She says that she is bored, anxious and lonely; also that she is lazy, a slattern and a food addict who ‘will eat all the children’s Maltesers’. Yet she is described by others as ‘every thinking man’s fantasy and every thinking woman’s nightmare’. Nigel Farndale meets the paradoxical Nigella Lawson

ACCORDING to the ‘Malleus Malificarum’, a 15th-century tract on diabolism, the devil may one day come among us in female form. A raven-haired succubus, that sort of thing. To watch Nigella Lawson – dark-eyed, pouty, bosomy Nigella – filming the second series of her cookery programme from her basement kitchen in Hammersmith in early April, is to be reminded of this she-devil theory.

Already she has tempted me with a mid-afternoon bowl of sticky toffee pudding topped with double cream. Now she is offering pork crackling from a tray. Nigella – a brand name so potent these days it has made the surname extraneous – takes a piece herself and crunches loudly. ‘Mmm. Go on,’ she entreats in a dusky, well-modulated voice. ‘The fat is so good for your skin.’ She is 41 and her skin is like alabaster. But this may also be because she wears Factor 15 sun lotion every day and never sunbathes.

Instead of horns, this she-devil has curlers jutting from her hair. And it is not sulphur she trails in her languorous wake but nutmeggy fumes of baking pie (to borrow a phrase from the playfully camp introduction to her bestselling cookery book How To Be a Domestic Goddess). Where a devilish tail might be, there’s a microphone wire. It runs up her back and emerges from the collar of her pale green silk pyjamas. She is wearing these because she’s filming a scene in which she raids her fridge for a midnight snack. Are silk pyjamas what she really sleeps in? ‘No,’ she says crisply, raising one eyebrow. ‘I don’t wear anything in bed. But I’m not ready for a nude scene quite yet.’

There is a frivolous atmosphere: banter among the film crew, mobile phones ringing, the clattering of utensils. Rubber matting has been laid down to protect the floor and, with lights, cameras, cables and monitors cluttering up the place, you can see why Nigella compares the experience to ‘having the builders in’. She removes a tray from her oven, the director says ‘cut’ and a make-up artist rushes over to even out the skin tones on her manicured hands, in case there are any red marks left by the hot tray. There are a couple of retakes to do before it’s a wrap – and the director asks the presenter if she thinks she should be ‘matronly or camp’ for a scene in which she sprinkles pomegranate seeds with her fingers. She opts for sultry: ‘Mmm. Just look at these beads pouring down like pink rain.’ Nigella’s children – Cosima, seven, and Bruno, four – run in wearing school uniforms, sucking lollies. Their nanny, an Italian, follows. Two Birman cats slink in after her. It’s a chaotic scene. Nigella likes it this way. It distracts her.

That evening, upstairs in a white room lined with oil paintings and vases of purple tulips and blue nigellas, the mood is different. Nigella is sitting on a sofa, talking about her husband John Diamond, the journalist who died from oral cancer in March. She is now wearing a black skirt and clingy V-neck top and has poured a couple of glasses of champagne (Taittinger, her favourite; she drinks it most nights because it doesn’t give her a headache or acid stomach). Today she has been filming the fifth in a series of ten episodes of Nigella Bites. Her husband died while an earlier episode was being filmed. ‘I took a fortnight off. But I’m not a great believer in breaks.’ She says this briskly, neutrally. ‘I don’t want to be rattling around inside my own head. I did feel I was spiralling into a Kathy Burke character and tried going out, but I prefer it here. Filming keeps me busy. It absorbs me.’

She sips from her glass. ‘Of course it is displacing certain thoughts but, in a way, I don’t think grieving should be your full-time job. That seems a rather modern idea. To act as if you don’t have a life is probably not sensible, especially when you have children. Also, I have to say, I found it very constraining having to look demure under my veil, metaphorically speaking. I can’t be other people’s perceptions of me. I can’t act out other people’s feelings for me. I find it very intrusive.’

The response to John Diamond’s death was extraordinary. Most broadsheets devoted several pages to it. Even the Prime Minister paid tribute. Was Nigella taken aback by the public sympathy? ‘To tell the truth, I wasn’t at that stage very focused on it. But I have put all the clippings in what I call my Morbidobox, and I haven’t read them all yet. I was pleased because I hadn’t foreseen any of it, in the sense that I didn’t know John was going to die when he did.’ She was, she adds, amused by a Private Eye cartoon which showed a graph of the amounts of newspaper space devoted to the deaths respectively of an artist, a scientist and a journalist – naturally, the journalist wins by a long way. ‘John would have found that funny. He was always for being public. I was married to someone who liked all that. I never did. It wouldn’t be my way of doing it. I gave into it.’

John Diamond, of course, found it therapeutic to write about his illness in his column for The Times and in his best-selling book C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too. He was witty and thought-provoking on the subject and, with cruel irony, it was the making of his career, bringing him the fame he had always wanted and, as far as some of his readers were concerned, turning him into a secular saint. But his levity in print, it seems, was sometimes counter-balanced by his anger, depression and suicidal urges at home. ‘You can do an awful lot of that [being droll] in 800 words a week,’ Nigella reflects. ‘But doing it in your life is another matter. Real life does have a way of asserting itself. Has to. Of course. It was difficult because I had to go on a programme once to defend him, which I did willingly, though in many ways I agreed with his detractors. It was a difficult position. It wasn’t a matter of [him] being dishonest but of giving a truthful account which was inaccurate. Anyway, you don’t have an obligation to tell all. Right now, I have every desire to be completely honest and truthful; I’ve got absolutely no desire to tell you the whole truth.’

John Diamond was beginning to establish himself as a broadcaster when he was diagnosed with oral cancer in 1995. Clearly he felt proud of Nigella when the first series of Nigella Bites became a hit last autumn (even Victor Lewis-Smith, the London Evening Standard’s notoriously acerbic television critic, felt moved to call her ‘formidably charismatic’), but does she think her husband also felt a little jealous? ‘Not really, because we were very different sorts of journalists [the couple met in 1989 when they both worked on The Sunday Times, she as the deputy literary editor, he as a travel writer. They married in 1992 and then both had columns in the Saturday Times Magazine, Diamond on dying, Lawson on lipstick]. But obviously the situation was complicated. On the one hand, he had too great a desire for me to do more than I might have wanted, and, on the other hand, there was envy. But of all the problems that were thrown up in the past two years, I would say that that was the least significant. Work is work. John, had you asked him, might have said differently. I don’t know.’

Because he could not speak – having had his tongue removed in an operation in 1998 – John Diamond communicated in company by writing with an ink pen on notepads. One of his last messages to his wife, written in his final hours, read: ‘How proud I am of you and what you have become. The great thing about us is that we have made us who we are.’ Did he mean they had reinvented themselves? ‘Often two people who are quite different get married,’ Nigella says, ‘and you think you like someone because there is that difference. But actually – and this may sound like gobbledegook – what you are attracted to in the supposed difference is the chance it will give you to accept a part of yourself you didn’t know you had, or you secretly knew you had but were embarrassed about. So for me that meant John’s showy-offy character. Because I’m naturally shy. Over the years I probably took on a lot of that character, especially when I took on John’s voice [he would talk as best he could and she would interpret for others]. It turned me from being a quiet person to a constantly talking person. In the same way, he thought of himself as funny, and I was the serious one, and yet over the years he became more relaxed about not having to crack a joke every five minutes. In that sense, over time, you take on each other’s characteristics and the differences evaporate.’

In other ways, I suggest, they remained opposites: whereas he seemed to reject the need for privacy and wanted to externalise everything, she preferred to internalise things and keep her own counsel. ‘Sort of, though I have very good girlfriends I talk to. Yes, John was very open and honest but also self-deluding. Necessarily so. I try to be open. I’m not good at being by myself. I think John got it right in that he was gregarious but also liked his own company. Whereas I don’t like going out and I don’t like my own company!’ She feels lonely? ‘Bored, anxious and lonely.’

On a superficial level, Nigella’s claim to shyness is baffling. She has a ready wit, as she demonstrated on Have I Got News for You last year. Her intelligence, bookishness and confidence in public are obvious (she read modern languages at Oxford, has been a Booker Prize judge, and on programmes such as Question Time comes across as being articulate and thoughtful). And, as if these qualities weren’t enough to bolster her ego, she was named Author of the Year at the British Book Awards a few months ago, as well as ‘the third most beautiful women in the world’ in a recent survey (she comes in after Catherine Zeta-Jones and one of the Corrs).

‘I was shy as a child,’ she explains patiently. ‘Now I’m not really shy any more, unless I’m with shy people. I find it contagious and I don’t know what to say. But I don’t think shyness is something one should feel apologetic about. When you are younger it seems an appropriate way to respond to the world. I think it was to do with my unhappiness and lack of confidence. But even now I wouldn’t want a life where I was always going out to big events. I tend to see the same six people all the time.’ She flicks her long black hair back over her shoulder. ‘I’m someone who either has warm and intimate feelings for someone or I’m not interested in them at all. I don’t have an in-between.’

Does she think strangers feel awkward with her because they are intimidated by her looks? She laughs. ‘That’s like a “when did you stop beating your wife?” question. I’ll tell you what it is: women are only intimidated by thinness and one of the reasons women like me is that I’m not thin. I promise that’s true. It’s not just a facetious answer.’ Her weight fluctuates, she says. ‘I’m on the up at the moment. I am greedy. I eat under stress. When you are eating, the rest of the world is tuned out. And when you tune back in you feel guilty about having been greedy and the rest of the world is still there, so you have to carry on eating!’

Dominic Cyriax, the director of the new series of Nigella Bites, initiated a weekly weigh-in for the crew and Nigella feels obliged to enter into the spirit of the thing. ‘There is a competition between me and the soundman for who is putting on most weight. I’ve put on 6lb since we started filming. Food is a narcotic. Like being at the breast. I do mind putting on this weight because you feel quite vulnerable with a camera pointing at you. But when I am thin my face looks too thin!’ She shakes her head. ‘I despise myself for worrying about it sometimes because in the scheme of things it is very shallow.’

Nigella is self-deprecating – she says she doesn’t have a muscle in her body – but is this, like false modesty, a form of vanity? ‘I’m vain in the bad ways but not the good ways,’ she says. ‘I worry about what I look like but I’m too much of a slattern to do anything about it. I will feel guilty because I ate all the children’s Maltesers. I go around in trainers and horrible clothes without make-up and without brushing my hair. I’m lazy.’

With a rueful smile, she concedes that she might have to start making more of an effort. Two weeks after John Diamond died, the Mail on Sunday ran a carefully insinuating story about Nigella’s friendship with the art collector and advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, suggesting that the two had become ‘very close’. A paparazzo’s snatched photograph was bought by the paper for more than £20,000, as if to justify the story. ‘We were leaving a restaurant for God’s sake! At lunch-time. With me in no make-up and glasses!’ Was she miffed? ‘Not really. One of the things about when you go through a lot is that you don’t have it in you to feel. . .’ Pause. ‘I didn’t have the energy to mind a lot. But I did feel that to have a photograph taken of yourself and not know about it is quite horrible.’

She doesn’t like having her photograph taken (even when she likes the results). ‘Although filming is tedious, at least you are doing something. I’m not an inactive person. I don’t like the passivity of posing for photographs. It’s so boring I want to punch someone. It’s like going to the dentist’s: it’s not the pain I mind, just the sense I’m being held captive. I like doing programmes like Question Time because they don’t allow you time to observe yourself. You are too busy thinking of an answer. Even though I like to think of myself as a docile creature, I probably inherited the Lawson gene of combativeness.’

If women like her because she’s not thin, presumably men like her because she is coquettish on camera – the enigmatic smile, the arched eyebrow, taking a fraction too long over licking those sticky fingers of hers. ‘You call it being coquettish. I call it simpering. And, yes, I do sometimes worry I’m overdoing it. Television magnifies aspects of my character. I am quite flirtatious. Regardless of sex or species.’ A short laugh. ‘I do it as an act of courtesy rather than an encouragement to anything sexual.’

Although she once said she was neurotic enough to see the negative in anything positive – ‘It’s a great Jewish gift’ – she tells me she doesn’t worry about the inflammatory effect she has on lonely men – and potential stalkers – sitting watching her on their televisions at home. She’s not a worrier, she adds. Indeed she rarely bothers to lock her car. If it gets broken into, it gets broken into. This sense of perspective is understandable. Having lost her mother, sister and husband to cancer, she knows worse things can and do happen in life. (Her mother Vanessa died of liver cancer at the age of 48, when Nigella was aged 25; her sister Thomasina, who was 16 months younger than her, died from breast cancer at the age of 32.) ‘I’ve learnt not to dwell on the future. I suppose I do think that awful things can happen at any moment, so while they are not happening you may as well be pleased. Having children around you makes you want to live in the present. You have to make things as normal as possible.’

In terms of bringing up her own children, what lessons did she learn from having a famous father, Lord Lawson of Blaby, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer? ‘Politics is very different [to television]. The wonderful thing about having a famous father is that he knew famous people and so you grow up having no reverence for fame, which is very healthy. You know it doesn’t mean anything.’

No doubt there can be a shy, reserved side to Nigella Lawson – and some people interpret this as coldness – but it is not in evidence today. She seems flamboyant, if anything, and perhaps this is a persona she can slip in and out of (John Diamond once described her as ‘a gay man trapped in a woman’s body’). Sitting sideways on the sofa, her Paul Gascoigne legs (her description) tucked underneath her, she is relaxed, warm and likeable – which is a relief, quite frankly, because her brother, Dominic, is the editor of The Sunday Telegraph and he has, she tells me, a tendency to feel overprotective towards her.

Nigel Lawson must have had high expectations of a daughter he named Nigella. And he set high educational standards for his children (Nigella went to Godolphin and Latymer in London). Does she think the knowledge that her father was a high-profile politician gave her an edge in life? ‘I don’t think of myself as the daughter of a former Chancellor. I think of myself as myself.’ She won’t be cajoled into expanding on the subject. When How To Be a Domestic Goddess was published last year, Nigella was accused of being part of a post-feminist movement which glamorises domesticity in an attempt to manipulate the working woman into feelings of guilt. Newspapers devoted leader columns to the issue and two columnists had a spat over Nigella in print: Carol Sarler acting for the defence in the Observer, and Charlotte Raven for the prosecution in the Guardian.

‘I don’t take criticisms personally,’ Nigella says, ‘which must be very annoying for people who mean them personally.’ Smile. ‘Some people did take the domestic goddess title literally rather than ironically. It was about the pleasures of feeling like one rather than actually being one. I had to take the view that the people who were saying these things were being deliberately obtuse to make good copy. I do regard myself as a feminist. I was never suggesting that women shouldn’t have a job, just that they could enjoy cooking when they put their briefcase down on a Saturday morning. Just because I want to make a cake it doesn’t mean I will vote how my husband tells me. Anyway, the idea of me being a domestic goddess is such a joke. Luckily I had plenty of negative character witnesses; my husband said my bedroom looked like a jumble sale. He was very amused by the idea that I was in any way domestically adept.’

Private Eye ran another cartoon last autumn which showed a man reading his newspaper, every section and supplement of which had a Nigella story. Does she worry about being overexposed? ‘Yes. Sometimes it can feel preposterous. I thought, “I’m getting bored of it, what will other people feel?” So then I thought I wouldn’t do any more [publicity] until the new series. I enjoyed most of it though. There was a local paper which had a caption saying, “Nigella” – they never use my surname – “every thinking man’s fantasy and every thinking woman’s nightmare.”‘

She laughs. ‘I thought that was rather brilliant! Might have to frame that.’ Cosima comes downstairs in her nightie. She can’t sleep. Nigella takes her back to bed and, when she returns, I ask how she sleeps. ‘With sleeping pills.’ Does she have any recurring dreams? ‘No.’ I nod towards a book about Freud lying on a window ledge. ‘That? One of the crew took it off the shelves.’ Has she considered being psychoanalysed? ‘I’m a great believer in it. I’m interested in why people behave in certain ways. Dominic says I’m the last Freudian.’

In the 1998 television documentary Tongue Tied, about her life with John Diamond, she said she couldn’t read when her husband was in hospital, so she turned to cooking as a form of escape instead. It was the same when her sister was dying, only then she took up embroidery. She also said that she couldn’t write her best-selling book How To Eat until long after her sister and mother had died because cooking had been a pleasure she shared with them, and the thought of writing it would have made her too unhappy. She was only able to write it when she realised that food is the opposite of death. ‘It’s about keeping yourself alive.’

Julie Burchill took up this theme in her Guardian column recently: ‘The reason why many women remain uncomfortable about the Nigella Lawson phenomenon is not that (just) we are green-eyed bitches jealous of her biblical beauty, but because the whole Domestic Goddess shtick would never even have occurred to any contemporary women who hadn’t suffered such a sadly disrupted life. Of course Nigella wanted to play house on such a grand scale – it was probably the only thing keeping her sane. But I find it as uncomfortable to watch as I would a stranger acting out an extreme sex fantasy. It’s just too raw and personal.’

Does Nigella find it galling when strangers try to psychoanalyse her? ‘There was an element of the comfort-cooking theory that was accurate because if you like feeding people and you are living with someone who can’t feed, inevitably you will put more energy into it. But it is grossly distorted. Textbook stuff. Please. It’s very simplistic isn’t it? Clumsily done. This view that I cook to fill a void in my awful, empty life. . . Actually, I cook because I enjoy it and because I have small children and it helps to have a job I can do at home.’

It is obvious what people mean when they say Nigella is charismatic, but there is also something remote and inscrutable about her. Clearly she is ambitious, but what motivates her? Not money especially (she recently turned down a lucrative offer to appear in Sainsbury’s advertisements); nor fame (‘I don’t think I give off that neediness for an audience.’) A recurring theme of our conversation is that she fears boredom; perhaps that is it. She thinks her interest in cooking is about to wane because she has ‘a moving-on temperament’. She couldn’t move to the country, though, as her brother has done, because ‘I would panic there. I don’t mind the landscape, it’s the country village I loathe. I get bored. The country is like Christmas: nothing to do but eat and drink.’ Writing a column about herself ‘would bore me and embarrass me’.

Nigella inhabits a strange world of extremes: she has experienced extreme tragedy, extreme success (at the moment there is a bidding war for her programme in the United States) and has the advantage of extreme beauty. Yet her friends remark upon her self-possession, as well as her ability to glide through life. She takes normality, or her version of it, wherever she can find it. According to one of her friends, Olivia Lichtenstein, the idea of Nigella as an ice maiden is laughable because, when you get to know her, she is kind, gentle and honest. She doesn’t take herself too seriously and, says Olivia, though she misses John terribly, is not a sentimental person.

What of Nigella’s own sense of mortality? Did turning 40 trouble her? ‘I don’t have a big thing about getting older. My sister was 32 when she died. It would be an obscenity to mind about being 40. I would rather not have any – what are they called in advertisements? – visible signs of ageing. But it doesn’t give me panic attacks. I don’t think I’ll be weeping over old pictures of myself as I grow older. I feel I live off my wits.’ She laughs. ‘You may feel differently. My looks don’t absorb me as much as everyone says. But then, I’ve had other things to preoccupy me lately. I would be a rather strange person if I was sitting around striking poses, reading my cuttings. Don’t you think?’


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.