The thought that there may be a real-life Nigel Dempster out there somewhere seems preposterous. Scary even. It’s because he’s been doing what he does for so long: 35 years. His name has entered the language as a synonym for gossip and because he has become the mould into which every aspiring social diarist is poured, he now looks like a parody of himself: steeped in the social angst, chippiness and sulphur of others. Indeed, when Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor, was introduced to Dempster at a Christmas party he looked confused and said: ‘I didn’t believe you really existed.’  Further suspicion is aroused by Auberon Waugh’s claim that he created ‘Nigel Dempster’ in the Seventies, when the two men worked together on Private Eye. It is a matter of public record that Nigel Dempster was born in India in 1941; his father was Australian. But when in 1976 Private Eye named him the Greatest Living Englishman at its annual awards, it was only half a joke. Waugh admired, he later said, Dempster’s sense of  ‘innocent mischief’ and added that the diarist wasn’t a cruel man who enjoyed confronting people with their wickedness but rather a true journalist who felt the need to prick pomposity.’
As I take the lift to the third floor of Northcliffe House, the Kensington High Street home of Associated Newspapers, and walk along the corridor to his office, I am almost prepared to believe that  ‘Nigel Dempster’ is an elaborate hoax. But there he is, grey single-breasted jacket on the back of his swivel chair, tie on but top button undone, shooting his monogrammed gold cuff-links before extending his hand in greeting. Or rather, as he quickly points out, he is not really here.  ‘Nigel Dempster’ is in Melbourne. Covering the races. He missed his plane and so one of his stringers is out there being him instead.
Dempster’s thinning hair is greyer than it is in photographs but he still looks like Mr Rigsby in a tight-fitting suit, an Ealing Comedy spiv with a five o’clock shadow, oleaginous and yet dapper. There is something effeminate about Dempster’s fine features which combined with his lips (cruel, moist and pursed) and eyes (intense and dark, dark brown) serves to disconcert. His looks are saturnine and vampish. But at 57 he is pretty trim and healthy: the result of a rigorous if slightly camp daily regime. Today as every day the alarm-clock at his Chelsea home went off just before seven. He had a breakfast of half a pink grapefruit and weak Earl Grey tea and then took his five Pekinese dogs for a walk in Hyde Park. Next came a game of squash at his club, the Royal Automobile in Pall Mall, and now, at noon, he has just arrived at his office.  On a normal day Dempster would be following up his usual stories about druggy marquises and philandering dukes for an hour or so before heading off for lunch at Harry’s Bar or Langan’s. Here he would meet one of his regular informants  – who include Lord Lichfield, Michael Cole and Lord Archer  – and polish off two or three bottles of chablis. At 3.30 he would return to his desk, instruct his secretary to wake him should the editor be spotted heading in his direction, have a short snooze and then wake up in a foul temper to begin swearing at his staff and writing his copy.
It is the stuff of Fleet Street legend. It makes Dempster a character: one of the old school who, for all his hard drinking and brawling, nevertheless brings in the scoops. And, although Dempster is prone to boast about them, the list of his exclusives is long and impressive. He claims credit for being the first to write about Harold Wilson’s resignation, the engagement of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, and Princess Diana’s bulimia.
The trouble is, say his detractors, he is now past his prime and, like Margaret Thatcher and Dave Lee Travis before him, just doesn’t know when to bow out gracefully. What’s more, the detractors continue, the Daily Mail would like to get someone else to write his column, while keeping his name, which still has pulling power with the readers.
For a gossip columnist to fall foul of rumour in this way is the ultimate indignity. Even so, a series of events do lend weight to the speculation. His troubles began in 1995, when he allegedly threw a copy of Who’s Who at Kate Sissons, one of his assistants. She sued for constructive dismissal and the Mail paid her £12,000 in an out-of-court settlement. In 1996 Dempsters, a glossy gossip magazine named after him and for which he was the contributing editor, closed after only two issues. Earlier this year Dempster was stopped for suspected speeding after drinking two pints of orange juice which he claimed his 19-year-old daughter Louisa had spiked with vodka for a party. He refused to do a blood test, citing a horror of needles, and was given a fine and a 12-month ban from driving, suspended on appeal.
This summer Adam Helliker, Dempster’s loyal deputy of 17 years, left to become Mandrake, the Sunday Telegraph’s diarist. Dempster took it badly and accused him of being  ‘fucking disloyal’. He then landed a left hook and Helliker needed medical treatment for a badly bruised jaw and a split lip.
Sir David English, the editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail, and Lord Rothermere, its owner, then died within months of each other – and Dempster lost his two most powerful protectors. Now, in another indignity, the Daily Mail has reportedly cut short its serialisation of Dempster’s People. a book which looks back over the 25 years he’s been writing his Daily Mail gossip column. The Daily Mail, which is said to have paid £75,000 for it, will not confirm this, saying instead that these things are a moveable feast.
Dempster looks edgy as he sits behind a desk strewn with cuttings files and transparencies. His body language as he talks is defensive: arms folded tightly over his chest. His voice is calm though, measured and opaque, and his eyes never waver from making contact. Presumably for my benefit he looks over my shoulder to where his secretary is sitting by the door and says:  ‘Darling, any word from Fayed’s people yet?’ I oblige him by giving the questioning lift of the eyebrows.  ‘Oh, I’m suing him about a profile he ran of me in Punch [a title revived by Fayed].’
The eyebrows go up again. ‘In this job you are a sort of historian which is why facts are sacrosanct. And the thing I notice when people write about me is just how inaccurate they are. I just hope we don’t do the same disservice to our subjects. I mean, last week I spent an hour and a half just trying to find out whether you spelt someone’s name with an “s” or a “c”.’ And the article in Punch?
‘They said I had received a warning letter from my editor and I would be sacked by Christmas. Two things wrong there: I’d just signed a new two-year contract; I have never had a letter from my editor other than one of congratulation. Fayed’s going to catch it straight in the nostril. There’s no way out. We’re going to see the whites of his eyes, if he’s got any. I’m not putting up with that crap any longer.’
Waugh’s words about pricking pomposity float back. You would think that Dempster of all people  – having worked on both Private Eye and Punch in his time  – would realise that the best policy is to treat it all as a big game. Laugh it off.
‘On the contrary. If someone deliberately sets out to cause mischief, then they should be deliberately attacked in return. Who cares if Punch only goes to a few thousand people  – some of them are in this building. The other fantasy in the piece was that I earn £1,000 a day for my column. I wish, I wish, I wish. This year the Daily Mail isn’t even my main source of income.’
A rather endearing aspect of Nigel Dempster’s character becomes apparent. He doesn’t say the magnanimous things you are supposed to say when you’re being criticised. He’s not thick-skinned, he says. He really, really resents the bad reviews his latest book has received, especially one in the Sunday Telegraph by  ‘Annie bloody Chisholm’. They make him angry.
‘Someone once said I spend the dark hours scheming about the downfall of my enemies and I think that is probably right. You don’t realise who your enemies are until something dreadful happens and then all these people jump out of the woodwork and start bashing you.’  As there are no empty meeting rooms anywhere in the whole of Northcliffe House  – apparently  – we are chatting in an office which Dempster shares with his four female assistants. As we talk, they sit silently around us, hard at work at their computers. He tells me that the thing that would hurt him most would be if he found out that the  ‘girls in the office’ hated him. ‘That would be devastating.’
Another reason he sleeps badly is that he worries about the modest form of the three racehorses he owns. There is, however, no evidence of a sleep-disturbing guilty conscience. ‘Nooo. The worst a diarist can do is ruin someone’s breakfast. It’s after the event. I mean, children in schools, Prince William etc, they know what’s happened long before Princess Diana knocks on the door and says, “Guess what’s going to be in the paper tomorrow?”‘ He pats his head with one hand and rocks back in his chair as he contemplates the church spire his office overlooks. ‘Lord Snowdon has the right attitude. Least said, soonest mended. He is believed to have an illegitimate child. His wife has just left him. Never said a word. But he accepts that these things are going to be commented on. And when you meet him he is perfectly sweet.’
A young lawyer has appeared and is hovering by the door. Christopher Moran, a property tycoon, is suing Dempster for contempt of court. Dempster hands the lawyer some photocopies and explains that Moran is a good example of the sort of person who uses the press to promote himself and then complains about intrusion when his marriage is in trouble. (A few days later, Dempster is fined £1,000 and the Daily Mail £10,000). Although Dempster once quipped that he prevented more adultery than the Archbishop of Canterbury, he does not see himself as a moral arbiter. His true feelings are reflected in another of his jokes: that there is a holiday in his heart whenever he discovers another marriage break-up.
Then again, he insists that the tone of moral outrage in his column is not feigned. He finds the behaviour of politicians who lie to the public or leave their wives for their secretaries nauseating. And he wishes people in public office still had the decency to feel shame, as they did in the first two-thirds of this century.  ‘This is why, in my position, you always have to behave yourself and not be a hypocrite.’ He smiles toothily.  ‘Apart from anything else the hours are so onerous one can’t get up to any mischief. But if I was caught leaving the equivalent of Madame Claude or the Stork Room with five bimbos on my arms by Mr Rick Sky of the Sun I would deserve it.’
A female former colleague of the diarist described him to me as a lonely, maudlin figure who is uncomfortable in his skin. Dempster and his second wife, Lady Camilla Godolphin Osborne, daughter of the Duke of Leeds, lead largely separate lives  – she has her own house in Ham. Because his wife has a title, and his first wife, Emma de Bendern, was the daughter of a count, it is sometimes said of Dempster that he is a parvenu who has broken the diaris’s code by becoming part of the world he writes about. He doesn’t see it that way.
‘We are outsiders. The number of people who split up and dive in opposite directions when they see me approaching is legion.’ He presses his fingertips together pensively and his blue signet ring catches the light. His nails are neatly manicured, apart from the one on his little finger which is very very long. ‘My wife’s a Communist,’ he says.  ‘She didn’t get called “Commie Camilla” for nothing. Went to Newcastle University where I don’t think anyone understood a word she said. And vice versa. Her mother was a lifelong Labour supporter. Any of it rub off on me? No, not really. Home is one thing and work another.’
It is tempting to suppose that Commie Camilla might have married a gossip columnist as an act of rebellion against her aristocratic background. Dempster’s first wife  – they divorced in 1974 after three years of marriage  – was also a free spirit.  ‘Just been widowed again,’ Dempster says. ‘The husband she married twice has died of cancer. At his 50th birthday I stood up and made a speech which said, “My first wife has gone back to her husband and the even better news is it’s not me.”‘ They separated, he adds, because they were too young when they married.
Dempster is unsure where his values  – a highly developed sense of social propriety but little in the way of personal conscience  – originate. His father, Eric, who was managing director of the Indian Copper Corporation, and remained married for 60 years, died 15 years ago; he did not believe in God. His wife, Angela, Dempster’s mother, is nearly 90 and is a believer. Dempster has two older sisters who, because of the War, were brought up separately from him. He was not close to his father  – a distant, disciplinarian figure who was 50 when his son was born. ‘He never knew how to react to children,’ Nigel Dempster recalls. ‘He was a dear man but a total stranger. He was so old when he came to sports days all the 30-year-old fathers would be playing cricket and my father would be scorer.’
Dempster, like his father, lacks religious faith. He recalls that Kerry Packer, an Australian media tycoon who survived after having been pronounced dead after a heart attack in 1990, once told him,  ‘Son, there’s nothing on the other side.’ ‘It doesn ‘t fill me with mortal fear,’ Dempster says. ‘Sometimes I think death can’t come too quickly. To think that I’ve got another 25 years. I’ve been here an awfully long time. There’s nothing left. I’ve done it all. Short of going to Bali. I really do think 70 is an old age. Like with Macmillan. He was so old, all his contemporaries had died. Or like the Queen Mother. My wife,’ he continues, with the diarist ‘s precision,  ‘whose father was the Queen Mother’s brother-in-law, was desperate to meet her before she died and was surprised how she couldn’t remember whether my wife’s father or grandfather had been her brother-in-law.’
The phone rings.  ‘Excuse me,’ Dempster says. ‘This might be my man from Melbourne. Pissed . . . Hello? Yes, yes. I know her. A very famous name. Her daughter was murdered. Sorry, her son was going out with the girl who was murdered by . . . Her husband . . . Exactly. Lived in South Kensington…’
I take a sip of tea and cast an eye around the room. On the pillar behind Dempster’s desk there is a poster of his Spitting Image puppet: as Private Eye’s  ‘Grovel’ columnist, with monocle, white scarf and topper. The shelves are bulging under the weight of dog-eared old copies of Who’s Who. On the walls around his desk are colour photographs of racehorses and black-and-white photographs of himself: at the races; sticking pins in a voodoo doll; standing next to a naked woman who is holding a snake. He hangs up. ‘Sorry about that. It’s midnight in Melbourne but they’ve been up since seven. You listen to these people and think, “Thank God I don ‘t drink.”‘
I splutter into my cup. What? ‘It’s my month off. November, December and January I don’t drink.’ December?  ‘Well, the first two weeks. Any time I have a medical they always say I’m fine, so what the hell.’
Dempster went to Sherborne School in Dorset where he is remembered for his long fingernails in the scrum.  ‘I think one had an urge to misbehave. We used to wear boaters and had to tip them to prefects. I worked out that if you cut the top off, you only needed to tip the brim, leaving the top on your head. Automatic beating. I was always being beaten  – for walking with my hands in my pockets or for treading on certain forbidden patches of grass, whatever. Of course it hurt but the secret was not to show it. To be the most beaten boy in the school required an enormous amount of chutzpah.’
When he left school at 16, however, he had no particular ambitions and took a job as a porter at the Westminster Hospital. He then became a vacuum-cleaner salesman before drifting into the City to work as a broker at Lloyd’s of London. ‘I wouldn’t have been happy staying in the City, because it was just like boarding-school where I had been from the age of six. ‘His first job in journalism came in 1963 as an assistant on the Daily Express  ‘William Hickey’ column.
‘Diary writing was considered a dirty profession in the Sixties,’ he says. ‘It was traditionally a job for grammar-school boys. You know, Us and Them. You had to mix in the same pubs – and people were drinkers. Very much frowned on these days.’ Evenings would often end in fisticuffs and certain journalists established the reputations that would remain with them for the rest of their careers. ‘People like their enemies or heroes to be slightly larger than life,’ Dempster adds with a nostalgic chuckle.
Now better-known to regular readers of Private Eye’s  ‘Street of Shame’ column as Pratt-Dumpster, Dempster does not think that he has ever slipped into self-parody.  ‘Not really. We are so isolated here. I don ‘t know whether it is better to be ignored by Private Eye or not because when they write about you it is nothing but fantasy. Peter McKay [a fellow Daily Mail journalist] said, “It’s just Ingram’s and Hislop’s way of keeping close to you. Trying to hug you.” I said, “I’d rather those creepy crawlies kept away from me.”‘
The phone rings again.  ‘Chalky, how are you?… I’m all right. Sort of dealing with life, as they say. What are you up to?… Was he wearing his titfer?… OK, my boy… I might catch up with you…’
The tone is hearty. And the rather haunted and vulnerable figure that has been presented so far steps aside for a moment. It reminds you that Dempster has a reputation as a great raconteur and that his natural milieu is not an office, pre-lunch, in one of his dry months, but propping up a bar. But even without a couple of drinks inside him, Dempster’s prejudices shine through. He refers to Mountbatten as Mountbottom and one duke as being  ‘queer as a ninepin’. In his book he describes black people as  ‘coloured’,  ‘dusky’ or  ‘not of English origin’.
The book has its comic moments. ‘”Writs are the Oscars of my profession,”‘ I once famously told an interviewer,’ writes Dempster. And even Craig Brown couldn’t improve on this for inadvertent self-parody:  ‘It was misplaced revenge, but served only to add to my mystique.’ Dempster also has a happy knack of summing a person up with a one- or two-word description, such as  ‘badger-haired politician Norman Lamont’ or  ‘gap-tooth Lothario David Mellor’. When asked what adjective he would put before his own name he says  ‘energetic’. When I point out that he is usually described as being charming, he smiles suspiciously and proffers a rather attenuated name-drop. ‘Charming? Well, I went to a prep school where the headmaster was Sophie Rees-Jones’s grandfather and he used to tell us to open gates for everyone and call everyone “Sir” and I don’t think anything has changed.’
Although Dempster has been overheard to say on the telephone, ‘Do you know who I am? My wife’s father was the Queen Mother’s brother-in law,’ and although he once said that John Major was not accepted in society because he had not been invited to a dance at Chatsworth given by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, he doesn’t think that the word  ‘snob’ applies to him. ‘No, never. Never once. Just ask any of them in here. A snob is someone who holds titles in esteem and I’ve never done that. On the Express we had to write about titled people because Beaverbrook wouldn’t allow you to write about anyone who wasn’t.’ Paul Callan, Dempster’s original mentor at the Express, remembers him as being the most insecure person he had ever met. ‘Insecure?’ Dempster repeats. ‘I don’t think so. One is insecure about one’s job but then one has always been insecure about one’s job.’
Emotional then? As in ’emotional diarist Nigel Dempster?’
‘I’ve never cried. Doesn’t feature. Maybe as a child when I was whacked, but that was the last time. Only Continentals show their emotions.’ Upon reflection he considers that he does feel emotional about his dogs. ‘The unfortunate thing about dogs is that, as Sir Walter Scott said, unless you are old you are going to outlive them. We’ve just buried one, which was a tremendous sadness. Sad because they are such trusting creatures. They can’t forage for themselves. ‘
Those who find it difficult to relate to people are said to find it easier to express their feelings to animals. Bullies, goes the theory, are especially prone to transference of affection in this way. It is time to clear up those stories: is Dempster a bully in the office?
‘I don’t think I am, actually. There was a girl here who got something hopelessly wrong which she could have got right by looking in Who’s Who so I grabbed a copy and banged it on her desk to the left of her. The legend now is that I threw a copy of Debrett’s at her. Hardly likely. Every other girl in the office will tell you the same story.’
And the drink-driving?
‘Clearly I am an innocent person. I drove into work this morning. It’s not just a matter of having clever solicitors. It’s just the way things are. Other people don’t contest these things because they don’t have the time or the money. I have both.’
Lady Archer once questioned whether being a gossip columnist was a suitable occupation for a grown man. Nigel Dempster is wont to quote Søren Kierkegaard on the subject.  ‘All life,’ the philosopher said in 1851,  ‘will soon be gossip.’ Today, though, he justifies his lifetime’s work with the disarming  – and redeeming  – comment:  ‘I think I’ve added to the gaiety of nations.’
His tragedy is that he has become everything he ever wanted to be  – a Fleet Street legend  – and this in a way makes him redundant. It’s a shame that he can’t bear being teased. And a pity that he feels such a great sense of injustice. Where once he was magnificently arch and supercilious, now he just seems twitchy and paranoid.
‘When you are at the top of your profession, such as it is, and when you are doing something well you have to keep doing it,’ he says when the retirement question is posed. ‘Every day. It’s not like making Citizen Kane, where you can rest on your laurels. You have to keep on making Citizen Kane every day. It’s Cambodia Year Zero right now.’
‘The girls’  – as well as  ‘darling’, the secretary  – have all departed for lunch. The lawyer who has been analysing the contempt of court papers is clearing his throat restlessly.
I am at the door when Dempster calls me back, apparently exercised by the question of his posterity. He intends to have a Viking funeral, he says, like Beaverbrook. On the Thames. And when he and his longboat go up in flames  ‘everything’ will go up with him.


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.