It’s six months since his car came off the road at 120mph and burst into flames during the filming of The Grand Tour. Now Richard Hammond is haunted by the knowledge that his daughters might have grown up without him. By Nigel Farndale

You would imagine that “having an excessive fondness for your wife” is a condition so obscure it would not have a name, yet it does. Uxoriousness. I mention it because I don’t think I’ve ever met a man quite as uxorious as Richard Hammond.

His wife is called Mindy and he refers to her often as we sit in the back of his chauffeur-driven Mercedes on the two-hour drive from Heathrow to what he calls his “stupid pretend castle” in Herefordshire. And later, when we get there, I find myself walking in on them when he is greeting her with a big hug in their low and oak-beamed kitchen, even though he has only been away for one night. He calls her Mindy Moo.

She is 52, has long blonde hair, is 5ft 2in tall and is wearing wellies, having just come in from doing the horses, or perhaps the sheep – something rustic, anyway. He is five years younger, five inches taller, is still going through a leather jacket phase and has a David Brent-style goatee he claims is not dyed. They have been married since 2002 – the year Hammond joined Top Gear – but were going out together for seven years before that. She is, then, long-suffering in the sense of being married to someone who keeps having crashes that ought, by the laws of physics and probability, to be fatal.

The first was in 2006 when his jet-powered dragster left an airstrip at 300mph and he was in a coma for two weeks. The second happened in June this year and will feature in the new series of The Grand Tour, which is released on Amazon’s streaming service this Friday.

He was doing a timed hill climb in Switzerland in a £2 million electric supercar when it came off on a corner at 120mph and rolled several hundred feet back down, an experience he compares to being inside a tumble dryer full of bricks. He remained conscious but thought he was going to die, and then he realised the car was about to burst into flames and managed to scramble out seconds before it did.

As we are driving to his house he makes light of all this, in that “It was only a scratch” way men do when there are other men around. With a tap of his right knee, he says, “Got a metal plate in here. Ten pins holding the tibia and the plateau together and, because it is a weight-bearing part of the knee, that will need replacing. The main downside is I’ve been told I can’t run for a year and, when I do, my knee will go.”

He thinks the ordeal was worse for the director, Phil Churchward. “I thought we had wrapped for the day, and then Phil asked me for one more take and I said, ‘You do realise,if you make me do this again, I’m boundto crash?’ ” says Hammond. “A minute later, the car was upside down at the bottom of a mountain and on fire. Poor Phil was in pieces. He came to see me in hospital that night and was a broken man.”

It might have been bad for his director, but I’m guessing Mindy didn’t exactly shrug off the accident either. Did she give him an ultimatum? “The only ultimatum I have had from her was when she said, ‘You’ve had your two strikes. I don’t want a third.’ ” He looks at me with large, unblinking brown eyes and deploys an expensive white smile. “Will it change me? Probably, yes. I will think, um, things can go wrong. This is a wake-up call for Mindy and me because it is a reminder of how lucky we are and how we don’t want to throw it all away. I need to reassess my view of risk slightly.”

Yet they had a similar talk in 2006 by a fireside in Scotland. “Recovering from a brain injury like that is difficult,” he says. “It’s about mood control and I was going through a phase of obsession, paranoia and compulsion, and I knew I could make myself a victim if I wasn’t careful. But Mindy and I said, ‘Let’s turn this into a good thing in our lives. Let’s take stock and appreciate what we have.’ ”

For all his blasé manner, Hammond admits that following the latest crash he is haunted by the thought that he might have left not only his wife as a widow, but his two teenage daughters without a father. “But I don’t feel like I am reckless,” he adds, “because I’m not. I learnt to fly helicopters and I was bloody cautious. Same with motorcycles, which I have ridden for 32 years. Occasionally, if you do enough of stuff, things will go wrong.”

I ask if it has made him superstitious, but apparently, it hasn’t. “The only superstition I have is that I always have a pee before I do something dangerous, because you don’t want a full bladder if you’re going to have an accident,” he says. “It can rupture and kill you. Plus, you look a bit of a nelly if they pull you out of the car and you’ve wet yourself.”

In their mocking, blokeish way, his co-presenters Jeremy Clarkson and James May have said that the crash happened because Hammond was too short to see over the steering wheel and that the surgery to his knee has left him “even shorter”, which is true, but only by 7mm. But even Clarkson seems to have been rattled by this latest crash, admitting it is the worst he has ever witnessed.

“The crash is a wake-up call for my wife Mindy and me. We don’t want to throw it all away”

Instead of hill running, which Hammond found therapeutic after his 2006 crash, he has taken up cycling to stay fit. That must be awkward, I say, given that Top Gear was always having a go at cyclists. “Well, yes, but only because cyclists are so stroppy,” he says. “Where did all the fury come from? I’m going to be a chilled cyclist.”

If “cyclists” became Top Gear shorthand for the PC brigade (as Hammond calls them) that they liked to wind up, then for the PC brigade, Top Gear became shorthand for bigotry. Hammond was one of the worst offenders when he described Mexicans as being, among other things, “lazy, feckless and flatulent”.

He now tells me this was a consequence of him playing a “sort of character” on the show. “That was really us taking the piss out of ourselves,” he says. “I was portraying a cartoon version of myself, the thick Brummie. The picture I painted of Mexicans belonged in a Road Runner cartoon. The laugh was on me because anyone watching would say, ‘He’s an idiot if he believes that.’ ”

With a sighing outbreath, he gives a shake of his head. “Look, it’s a difficult thing to carry off and sometimes it doesn’t work. I felt queasy about that one afterwards.”

While he accepts that with the “Clarkson, Hammond and May banter” there comes a degree of deliberate provocation and line-crossing to annoy people, he doesn’t always enjoy doing it. “The other two laugh at me for it, but I don’t enjoy being in trouble, I genuinely don’t,” he says. “We were in a ferry terminal once and they said, ‘Let’s jump the queue,’ and I said, ‘Actually, let’s not.’ ”

Clarkson did enjoy getting into trouble, however, and with each new transgression – such as his use of the word “slope”, which is a pejorative term for an Asian – there was an attempt at the BBC to get rid of him. The opportunity was eventually handed to his enemies on a plate of cold food when he punched an assistant producer.

Hammond is all too aware of the incongruity: that a BBC presenter who was hugely popular with the public – one million people signed a petition to have Clarkson reinstated on the show – was pretty much loathed by the bien pensants who actually run the BBC. “Yeah, yeah, I can see that the BBC is very good at twisting itself into knots like that,” he says. “The BBC needs to remember sometimes that it can’t be one view only. It can’t be homogenised. It has a duty to reflect the nation.”

The three amigos went to Amazon with a budget said to be not unadjacent to £160 million, but then, in the first series, came another comment that caused offence, this time to gay people, and this time from the mouth of Hammond. He said he didn’t eat ice cream and that this was “something to do with being straight”. It caused a Twitter storm.

Didn’t the complainants have a point? Don’t mocking comments like that from public figures belittle gay people and make it harder for them to come out? “It was certainly not what I set out to do,” he says carefully. “I wouldn’t want to cause genuine difficulty for anyone. But if it’s mock fury, pantomime fury, from people looking to take offence, then …” He trails off. “Look, anyone who knows me knows I wasn’t being serious, that I’m not homophobic. Love is love, whatever the sex of the two people in love. It may be because I live in a hideously safe and contained middle-class world, where a person’s sexuality is not an issue, but when I hear of people in the media coming out, I think, why do they even feel the need to mention it? It is so old-fashioned to make a big deal of it. That isn’t even an interesting thing to say at a dinner party any more.”

So he was making the comment in a spirit of the ironic, post-prejudice, testing-the-boundaries way that, say, Ricky Gervais might do it? “I don’t think I can claim it was as carefully crafted as that,” he says. “I’m not a comic, and when I try to be funny it bites me on the arse.”

I get the impression that, while Clarkson revels in being a hate figure to the liberal left, Hammond has no stomach for it. I mention another left-wing comedian, Stewart Lee, who based a whole section of one of his live shows on Hammond. It was not only funny, it was brutal. Lee characterised Hammond as a giggling, cowardly sidekick to the bullying Clarkson. Among the more printable comments was a description of Hammond as “a publicly funded cheerleader for mass ignorance”.

I ask if he finds such characterisations hurtful. “I don’t think Stewart Lee likes me very much,” he says with a grimace. “But if noise-makers are just making noise, I’m not interested. I don’t live in north London; I live in the countryside. I don’t join in with that. I don’t have an agenda. Feelings? Not in the sense of getting hurt, because my friends and family know me, and they know I can be an absolute idiot, as thick as a brick, but they also know I’m not necessarily the same as that public persona.”

“He’s more liberal than any caricature allows. He voted Remain and admires Jeremy Corbyn”

It is a disarmingly dignified answer. In person, Hammond comes across as chatty and cheerful, if a little prone to Alan Partridge-like self-aggrandisement. And while his self-deprecation may be a useful conceit – always mentioning his diminutive stature first, as well as his reputation for not being very bright – I do wonder what lies behind his insecurities.

He grew up in suburban Solihull, the eldest of three boys, one of whom became a teacher, the other a fund manager. Their father was a probate solicitor, their mother a charity consultant, and the family moved to Yorkshire when he was 15. But then, or so I have read, he was expelled from Ripon Grammar School. Is that true? “A bit,” he says. “I joined in the sixth form and didn’t bed in well, and after six months it was suggested that I might like to try somewhere else. Anywhere else.”

After that, he went to study audio-visual communication at Harrogate College of Art and Technology. “But I do wish I’d been to university,” he says. “I did get a place to study architecture as a mature student at Canterbury, but by then I was working in local radio and in debt so I couldn’t afford it. It was going to be seven years before I got to design a garage extension. I sometimes wonder where that other path might have led. It certainly wouldn’t have led me to Mindy’s doorstep, so I can’t regret it.”

They met at Renault, where he was working as an assistant press officer and she was in HR. “So it was very much an old-school office romance,” he says.

Nowadays, that would be a political minefield, I note. How did he manage it back then? “Well, I’m not very bold,” he says. “I fancied her tremendously. Everyone did. She was drawn like a cartoon of a ridiculously pretty girl. I got an invitation to the Doghouse Ball [a motor racing event] and I was scared to ask her, so I asked the boss’s chauffeur to ask her for me. She said yes and when I went to pick her up from her flat, her Irish friend Maggie answered the door and said over her shoulder to Mindy, ‘Sure, he’s never five-seven. He’s a diddy fecker.’ At the ball, there were cigarettes on the table and we smoked and drank and talked about blues music.”

A week after the ball, they met up to walk their dogs. “It was a lovely day and I turned around to see her catching up and I just thought, oh, there you go. That was it. I’d fallen in love. When you know, you know. Soulmate is a soppy word. It’s more the intertwining of your life with someone who makes it nicer. Mindy still surprises me.”

And they have been through much together. Mindy was, after all, in his life before Top Gear turned into a global monster with 350 million viewers worldwide. What was the mood like at home when it became apparent that Clarkson was going to be sacked? “It wasn’t a high point,” says Hammond. “There was a sense of ‘So, that’s that, then.’ James came over and we went out with Izzy, our older daughter, for Kentucky Fried Chicken, and James said, ‘I’ll pay,’ and I said, ‘No, I’ll pay,’ and Izzy said, ‘I should pay because neither of you has a job.’ ”

He thinks it was good for his daughters to hear their parents having one of those “What are we going to do now?” conversations. “I did think it could mean us having to move out and me having to go back to local radio,” he says. “We shared everything with the girls. They knew the amount of time we had before the money would run out.” Quite a long time, one imagines, given that Hammond is estimated to be worth £20 million, although he tells me he is not sure of “the numbers” himself.

It is a measure of his niceness that he resists the urge to rubbish his old show, which has struggled. Hammond says he likes it and that he thinks it will find its mark. “There is room in the world for more than one car show,” he says. “Look how many cookery shows there are.”

He thinks the secret of the success of Top Gear in his day and The Grand Tour now is “naughtiness”. He describes the formula as three middle-aged men driving about getting things wrong and sometimes catching fire and falling over. That and it being a family show. “With Top Gear, we were given the Sunday-night slot. It was a 50/50 male and female audience. With The Grand Tour, we have continued some of that sense of it being a family show, the trying not to swear.”

There have been one or two teething problems, but The Grand Tour seems to have lived up to expectations.

And the chemistry between the presenters still seems to work. When I ask what Clarkson’s most annoying habit is, Hammond thinks for a moment, then says, “The way he is.” He laughs at this and adds, “He can be grumpy, but we can all be. You cannot spend as much time together as we do without winding each other up and occasionally feeling homicidal. We don’t socialise together away from the show because we would never be apart if we did.”

He has noticed that when he is with a group of men, in a pub say, they tend to treat him in the same way that Clarkson and May treat him, as the butt of their jokes. “But that’s the great thing,” he says. “You bump into strangers and they engage with you as if they were part of the show. In terms of approachability, I think it helps that I’m small. Although I’m probably not as small as people imagine. I think they are sometimes disappointed when they see I’m not something out of a circus. Unlike Jeremy. He does belong in a circus. He’s ridiculously tall.”

For all his eagerness to be seen to fight back, I get the sense of there being an element of Stockholm syndrome about Hammond’s relationship with Clarkson and May. I suspect he is much more liberal than any caricature of him allows. He voted Remain and he admires Jeremy Corbyn. “I like that he makes noise and stands for something. We need more Corbyns, on both sides.”

At the faux castle, there is as impressive a collection of cars as you would expect, from an E-type Jag, Lagonda and Bentley to a Mustang, Porsche and Model A Ford. The vehicle he seems most fond of, though, is an old Land Rover Discovery that has 130,000 miles on the clock. “I do the school run in it and it’s full of hairbands and socks and books and notepads and food,” he says. “It’s a health hazard, which I don’t like driving at night because you hear things rustling. When it’s done, we’re going to take it out into a field and bury it.”

There are also 37 motorbikes, a reminder that, as a child, Hammond had motorbike wallpaper. There is also what he calls, in between vaping, “the campest man cave ever”. It’s true. As well as a beer cooler, it has a 19th-century blackamoor candelabra light fixture next to a baby grand piano. There is also an ornate love heart with the words “Richard and Mindy” written above and below it in coloured glass and shells.

As well as looking after all their cats, dogs, horses, donkeys, sheep and hens, Mindy writes a weekly newspaper column. She is also handy with a hairbrush and does Hammond’s hair by the Aga before our photoshoot. And while he is doing the shoot, she collects eggs to make him an omelette for his lunch. She seems to mother him, in other words, and perhaps that, after all his traumatic ordeals, is what he wants – and needs – the most.



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.