I think Oxford University’s Professor of the Public Understanding of Science has gone into shock – traumatic hysteria, to judge by his frozen features. But he has only himself to blame. He shouldn’t go around popularising science in the way that he does. It was only a matter of time before someone like me, a bona fide member of the public, would turn up at his house and try to explain his own theories to him – using, with unjustified confidence, words such as ‘biomorph’, ‘phenotype’ and ‘replicator’.
The professor blinks, then regains his composure. ‘Er, right,’ he says. ‘Something like that.’ I beam triumphantly. Mr Scott, my old biology teacher, would be proud. Prouder than he was when I failed my biology O-level, anyway.
Richard Dawkins and his wife Lalla Ward, an actress turned illustrator, live in a large, pale-brick house in Summertown, north Oxford. It has a gravelled drive and a bike parked outside its Gothic-arched front door, but it’s not exactly an ivory tower – too many wooden floors, kilims and Conran cushions for that. The atmosphere is quite rarefied, though. It is a cloudless, still afternoon, and the 58-year-old professor and I are sitting on white wrought-iron chairs at a white wrought-iron table near the swimming pool in his garden. As the sun creeps round the chimney on the house, I keep edging my chair around to avoid being dazzled. Dawkins has his back to the chimney and in the sunshine his unkempt greying hair gives him a halo.
He is a handsome man, with an angular profile, hooded eyes and tufty eyebrows that make him look like a bird of prey. There is a couple of days’ stubble on his face, which he maybe thinks will help him avoid the description that journalists tend to give of him; that he has the fussy fragile air of a devout and unworldly curate – an amusing observation because, as well as being a world expert on Darwinian evolution theory, Dawkins is also one of the world’s best known and most combative atheists.
Today he still looks like a clergyman, if an unshaven clergyman, with fear and suspicion in his eyes. I think he is thinking that I might be some species of stalker. A deranged fan, maybe. Perhaps I shouldn’t have told him I’d read all six of his books. Or tried to prove it by quoting from them. Or told him I’d been going around quoting them to anyone who would listen.
But I couldn’t – can’t – help it. The man is quotable. He has four entries in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. ‘They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence; they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.’ That’s one of them, from his first bestseller, The Selfish Gene (1976). ‘However many ways there may be of being alive, it is certain that there are vastly more ways of being dead.’ That’s another, from The Blind Watchmaker (1986). My favourite, from Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), hasn’t made it into the Dictionary yet: ‘If you wanted to make a flying animal, you wouldn’t start with a hippo.’ (The wings would have to be so big the mass of muscle needed to power them would be too heavy for the wings to lift – but it’s funnier the way Dawkins puts it.)
Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive and he’s neither in shock nor frightened. Perhaps he always speaks slowly and deliberately, giving short, precise answers that end abruptly and leave you stumbling to fill the cold and scaly silence with another question. It’s not that his manner is severe or impolite. Indeed he makes free with a boyish smile that exposes charmingly wonky teeth. It’s just that he looks either uncomfortable or bored, it is tricky to say which. Perhaps reserved is the word. I ask him if he is shy. ‘Not really,’ he says in a gentle alto, as thin and elusive as water. ‘No, I wouldn’t put it that way.’ A wood pigeon coos in the background.
Certainly, I press on, he is animated and passionate when lecturing or broadcasting. Is that because he adopts a more flamboyant persona for such activities?  ‘I don’t get nervous. But I only like to talk on subjects I know about. That is why I never do Any Questions. It would be intensely painful. I don’t enjoy debate. I don’t think the adversarial approach is a good way to get at the truth.’ He looks away distractedly. A plane drones overhead.
The thing is, I continue, the mildness and reticence don’t square with his muscular prose style. He writes beautifully, lyrically, but in his books he often comes across as coolly disdainful and arrogant, irritated even. He has feuds with fellow academics, especially American ones, over the correct interpretation of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. He dismisses those who don’t agree with him as being ignorant and lazy. ‘Darwinism is not a theory of random chance,’ he writes testily. ‘It is a theory of random mutation plus non-random cumulative natural selection. Why, I wonder, is it so hard for even sophisticated scientists to grasp this simple point?’
In print, his most spectacular clash, conducted in The Spectator in 1994, has been with Paul Johnson, the Catholic historian and journalist. Dawkins wrote that he finds Johnson’s framework of belief ‘ignominious, contemptible and retarded’. Johnson challenged the professor to a public debate on religion and when Dawkins refused – on the grounds that he didn’t see why he should involve himself in a publicity stunt for Johnson’s new book – the journalist called him a ‘yellow-bellied prima donna’.
In person, the Dawkins brittleness becomes apparent whenever you try to persuade him to talk about himself. It seems the only way to draw him out is to appeal to his scientific instincts: dress up personal questions requiring a subjective answer as objective, scholarly ones. He has been married three times, for instance. But to reach this topic I have to go via the question of morality in a Godless universe. Evolution, according to Dawkins’s best-known theory, operates at the level of the gene rather than the individual, and we are nothing more than selfish machines blindly programmed to preserve our DNA. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is no design, no purpose, no evil and no good – nothing but pitiless indifference. But if this is the case, I ask him, why do we sometimes behave altruistically, morally? We alone on earth can rebel against the selfish replicators, he answers, we alone are free agents who can learn to be good.
Can he give me an example? Has he learned to be good?  ‘I have many weaknesses,’ he says earnestly, twiddling with the arm of his glasses. ‘I’ve probably caused some unhappiness, but it’s never been willing and wanton. I’m extremely soft-hearted and, I think, kind-natured and perhaps some of the unhappiness I have caused has been from being too kind, foolishly so.’
Does he mean he has caused unhappiness by not being decisive enough, by avoiding confrontation in, say, his marriages? ‘Yes, I don’t want to go into detail but I think it’s possible to cause unhappiness by being unwilling to face up to the fact that it’s not possible to be kind to everyone all the time.’ And kindness is something we have to work at? It doesn’t come naturally? ‘Well, yes, as a biologist I would say there is a sense in which that is true.’
To find out about his childhood you have to go via his first brush with Darwinism. It wasn’t exactly an epiphany. ‘Not as much as it should have been. I was a bit sceptical and somehow it didn’t seem to be quite enough to explain all the beauty and the complexity of life. I didn’t really appreciate how powerful the theory is or the fact that it’s the only theory we’ve got. Above all, I didn’t appreciate the enormous amount of time available for evolution to take place – it is this that the human mind has most difficulty grasping.’
He was 16 at the time. Yet from birth Dawkins had been exposed to nature red in tooth and claw. He was born in Nairobi in 1941 and educated at Oundle School. His father, a colonial civil servant stationed in what was then Nyasa – now Malawi – returned to England when he inherited the family farm in Oxfordshire. ‘I have happy memories of Africa,’ Dawkins says. ‘Flowers, butterflies, colours, smells, but nothing terribly coherent because we came back here when I was eight.’ His parents are still alive, and their grandson – by Dawkins’s younger sister – is running the farm. It is mixed – dairy, pigs and arable – and growing up there young Richard came to regard death and sex as an everyday matter of fact.
‘It was always assumed I would take over the farm. I would help out driving tractors. But I don’t think I did much hand-wringing when I decided to enter academia instead.’ He took a first at Balliol College, Oxford, followed by a DPhil and a DSc. Before his return to Oxford to take up a fellowship at New College – and later to become the first Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science – he spent a few years lecturing at Berkeley, California. It was the time of the Vietnam protests and, though he took part in them, he now says he feels a bit embarrassed for having done so. His time in America also made him aware of the lobbying power of the Bible Belt, which last month celebrated the banning of evolutionary theory from schools in the state of Kansas.
Charles Darwin was considered controversial in his day, with politicians debating whether they were on the side of the apes or the angels. Dawkins provokes controversy because he goes further than Darwin. He calls theologians ‘bigoted enemies of knowledge’. He describes the Pope as a dangerous, world-damaging dictator. The concept of God, according to Dawkins, is like a virus, passed from person to person. In one sense, he says, he is surprised to find himself a controversial figure for promoting his ‘selfish gene’ interpretation of evolution theory, more than a century after Darwin. ‘But it’s only in the United States, where there are a lot of fundamentalists. I think it is insulting to Christians in this country to suggest that they are creationists. But on the other hand it has to be said there is still an enormous ignorance of Darwinism here. When you think it is the explanation for our existence and the existence of all life and that it is not difficult to understand – really rather simple, compared to quantum mechanics – it seems absurd that it is one of the last things you are taught in school.’
Dawkins describes Oundle as a conventional Anglican boarding school, and he was confirmed at 13. ‘I’ve got a lot of time for the Church of England,’ he says. ‘I mean, it’s like village cricket. I’ve got a soft spot for it as an English institution. But evolution should be one of the first things you learn at school. It should be something inspiring and exciting for children to remember for the rest of their lives and what do they get instead? Sacred hearts and incense. Shallow, empty religion.’
Dawkins has a gift for communicating ideas – and for conveying his own wonder at the complexity of nature. When you read his books you begin to notice the minutiae of nature around you, the staggeringly sophisticated feat of engineering that is a spider’s web, for instance. ‘Yes, and it is so easy to take these things for granted,’ he says. ‘You have to imagine you are opening your eyes and seeing for the first time. I’ve never had a mystical experience, but I wonder if when people claim they have, that is what has happened, the scales have fallen from the eyes, as though they have just been born, with the intellect of an adult.’ He has aesthetic experiences looking at great cathedrals or listening to classical music, and he thinks these may be what people confuse with religious experiences. ‘I also get it looking through a microscope,’ he adds. ‘I feel overwhelmed. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. And the more you understand about the natural world, the more beautiful it seems.’
He must get sick of being patronised by people who tell him he writes well, for a scientist. ‘It’s up to others to judge if some scientists can write well absolutely, or only well for a scientist,’ he says with a smile.  ‘Science is inherently poetic and awe-inspiring so you don’t need to colour your language – you just need to tell it honestly.’ In his latest book, Unweaving the Rainbow, Dawkins answers Keats’s question, ‘Do not all charms fly/At the mere touch of cold philosophy?’ with a robust, ‘No.’ He explains the workings of starlight, sound waves and rainbows, to prove that science should inspire rather than undermine the poetic imagination.
His gift for coming up with vivid metaphors has led some reviewers to label him the Tom Stoppard of science. But this is also to do with his good looks. I ask him if his handsome features and intelligence indicate that his ancestors were successfully selfish in their search for partners? He looks mortified. ‘Er, I don’t want to talk about myself but, in general, any animal is by definition the product of successful ancestors, um, in the Darwinian sense, and so any animal can look in the mirror and say that. But that is on a much longer time-scale. And it’s never occurred to me, personally, looking in the mirror. Er, I did recently find out a little about my family tree. Have you heard of the Balliol Rhymes? They are a collection of comic verse from the late 19th century. A dozen of my family were at Balliol and my great-great-great-uncle Clinton Edward Dawkins was there in the 1880s. The rhyme about him was, “Positivists ever talkin’/Such an epic as Dawkins/Creeds are out and Man is all/Spell him with a capital.” It’s not far off being appropriate to me. Except I would add animals to man. So maybe there is some hereditary influence there.’
Man and animals are all. And God is not dead because he never existed in the first place. I take a deep breath and attempt to summarise another of Dawkins’s arguments for him. For God to create the universe he would have to be hyper-intelligent. But intelligence only evolves over time. Is that about the strength of it? ‘It’s worse that that, the argument for God starts by assuming what it is attempting to explain – intelligence, complexity, it comes to the same thing – and so it explains nothing. God is a non-explanation. Whereas evolution by natural selection is an explanation. It really does start simply and become complex.’
And when he contemplates his own mortality in this Godless universe how does he feel? ‘I accept that this is all there is and that you have to live like hell while you can. I’m pretty calm about death. I don’t fear it. I just have this strong feeling that life is wonderful but finite and that we are immensely privileged to have it.’ He crosses his hairy legs – he is wearing shorts – and rocks back in his chair. ‘I used to think religion was a genuine comfort in death, but I’ve heard from hospital nurses who’ve said to my real surprise that the patients who really seem to be terrified of death are the Catholics. I don’t know why this is. Maybe they are doing a quick calculation of how good or bad they have been. But that is only anecdotal.’
There’s going to be no danger of him losing his nerve at the end? ‘No. I can safely say that.’ He has a teenage daughter, Juliet, from his second marriage. Does she represent a form of immortality for him? ‘Only for my genes, and that’s not really the same thing at all.’ Someone whose books go on being read achieves a kind of immortality, surely? ‘There’s a long way to go before we will know if this will happen in my case. But even that doesn’t compare with actually living forever. As Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to be immortal through my achievements, I want to be immortal through not dying.”‘
Is this evidence of a sense of humour? A former student of Dawkins has told me that the professor doesn’t really have one. He also told me that Dawkins is petulant and vain, and regurgitates the same themes formulaically in each book. I don’t know whether any of that is true, but I do sense that he has a bit of a persecution complex and is a little naive. He can’t really understand why Christians get upset with him simply for telling the truth as he sees it.
He also seems to have an almost inhuman lack of sentimentality. When his daughter was six he asked her why she thought there were flowers in the world. She said they were there to make the world pretty and to help the bees make honey for us. He was touched by this and sorry to have to tell her it wasn’t true: that flowers are in the world to copy their DNA.There is something quite comical about such pathological seriousness. I ask him if, given his loathing of all things superstitious – astrology, clairvoyance, fairytales – he felt the need to disabuse his six-year-old daughter of belief in Father Christmas? ‘Well, I did have a game with her in which we worked out how fast Father Christmas would have to travel to get round all the chimneys in the world in one night. I don’t think the realisation that it was impossible shook her too much.’
Richard Dawkins is getting fidgety. We have been talking for an hour and a half, and he is surreptitiously checking the time on his square-faced watch. The body language – knees drawn up to chest, hands behind head – could not be clearer. I ask if I can use his phone to order a taxi. He does it for me. When he returns he is carrying a new Dutch translation of Unweaving the Rainbow which has just arrived in the post. His wife Lalla pops outside to see if I want another cup of tea before I leave. She is the daughter of Viscount Bangor and the former wife of Tom Baker, with whom she appeared in Dr Who. She met Richard Dawkins at a surprise 40th birthday party for the novelist Douglas Adams. She was talking to Stephen Fry at the time, and when their eyes met it was, well, love at first sight.
His ordeal by interview over, Dawkins relaxes visibly. He tells me that he and his wife read poetry to each other. ‘Lalla reads so beautifully she can make me feel tearful. And when I read I can sometimes feel a catch in my voice. And I feel a bit embarrassed about it, try to conceal it. I don’t think I cry about things that happen in real life often – mainly because I am fortunate enough not to have anything much to cry about. It is more a kind of sentiment over the written word. Poetic language. I suppose it is a little embarrassing for a grown man to allow himself to cry over a book.’
Goodness. He’s finally talking about himself. Quick, quick. His world view has been described as a bleak and despairing one. Is he prone to melancholia? ‘Not at all. I have a wonderful life. Enjoy every minute of it. I love to see other people enjoy their life too. The myth of my having a pessimistic view of life comes from the way in which I express honestly the state of humanity in the universe – which can seem bleak if you set out with unrealistic expectations in the first place. I get worried and depressed about all the work I have to do. If I haven’t met a deadline or haven’t finished a book, I fret about it and wish I was more disciplined.’
Does he have a fragile ego, a need for reassurance? ‘I get hurt by criticism which is misguided and misinformed. The militant atheist label annoys me because it can only be said by someone who hasn’t read my books.’ Just time for one more question. His leisure hours. How are they spent? Recreational drugs? ‘No.’ The footie? A shake of the head. Singing round the piano? A smile at this. ‘Around the piano, yes, that’s a lovely thing to do. Haven’t done it for years. Singing around the piano.’
The door bell rings. The taxi is here. I leave the home of this man, who is in his way still fighting a Victorian battle, with the disconcertingly Victorian vision of him singing around the piano with his family.


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.