Noam Chomsky’s radical views on language found him global fame. 50 years on, the professor disusses death threats, the internet and why he thinks Obama was marketed like a brand of toothpaste.

In an almost empty hotel bar, around the corner from the British Museum, an 81-year-old American professor is sipping tea and talking in a monotone so muted I wonder whether he is having me on. I soon conclude that he isn’t; that he doesn’t do jokes; that he, Noam Chomsky, does not, in fact, possess a sense of humour.

Sacha Baron Cohen came to the same conclusion when, as Ali G, he asked Chomsky: ‘How many words does you know, and what is some of them?’ Chomsky didn’t even smile, he simply informed his interviewer how many words the average Westerner knows, and then, as requested, revealed what is some of them.

Baron Cohen’s question may have been amusing but it wasn’t entirely random. Chomsky found global fame in the Sixties, in the unlikely field of linguistics. He more or less founded the discipline, becoming to it what Freud became to psychoanalysis and Einstein to cosmology.

In contradiction of the prevailing ‘behaviourist’ view that language was learned, Chomsky argued that the human mind is actually hard-wired for grammatical thought. The way children successfully acquire their native language in so little time suggested, for him, that the structures of language were innate, rather than acquired, and that all languages shared common underlying rules. This he called Universal Grammar but don’t worry, I won’t be testing you later, and linguistics is not what this interview is about.

Although I should perhaps add that the debate about language has moved on since Chomsky’s theories in the Sixties. And Chomsky has moved on, too. In fact he is better known these days as a political activist. The man the American Right love to hate. The American Left aren’t exactly wild about him either.

As a self-styled anarchist and Enlightenment liberal, he collects political enemies the way sticky paper collects flies.

You somehow imagine that a man with his rhetorical clout and reputation will have a booming voice, or at least some basic oratory skills. Yet here he is, barely 4ft away from me, and I am straining to hear him. It’s nothing to do with his age or health – he is a slender, fit looking, slightly stooped man with greying wavy hair, a diffident manner and a tendency to glance sideways at you through wire-rimmed glasses.

It is more that his voice is a croak that begins at the back of the throat and barely has the energy to leave his mouth. When I put my tape recorder down on the table in front of him he says – sotto voce – ‘You won’t be able to hear me. No one can. I once did a three-hour interview with Radio Oxford only to be told the microphone hadn’t picked me up.’

He is over here to give a lecture at the London School of Economics, and he will have a microphone for that. Over there, he is still an emeritus professor at the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has taught for 55 years. And he is still being interviewed regularly on radio and television. Still addressing public meetings. Still writing polemical books (these days about world affairs). And perhaps what his voice shows, actually, is that he is used to being listened to, used to crowded rooms falling silent when he begins to talk.

‘I am no Barack Obama,’ he says to me now. ‘I don’t have any oratory skills. But I would not use them if I had. I don’t like to listen to it. Even people I admire, like Martin Luther King, just turn me off. I don’t think it is the way to reach people. If you are giving a graduate course you don’t try to impress the students with oratory, you try to challenge them, get them to question you.’

Unlike Obama, Chomsky has never needed votes. Yet, as an academic, he has always attracted acolytes. He also attracts conspiracy-theory nuts by the thousand, giving foam-flecked bloggers the world over a sense that their paranoid ramblings have a whiff of academic respectability. ‘Yes but I have never wanted them,’ he says. ‘It’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed at MIT. The reason I like it there is the intellectual culture. You don’t lecture people, you get them to question, to think for themselves, not follow. I don’t want followers.’

He gets them anyway. To judge by his sales figures (his pamphlet on the meaning of 9/11 sold upwards of half a million copies), the followers are an ever-growing number. In the build up to the Iraq war, indeed, a simple piece of graffiti began appearing on campuses across the world: ‘Read Chomsky’. And he is hero-worshipped by the antiglobalisation movement. Bono calls him the ‘Elvis of Academia’ and ‘rebel without a pause’.

Other prominent disciples include (or included) John Pilger, Michael Moore and the late Harold Pinter. The usual suspects perhaps, but there can’t be many silver-haired professors who have appeared on stage with Rage Against the Machine. And it is not just the young and trendy who seemingly have to go through a ‘Chomsky phase’.

Even ‘the corporate media’ he professes to despise has been known to sing his praises. The New Yorker calls him ‘One of the finest minds of the 20th century’, while The New York Times has labelled him ‘arguably the most important intellectual alive’.

But there is also a hint of sulphur in the air that swirls around him. A collection of essays called The Anti-Chomsky Reader, edited by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, analyses Chomsky’s anti-Americanism and concludes that he is man with a ‘deep contempt for the truth’. The Left-wing Nation magazine, meanwhile, called him ‘America’s most prominent self-hating Jew’. Back in the early Sixties, long before opposition to the Vietnam War became a fashionable cause for the bien pensants, Chomsky was threatened with imprisonment for organising demonstrations and withholding his taxes.

He argued that the war was being fought to halt the spread of independent nationalism, not communism. Forty years on, after the attack on the twin towers, he became the professorial point-man for the campus opposition to the Bush administration.

Touring America’s universities as he preached the cause of radical dissent, he argued that the attacks were ultimately caused by US policies and were rooted in the ‘fury and despair’ of the Arab world.

While he is keen to remind you that he has always described 9/11 as an atrocity, he adds that it pales next to the West’s ‘deep-seated culture of terrorism’. The US, to him, is the ultimate rogue nation. He even goes so far as to call it genocidal.

‘We should recognise that in much of the world the United States is regarded as a leading terrorist state, with good reason,’ he says. Most controversially, he has argued that every post-war American president would have been hanged for war crimes under the Nuremberg Laws.

Though he has had dozens of books published, and though he has a sizeable platform in the print and broadcast media, he still likes to play the martyr, the wounded outsider, the victim of witch-hunts. Surely, I say, it is a credit to the very American way of life he so often criticises that he is still seen as being part of the liberal establishment. He is still, after all, a professor at one of the leading science universities in the world.

Even in the Bush era, which was the most restrictive since McCarthy, he was still allowed to say whatever he wanted. ‘I think that freedom is a lot to do with my association with MIT,’ he says. ‘It may have been funded by the Pentagon in the Fifties and Sixties, yet it was also the centre of the resistance movement. It had autonomy.’

He’s not kidding. When Nixon drew up his ‘enemies list’ in the early Seventies it featured dozens of individuals but only one institution, MIT. Chomsky seems to have more respect for enemies like Nixon, who acknowledge he is an enemy, than supposed allies who subvert him more subtly and pretend he is their friend.

‘If you don’t like what someone has to say, argue with them,’ he says. ‘Don’t ban them. In the US they have a corporate media system and they have a narrow spectrum that they will tolerate. I have the honour of being identified in print as the one person that they will never allow to appear on NPR [National Public Radio], the so-called liberal radio. I would appear on Fox News more easily than I would NPR. It’s not censorship, it’s part of the narrow liberal intellectual culture.’

And it gets personal in the States. What about his dust-up with that one-time liberal pin-up and fellow traveller Christopher Hitchens? As the post-9/11 arguments raged, it should be explained, Hitchens accused Chomsky of ‘making excuses for theocratic fascism’ and exercising ‘moral equivalency’ in his discussions of 9/11 and US imperialism. ‘In some awful way, Chomsky’s regard for the underdog has mutated into support for mad dogs,’ Hitchens said.

When I ask Chomsky how he answers Hitchens’ charge that he is an appeaser of Islamic fascism, he (disingenuously) denies that he knew that Hitchens had said that. ‘He said that did he? I haven’t read him for 15 years.’

It is sometimes said that Chomsky would be a better debater if he occasionally allowed that his enemies acted out of moral convictions as heartfelt as his own. He’s genial in person, yet his writing hectors when it should persuade.

‘This is not complicated,’ he will write. ‘You can be a pure hypocrite or you can look at events honestly.’ His sentences brook no deviation. ‘No one with even a shred of honesty would disagree’ is a characteristic bit of Chomskyan throat-clearing. In linguistics, this style of his might be called ‘the attenuated sympathetic’. But perhaps his position is more nuanced than my pen-portrait of him allows.

Chomsky may be considered a dissident in America, and a ‘traitor’ to some, but he is not a pacifist. Though he considered the dropping of the atom bomb ‘one of the most unspeakable crimes in human history’, he thought the US role in the Second World War justified, not least because he is Jewish.

He encountered anti-Semitism as a child, but never told his father, a rabbinical scholar who worked on medieval grammar. Theirs was a pretty academic household, it seems. Chomsky was 10 when he had his first article published, about the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism in Europe.

‘Certainly I was inside a political culture,’ he has said. ‘First generation Jewish working class in Philadelphia. There were strikes and rallies, and so on. I remember at the age of five travelling on a trolley car with my mother past a group of women on a picket line at a textile plant, seeing them being viciously beaten by security people. So that kind of thing stayed with me.’

Nowadays he is sometimes the one being accused of anti-Semitism, in light of his criticisms of Israel. ‘If you do a Google search you will probably read a lot of stuff about how I am someone who wants to kill all the Jews and hates the United States. The internet has compromised the quality of debate.

‘It is basically positive but it has its downsides. If something comes to mind, people just put it up on the internet without even thinking about it. I get a ton of mail. It used to be hard copy, now it is mostly email and the quality is so different now. With letters, a lot of stuff is cut out, the stuff that has just popped into someone’s mind. With email they send that stuff without thinking. There is more spontaneity to it but less contemplation.’

There may be a quiet anger and testiness just below his surface but, in terms of his public persona, Professor Chomsky is diffidence personified, and he is generous with his time. He diligently answers the thousands of emails sent to him every week, a laborious task that eats up several hours a day – and he usually signs off simply with ‘Noam’. He recognises no hierarchies, according to his assistant. He is wearing jeans today. This is because he considers them ‘unhierarchical’. Unlike suits.

Chomsky’s new book is called Hopes and Prospects and is about the fallout from Iraq and Afghanistan. It also tackles the financial bail-out. Let’s start with that, I say. Eighteen months on, Goldman Sachs is back with the biggest bonuses ever. What happened to the meltdown?

‘To them nothing happened. The perpetrators of the crisis emerged more powerful, richer and better prepared for the next crisis, which they are creating. They are discussing it openly, the people called in as economic advisers to Obama.’

I take it he didn’t buy into Obama’s message of hope and change. ‘Elections in the United States are expensive extravaganzas run by the public relations industry. The PR people looked at the polls and picked slogans accordingly.

‘Did you know Obama won the best campaign of the advertising industry in 2008? It was politicians being marketed as a product, like toothpaste. What does that have to do with democracy? If you read his statement you find yourself asking what was the hope? What was the change? These were empty words.’

The special relationship isn’t so special any more under Obama; he doesn’t care what Britain thinks, is that correct? ‘The best definition of the special relationship came at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. America was making decisions which would have affected England, caused its destruction, but without consulting Macmillan, the then prime minister.

‘They decided not to let Britain know what they were planning to do because they decided they were not sufficiently rational to make the right decisions. Things weren’t so different 40 years on. Bush considered Blair his lieutenant, not his partner. The US told Britain it had to support what they were going to do in the UN otherwise they were “irrelevant”. That was the word that was used. Does that seem special to you?’

Does Chomsky consider Blair a war criminal? ‘Of course. Have you seen the text of the Nuremburg tribunal? Worth looking at. It defines aggression as the supreme international crime. Different from other crimes in that it encompasses all the evil that follows.

‘At Nuremburg the chief prosecutor Justice Jackson said: “We are handing the defendants a poisoned chalice and if we ever sip from it ourselves we have to accept the same consequences.” Being hanged and being considered as a potential president of the EU, as Tony Blair was, are not the same consequences.’

Chomsky has had many death threats over the years, including one from the Unabomber. But did things get particularly ugly for him after 9/11? ‘It was much worse in the Sixties. I had regular death threats. I remember once the MIT police called me up and said they had received a bomb threat. It was aimed at my home. It is open and easier now. It is a completely different atmosphere. People are more tolerant towards activists these days.’

Like that other scion of the left, Tony Benn, Chomsky has a tendency to flap his hands as he talks, birds trapped behind a pane of glass. Benn was devoted to his wife Caroline, whom he married in 1949 (she died in 2000). They had four children and many grandchildren. Chomsky was devoted to his wife Carol whom he married in 1949 (she died in 2008). They had three children and there are photographs of his grandchildren on his desk at MIT. And above his door is a large photo of Bertrand Russell, a fellow libertarian pin-up.

Having said there would be no more linguistics, I find myself back on the subject. What does Chomsky make of stories about undergraduates at British universities having to be taught grammar in their freshman years? To a linguist, one whose own literary style favours phrases such as ‘generative transformational grammar’, that must seem an abomination.

‘Yes, there is that. It is probably down to the texting culture. The use of textonyms and so on. But it is also to do with the way young people read on screen. The digital age cuts back reading and, as a consequence, young people are losing the ability to think seriously. They get distracted more easily, breaking off to check an email. Speed-reading is exactly the wrong thing to do. You have to think about what you are reading.’ He gives me his sideways look. ‘You have to ponder.’


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.