In vain would you search for Peter Jay in the soulless corridors of Television Centre, White City, west London. The 63-year-old economics and business editor of the BBC prefers to work from his farmhouse on the outskirts of Woodstock, Oxfordshire. As well he might. Blackbirds sing here. The air is sweet with pollen and freshly mown grass. Kindly morning sunlight bathes the flowering chestnuts and swelling fruit. It is a fitting place for a man of such obvious bottom, gravitas and destiny.
Jay’s career has been dazzling if curiously disjointed. His jobs and connections are embedded in the political history and liberal Establishment of the past 40 years: he’s the former son-in-law of Tony Blair’s predecessor as Labour prime minister (and therefore the ex-husband of Lady Jay, that scourge of hereditary privilege and Leader of the House of Lords); the retired ‘chief of staff’ of the deceased swindler Robert Maxwell; and, perhaps most bizarrely of all, a former Ambassador to the United States of America. Jay is undoubtedly a most superior person – a grandee, a member of the Garrick, in fact – and it would hardly be proper for him to spend his working hours among the light-industrial estates of White City. It is said that some of his colleagues at the BBC resent his absence from their midst. They point out that, over the past year, his appearances on the evening news have been about as rare as anoraks in Arabia, yet he still has his own office at White City (even if it is now used unofficially as a changing room for staff who cycle to work) and still, of course, draws a handsome salary.
When I arrive, Peter Jay is in the middle distance, wearing a checked shirt and a bright-red sleeveless jumper, feeding the carp in his pond. Literally a man of stature – a solidly built 6ft 4in – he looms towards me, past a hammock strung between two trees and, with loping gait, leads the way towards the tall barn he has converted into an office and broadcasting studio. One wall is filled from floor to rafters with books. The one opposite is divided in two by an upper deck. The lower half is devoted to framed political cartoons and a large photograph of Jay with the ‘Famous Five’ – Michael Parkinson, Anna Ford, Angela Rippon, David Frost and Robert Kee – the star presenters with whom he launched the ill-fated TV-am in 1983.
As we go upstairs, Jay stoops automatically to avoid the low beams. The upper deck is draped with red ensigns and Union Jacks, there are maritime maps in glass cases and dozens of photographs of Jay sailing the yachts that have been his lifelong passion. He sits down and, though he folds his arms, manages somehow to look as if he’s sprawling. Close up, his skin looks like parched earth; his big sleepy blue eyes are framed by pink lines and pouches, his thick lips fixed in a bland smile. In a recent issue of Private Eye, under the headline TV CELEBRITY CONNED FRIEND OUT OF THOUSANDS BY PRETENDING TO BE THE ECONOMICS EDITOR OF THE BBC, a spoof news story suggested that Jay made sure he renewed his contract with the BBC just before his good friend Sir John Birt retired as director general. What does Jay make of this ribbing?  ‘Ah, yes,’ he says placidly. ‘Me being paid a large salary to do nothing. It wasn’t to do with John Birt at all. And considering I’ve been working harder in the past two years than at any other time since leaving Washington, I think it’s ironic. But I love Private Eye and have always accepted that “Sir Peter Jaybotham, 69” is a fine figure of fun. Public figures should be abused. It is healthy and therapeutic.’
The thing he has been working so hard on over the past two years is Road to Riches, a six-part television series which begins next month. That and the weighty book, subtitled The Wealth of Man, which accompanies it. Together they tell the story of mankind’s economic progress, from hunter-gathering all the way to the Industrial Revolution and the Big Bang. ‘After sex,’ Jay says, ‘money is our second appetite. Understanding comes third. But, as Aristotle noted, you may want wine and women but you don’t want them ad infinitum. Only our appetite for money is limitless. Bill Gates is not much less motivated to make the next $100 billion than he was to make the first.’
And then, for the next 60 minutes or so, Peter Jay expounds his ‘cautiously pessimistic’ view of economic history, with easy reference to Aristophanes, Defoe, Malthus, Darwin and Keynes. It is a mistake to take a linear view, he tells me, there are always periods of stagnation and failure. Economies evolve in fits and starts, like a waltz, taking one step forward and two steps sideways. His enthusiasm for the subject is obvious, his knowledge encyclopaedic and, like an oil tanker, once he has set course, he takes some turning round. He’s also pedantic, given to qualifying his comments with ‘as it were’ and stuffing his sentences with sub-clauses.
When I ask if thoughts of mortality might have inspired this magnum opus, he laughs throatily. ‘Do you think I’m monument-building at this late stage in my life? Well, yes, I suppose so. Though I don’t want to seem portentous, a vice of which I am extremely capable. The series and the book were put to me by the BBC, so it wasn’t as if I was thrashing around for a place to build a monument. That said, the sentimental thought has gone through my mind that I have seven children and when their children ask, as it were, what did Grandfather do in the Great War, I shall be able to point to this book on the shelf.’
It is a telling admission. From childhood onwards, great things have been expected of Peter Jay. Yet he has flitted from career to career, never quite leaving his mark, never quite consolidating his hold on the glittering prizes. It didn’t help that his father, Douglas, was a hard act to follow. Lord Jay, as he became, had been a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford, and President of the Board of Trade in Harold Wilson’s cabinet. But Peter was never denied opportunities to succeed. From the Dragon School in Oxford, he went to Winchester (where he was Sen Co Prae, or Head of School) and from there, after doing his National Service in the Royal Navy, to Christ Church, Oxford. He was President of the Union, took a first in PPE, and soon afterwards married Margaret Callaghan, daughter of ‘Sunny Jim’, who was then Shadow Chancellor. In the same year (1961) Jay joined the Treasury as a civil servant, leaving in 1967 to become economics editor of The Times. He remained there for a  decade, combining the post with a five-year spell as presenter of Weekend World, the political television programme of the day, produced by none other than John Birt.
Then, in 1977, to universal derision, his father-in-law (by then Prime Minister) appointed him Ambassador to Washington. He stayed two years, but then Mrs Thatcher won the 1979 election, and he returned to Britain to work as a director of the Economist, before joining TV-am in 1983 as its founding chairman and chief executive. Three years later he made perhaps his oddest career move, becoming from 1986 to 1989 chief-of-staff (‘bagman’, as Private Eye put it) to Robert Maxwell, proprietor of the Daily Mirror. And in 1990 he began his present job at the BBC.
Why has he never settled down? Did he find the goalposts kept moving? ‘The truth is, my career is a chapter of accidents and I have been lucky that it has added up to a diverting and enjoyably random walk through life. Again, do stop me if I start sounding portentous, because it is a terrible vice, but from my schooldays onwards I was encouraged to view life as an obstacle race that one ran all the way to the grave. If you played cricket, you had to be selected for the first team. If you took exams, you had to come top. If you took a degree, you had to get a first. The thing to do was succeed. You didn’t examine why or whether you wanted to. That absurdity was aggravated because I worked jolly hard and so was good at the race. I had a privileged education, of course, and if I hadn’t benefited from it, it would have been disgraceful. But to me the satisfaction was in being able to tick things off my list. I say this in a mood of confession to what is a deplorable state of mind.’
After graduating, Peter Jay was awarded a research fellowship by Nuffield College, Oxford, after failing to follow his father in winning one at All Souls. He managed just one term of a DPhil on the philosophy of John Stuart Mill. ‘I realised I knew the answer to the question I had set myself. And I couldn’t stand the life. I asked myself, “What difference would it make if I didn’t get up tomorrow?” and the answer was, “None at all”. I realised I needed a framework, a full in-tray, a telephone that would ring and make demands of me. I am confessing here to another profound character flaw.’
He decided to join the Treasury. ‘The absurd thing was, I went there mainly because my father wanted me to be a civil servant. He had enjoyed it and thought it a secure job for me.’ Lord Jay died, aged 88, in 1996. His obituary noted that he recoiled from idleness and luxury. ‘He was a strong character,’ Jay says, shaking his head at the memory. ‘And he had obsessions. But I wouldn’t say “hero” was quite the right word. He was an inspirational teacher. Stimulating. I have a more vivid recollection of his childhood than I do of my own. We shared a huge number of jokes and references and I’d say we were close. But he wasn’t the sort of father who, as it were, changed the nappies.’
Jay is known for his short fuse and once ticked off a Times sub-editor who complained that his economics column was unintelligible. ‘I am writing for three people in England,’ he said loftily. ‘And you are not one of them.’ Apparently, the three were two Treasury mandarins and the Governor of the Bank of England. Did Jay always write for such a limited audience? ‘I was writing that particular article to a limited audience.’
If he joined the Treasury to win his father’s approval, did he leave it as an act of filial rebellion? ‘If it was, it was a pretty weedy act, because my father had also worked for The Times.’ It was perhaps inevitable that eventually Jay would try to follow his father into politics, and in 1970 he sought selection as Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Islington South-West. ‘It was a farce,’ he recalls, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand. ‘I didn’t even come close to being selected. But I made an important discovery about myself, that I absolutely didn’t want to be a politician. It wasn’t just sour grapes. All my life I had assumed as an unconscious inevitability that I would have to be one – in the end – then I began to notice I was doing everything possible to postpone the day. Becoming an MP ruins your family life and it’s ill rewarded. And I’m just not the committee-minded, consensus-building, wheeler-dealer type you need to be.’
Islington was not Jay’s first taste of failure. ‘The real failure for me,’ he recalls – and it seems to pain him still, ‘the thing that absolutely was a shock and which considerably changed my personality was when I failed to get an All Souls fellowship. I had been encouraged to expect it. It was like being poleaxed. I was stunned. That sounds incredibly arrogant, but then I was an incredibly arrogant person. Experiencing that early failure was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. Goodness, that sounds pompous!’
Though he claims to welcome the mockery of Private Eye, Jay does seem sensitive about his reputation for pomposity, constantly referring to it. If he was prone to arrogance as a young man, though, it seems forgivable. After all, in 1973, he was voted not just Financial Journalist of the Year but also Political Broadcaster of the Year. The next year he was voted Male Personality of the Year by the Royal Television Society. At the age of 37 he was tipped by Time magazine as a future world leader. On top of this, people started telling him that, as a television celebrity, he had sex appeal. How did he keep his feet on the ground? ‘Television, which I take seriously and think important, was never part of the obstacle race for me. Weekend World was fun and well paid, but I regarded it as a recreation, as naughty moonlighting from my Monday to Friday job on The Times. It was like going skiing all the time, I felt guilty about it. I don’t think I had much sex appeal as a presenter, or indeed as anything else but, anyway, it wasn’t the glamour that attracted me, it was the money. It helped me pay for boats. I could double my earnings by working weekends as well as weekdays. Besides, I loved doing two hours’ live studio work. It gave me a buzz. I loved, loved, loved doing it.’
What effect did his working a six-and-a-half day week have on his wife and three children? ‘It took a huge toll. It was a mistake and I regret it. I shouldn’t have done the television. I would come home on a Sunday after an adrenaline-pumping live broadcast and I would still be buzzing from it. I might have been, say, interviewing the Prime Minister, and I would have been feeling like David Beckham in the Cup Final. It’s intoxicating and, when it stops, the batteries are drained. You go home to a family who have not watched the programme because it was much too boring and you might as well have just come in from washing the car. The psychological demands of changing down to their gear were high. And I would have to find the physical energy to take a lively interest in what they were doing, rather than collapse. But they were the ones who paid the price for my absence, not me. I paid when I saw the effect it had on them.’
Behind him, on top of a bookshelf, is a blue leather briefcase emblazoned with the Diplomatic Service crest – a memento from his days in Washington. Had he seen that job as a chance to repair things with his family, make a new start? ‘Yes, in the sense that it was something we could do as a family, but no, in that the working demands were even greater. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. My favourite joke at the time was that they needed a younger man for that job. It was physically crushing. That you were living over the shop helped. Even though the working day began at 7am and continued with telegrams till 2am the next day, you came across your children all day, they were under your feet. And Margaret and I were able to do a lot more things together, which we hadn’t been able to do in London. I described her as my co-ambassador because her contribution was enormous. But by no means was it a kind of holiday.’
Was he shocked, or embarrassed at all, by the accusations of nepotism over his appointment to such a senior diplomatic post? ‘Of course, but once I overcame my shock at being asked by David Owen [then Foreign Secretary], I said I would have to talk to Jim first, because I knew it would cause immense political embarrassment. Jim said, “You let me worry about the politics.” So then I had to ask myself, “Can I go through the rest of my life living with the knowledge that I have turned down such an opportunity?” A friend of mine said I should think very hard about it for a millionth of a second and then say yes.’
Peter Jay’s time in Washington lives on in the memory of journalists. There was a satisfying element of French farce to the ambassadorial household. As a Sun headline put it: HOW THE  KNOW-ALL CAME A CROPPER! Margaret Jay had an affair with Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post journalist who, with Robert Woodward, uncovered the Watergate scandal, and Peter Jay had an affair with his children’s nanny, who bore him a son. The scandal inspired two novels – one by Susan Crosland, the other by Nora Ephron, Bernstein’s wife. (The Jays were divorced in 1986, and in the same year Peter married Emma Thornton, a garden-furniture designer 16 years his junior. They have three sons. What emotional toll did the break-up of his marriage take? ‘Huge is the one-word answer to your question. But I think wallowing in it or going on about it doesn’t help very much. It happens to millions of people and they all deal with it in their own way.’)
Oddly, Peter Jay seems to have few regrets about his association with Robert Maxwell, a man who had been declared unfit by the DTI to run a public company as long ago as 1971, and who went on to embezzle the Mirror’s pension funds. Why is he still so loyal? Is it that he doesn’t want to be seen as a dupe? ‘I did feel a loyalty to Maxwell, and a certain affection for him. He was larger than life, a pre-moral figure, a kind of woolly mammoth stalking through the primeval forests unaware of the kind of things other people fussed about as being  good or evil. But what he was not was a crook. Clearly in the last 18 months of his life, after I had gone, something happened which drove him to the most outrageous conduct, for which no possible extenuation can be given.’
When the job at the BBC was offered in 1990, Jay must have been hugely relieved. His life had come full circle, it seemed. A chance to pontificate to the nation once more, to win over middle-aged female viewers with his craggy, sea-saltish sex appeal, to let his grandchildren know what he did in the great battle of the ERM. He’s an economics editor again, with three young children. ‘There can be huge frustrations and lots of backbiting at the BBC,’ he reflects. ‘But it is a wonderful place to work. Now that this series is in the can, I’m intending to go back to my normal routine on the newsdesk. I hope I shall continue doing this for the foreseeable future. After all, Alistair Cooke still seems to be  doing OK.’
But Alistair Cooke, I want to say, is not an economist. Before I can do so, Emma Jay calls us from downstairs. Lunch is ready. Should we have it outside? Yes, Peter replies. ‘My heart always sinks when you say that,’ Emma says, ‘because it all needs carrying.’ ‘Oh, we’ll do that,’ Peter says blithely. By the time we join Emma outside, though, the garden table has been laden with vegetable flans, pies, salad, freshly baked bread, and two bottles of red wine. The afternoon heat is soporific. No wonder he has put up that hammock.


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.