gets that a lot and that during the US election he found it disconcerting to see headlines such ‘Palin’s daughter pregnant’. As his weathered and handsome face is carved with smile creases, you suspect laughter comes easily to him. So no, it’s not that.

Nor is it to do with him looking a little uncomfortable today because we have asked him to wear a jacket and tie, or rather The Reform Club, where we want to photograph him, requires that he wear a jacket and tie (he keeps touching his collar as he talks). This was the Club from which he began his first travel documentary twenty years ago, you see. Around the World in Eighty Days followed the route taken by the fictional Phileas Fogg, who also set out from the Club, and led to ‘a television series which stands as an unparalleled tribute to man’s ability to make life difficult for himself’.

Palin also ended that first series here amid the Club’s marbled columns and galleried arcades, or at least he tried to. ‘I came back in triumph with two hours to spare and they wouldn’t let me in because they had a function on, which I suppose was fair enough. Clubs are not there to get people in; they are there to keep people out. We had to take a spontaneous decision: do we pretend I got in, walk up to the door and cut there, or do we acknowledge what happened? As I was shagged out, I opted for the latter, a little piece to camera that worked wonders for us. The perfect ending. People love to see things go wrong.’

A few weeks ago, Palin relived the most memorable episode from that series, the one where he spent a week sleeping on the deck of a dhow as he hitched a lift from Dubai to Bombay (his lavatory was a box suspended over the stern). His researchers somehow tracked down the 18-man Indian crew that took him over in 1988 and his reunion with them is the subject of a new chapter in an anniversary edition of the book published next week. ‘There is a scene on the dhow where I am wary about being me because I think me being me will be dull,’ he recalls now. ‘I was kind of acting the role of Phileas Fogg, the old Victorian fogey, and then I got ill and just said so to camera. Said how lousy I felt and that I wanted to go home. It was a turning point because after that I could just be myself.’

And so a genre was invented… Around the world in 80 days became around the world in 20 years — with Pole to Pole, Sahara and Himalayas being among the variations on the original theme. Rating were enormous, as high as 12.5 million at times, which was unheard of for a travel programme. The books that accompanied the various BBC series sold in their millions, and continue to sell.

This popularity seems to have been down to a number of factors. 1) Palin was a former Python and everyone loves the Pythons. 2) He had a pleasing way with words, describing camels, for example, as ‘sinking down like collapsible tables’. 3) It was also to do with his sweetness of character, an obvious decency, likability and good humour that came across whenever he was in extremis, as for example when he discovered the Peruvian brew he was sipping was made from old women’s spittle. Such was the sense that viewers had of him being the ideal travelling companion, even The Dalai Lama, one of his fans, joked that he would like to be reincarnated as Michael Palin’s assistant.

In light of all this — what Palin has called his ‘ruthless niceness’ — there is an incident I want to ask him about which seems uncharacteristically cold and out of character. It concerns his wife Helen whom he met on holiday in Suffolk when he was 15, she 16, and married in 1966, eight years later, after he graduated from Oxford. When Palin was in Borneo filming Full Circle, he received a message to ring home. Helen had been diagnosed with a brain tumour and was about to have an emergency operation. He didn’t rush back. Does this surprise him in retrospect? ‘It was Helen who talked me out of coming back on the next available flight. She was very practical and sensible. She said, “I’m having the operation in four days. By the time you get back here it will probably be over. The doctor says it is a benign tumour. I’d rather you carry on.’ She was probably stressed at the thought I would be stressed.’

Must have been quite a poignant goodbye at the end of that phone call though. ‘It was very tough but she had the hardest job because there I was saying what a wonderful time I had just had up country with the head-hunters and she had to explain about the tumour and then talk me down from my shock. I spoke to the surgeon before and after the operation.’

Did he appreciate her more after that scare; find their time together more precious? ‘I was hugely relieved that she had got through it and was proud of the way she had dealt with it. I don’t think it changed our relationship. I think we felt we had made the right decision. Nothing more that could be said.’

Helen Palin trained as a teacher but in mid life became a bereavement counsellor, and Michael Palin is no stranger to bereavement. His older sister Angela killed herself in 1987 at the age of 52, leaving a husband and three grown children. Palin found the suicide hard to come to terms with and blamed his father’s withering criticisms of her as a child (she longed to be an actress but encountered only paternal scorn). Two years later he was with his friend and fellow Python Graham Chapman when he died of cancer. And when his friend George Harrison died in 2001 he said he felt as if a part of him had ‘closed down’. Given these bereavements and his response to them, I ask why his wife decided to become a bereavement counselling. ‘I don’t know, I think a friend of hers said if you have time on your hands and are good at talking to people you should do it. She keeps it quite. Doesn’t like it becoming public knowledge because when people come to her she wants them to come to their anonymous counsellor for that week, not Mrs Michael Palin.’

Fair enough. She must be a good listener because according to John Cheese Palin is a good talker: ‘“Yap, yap, yap”, he goes, all day long and through the night… and then, when everyone else has gone to bed, he writes a diary.’ Palin gives his room-filling laugh when I remind him of this Cleese quote. ‘Put it this way, there were no silent Pythons. We all had a lot to say and one person who has a lot to say notices when another person who has a lot to say interrupts them. John talks an awful lot. Doesn’t like to be interrupted… It’s true, though, I am a chatterbox. Can’t help it. I get enthusiastic about things. John and I were on holiday in Spain and I became obsessed with doors — leather and brass — and by the end he was pleading with me to shut up about the doors.’

Making travel documentaries was, of course, the second half of an already illustrious career. The first half could not have gone any better either. He was in the comedy equivalent of the Beatles, after all. In fact the Beatles, along with Pink Floyd and The Who, became not only fans but also friends. ‘Yes I was quite surprised by this extraordinary link between Python and the rock music world. Our comedy appeared to be provocative and mischievous and I suppose the rock bands identified with that spirit. I remember hearing very early on that Paul McCartney would always stop recording when Python was on so that he could watch it. We thought that was terrific.’

In his diaries, Palin gives a sense of how the Pythons behaved like rock stars, in terms of their competing egos at least and their demands for first class travel and special chefs when on location. ‘We were and we weren’t,’ he says now.  ‘In America our fans would wait outside hotels for us. A small band of very enthusiastic women. There was also the whole subculture of Python fans who were mainly college kids. If you do comedy you have to see the absurdity of adulation. We weren’t like rock stars in the sense of playing big stadiums, though I think we would have quite liked to have been. I suppose we did do the Hollywood Bowl but it wasn’t like we were going on stage every night and performing the dead parrot sketch. Our work was done on film and television.’

He writes in his diary about how he smoked grass in his Python days, but did he also do the harder drugs his rock stars friends were doing? ‘No I didn’t really. Not sure why that should be. Partly because Helen and I had been married ten years by the mid Seventies. We had three children and that kept my feet firmly on the ground. We drank a lot of wine. I was aware we were drinking a lot and didn’t want to end up like Graham [an alcoholic who would go on binges with Keith Moon]. I didn’t want to reach a point where I couldn’t function. Sometimes I could see Graham being loud and objectionable and I knew it wasn’t like him. I thought, I don’t want to be transformed by drink like that. I’m not very good at that drink/drugs thing anyway because beyond a certain point I become catatonic. It doesn’t make me witty or better company, just leaves me with a headache. I think it’s in my character. I’m fairly straight.’

When he says his three children kept his feet on the ground at this time, was it that he was trying to be a better role model to them than his father had been to him? ‘Yes, I wanted to set an example. I love the children and watching them grow up, and going to school plays, and taking them on family holidays was very important for me. I think because I was away a lot, travelling to the States four times a year, it made me feel the importance of coming home. It’s only when you go away that you realise what home means to you.’

His own father had been a frustrated man who had felt himself a failure. Cursed by a terrible stammer, he had never achieved the success he expected from having been to Shrewsbury and Cambridge. Palin used to shrink away with embarrassment when he brought friends home and he says he longed for his father to be like any other father. ‘He hadn’t imagined that he would end up a minor manager in a Sheffield steel works and I think he wanted to hang on to the old structures as much as he could. So even though he couldn’t really afford to do it, it was very important for him to send me away to boarding school. He wasn’t lacking in humour or emotion but he kept a lot in reserve. He saw acting as a terrible waste of my education and potential.’

Palin’s hero is the rugged Ernest Hemingway and, tellingly, the central character in Palin’s novel Hemingway’s Chair adopts the writer as the father figure he never had. Palin senior had one thing in common with Hemingway, a very quick temper. Palin junior recognises that he probably overcompensates for this by being nice to everyone. When filming Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the director asked him to crawl through the mud for a seventh time, and he had a little outburst. The other Pythons were so surprised they all stood up and clapped.

Palin went to Shrewsbury, too. Why didn’t he want to continue the family tradition and send his own children there? ‘Well I had been happy at Shrewsbury but my wife was certain she didn’t want to send her boys away to school. I suppose we might have had some discussion about sending them to a private school in London, but it was the Seventies. We all thought public schools were going to disappear. We felt politically that it was the right thing to send them to state schools. I’ve no regrets, but I do discuss it with my children sometimes and ask them if they ever wished they had gone away to public school and they all have said there is a certain confidence that people who have been to public schools have. It’s because you have a top-of-the pile mentality. But there were drawbacks. I can remember after Shrewsbury feeling a certain awkwardness when meeting people further down the social scale. A very English thing. How do you talk to people who live on council estates? I thought, I don’t want my children to have that barrier.’

So. This gnawing discontent. I reckon it is to do with a feeling he has that he has never left his mark, not properly. Never really done anything worthwhile. Never quite caught his own attention. Ultimately, it seems to be connected to the long shadow cast over his life by his father. Though Palin has been outrageously successful in two careers, he still hears a nagging voice — his father’s presumably — which tells him he has never had a proper job. Is that the case? ‘All the time, oh yes. Forty years without a proper job. What have I done with my life? What are my qualifications? I can make people laugh. I can talk to people. I can do a piece to camera without falling over. But these are not great talents. I should have learned something. I should have learned languages.’

He feels shallow? ‘I feel fortunate that I am able to do what I feel I want to do, but I’m not sure it amounts to much. I look at people like David Attenborough and think he doesn’t just travel, he is an expert in his field. He knows a lot about his subject. What do I know a lot about? How to make people laugh? Well that’s not much. Always the pupil never the professor.’

Has he considered pursuing the sort of academic life his fellow Oxford man and Python Terry Jones pursues? ‘I think I am too much a jack-of-all-trades. You’ve got to put in the time. Terry is very knowledgeable about medieval history. He has written serious books about Chaucer. There was never anything where I had that expertise. That focus. No equivalent. I think it is a character flaw.’

So he never had a clear idea of what he wanted to do? ‘I still don’t and I’m 65.’ In 1977, Palin recorded in his diary: ‘I don’t really want to do comedy all my life.’ So he proved himself as an actor instead, starring in two of the best British films of the 1980s, A Private Function and A Fish Called Wanda. Then he reinvented himself as a travel documentary maker. Now he says: ‘It is a question of what you are. What am I? Am I just me doing things? I don’t want to be a television celebrity. It doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m not a  bad actor, but I’m not a great actor. I’m not a bad television presenter, but I’m not a great television presenter. They are all thing I know I can do, but I don’t know where the point is where I can say, “I’ve done that” and can walk away.’

Blimey. Angst. Delivered with firm-jawed cheerfulness. He has done documentaries on subjects other that travel, notably on painting and, most recently, a moving Time Watch about the last day of the First World War. But you have to wonder why he doesn’t feel he can say ‘I’ve done that’ and walk away. Surely his record-breaking book sales alone are enough achievement for one lifetime? ‘There again, I never feel secure. You are only as good as your last book. I mean my Himalayas book might have sold, I don’t know, something like 600,000 to a million in hardback but my last one New Europe was different, it sold about 250,000 to 300,000 in hardback. You can’t take the euphoria too seriously.’

That sound you can hear up and down the country is authors falling off their chairs in astonishment. A good, healthy sale for a hardback is 5000 copies. If it sells 10,000 that is enough to get you onto the bestseller list. I ask about his motivation again. He can’t need the money. ‘These days, who knows? The people at Lehman Brothers thought they were comfortable. I’m fairly cautious with money so I’m fine but…’

Palin doesn’t play the stock market. Doesn’t understand people who change cars and houses all the time. Still lives in the three railway workers’ cottages, run together like carriages, in Gospel Oak that he has lived in for more than 30 years. He is, he says, ‘no good at extravagance’.

I ask whether he fills his days with work, even though he doesn’t need the money, as a way of avoiding melancholy. ‘I have good and bad days. I could happily spend my days swanning around galleries enjoying slowing down, not rushing at it, long lunches, but I would have to have something to keep me going, some project.’

The current project is the second volume of the diaries he has kept since 1969. The first covered ‘the Python years’ up to 1979. To him the exercise of keeping a diary is about proving to himself he has not wasted a day. He refers to his diary writing habit as a ‘tenacious parasite’. ‘It’s nerdy of me to keep a diary, I know. I do it to remind myself not to waste time. You hear of people giving up weeks where not very much happened. But I don’t want to be oppressed by time either. I want to spend time with my family and friends. What I don’t want to be is public property.’

He says he hates the invasion of privacy that comes with fame. Wants to watch the world. Doesn’t want the world to be watching him. Occasionally, though, when he says this, his wife gets exasperated and says, ‘Well, don’t sign up for a 10-part series when the camera is following you around the world if you don’t want to be recognised!’ ‘

Clearly Palin has paradise syndrome, the name given to a psychological condition which gives the sufferer a sense of dissatisfaction, even though he may have achieved his ambitions. The question is why. Why does he feel hollow and unfulfilled? I think it is partly our fault, the fault of his adoring public. We project a lot onto Michael Palin, turn him into a loveable national institution he doesn’t feel he is or deserves to be. He cannot understand why he is so popular because, paradoxically, while we all like him, he doesn’t seem to like himself all that much. Indeed he finds himself dull company — this business of ‘me being me’ — and says he has a low boredom threshold. His tragedy, then, is that while much of his high-achieving life has been lived in compensation for the life of his low-achieving father, he seems to have ended up just as frustrated. Well, perhaps not a tragedy. A pity.



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.