I discovered Roger Scruton’s true identity quite by accident, while listening to an interview I’d taped with him. There it was: a perfectly normal, if slightly lispy voice belonging to an earnest, 16-year-old public schoolboy. At first, I thought I had picked up the wrong tape. Only when my own voice came on – Mickey Mouse on helium, the normal sound of speeded up human speech – did I realise that I had flicked on the fast-play mode on my recorder.
Scruton, it seems, is a 16-year-old trapped in a 52-year-old body. As with Dorian Gray’s picture, the exterior has aged while the inner voice, the ‘identity of self’ he so often writes about, has remained young. If you don’t believe me, try taping Radio 4’s The Moral Maze next time he’s on the panel. Listen to his slow, ponderous monotone and then play it back at speed. I know it’s childish, but I promise it will make you smile.
This discovery is only amusing, of course, because Roger Scruton is gravitas incarnate and he’s quite intimidating to boot – and not just because he has a brain the size of Denmark (the double first, the professorship) and because he is a Renaissance man with a capital R (barrister, novelist, opera composer, journalist, author of 20 academic books on subjects ranging from architecture to sexual desire, and organist at his local church). It’s to do, too, with his repertoire of facial expressions: he hasn’t got one. Instead, his pale angular features are frozen in an impersonation of the sinister German dentist-torturer played by Laurence Olivier in ‘Marathon Man’. As Scruton himself once said of his inflexible face and voice: ‘I can’t simultaneously develop an argument and appear like a human being.’
He does smile occasionally, but even this is intimidating: more a tight grimace. Even his fiery hair is a bit scary. As for his name – well, Maurice Saatchi couldn’t have come up with a more appropriate monicker for a right-wing polemicist who’s been accused, over the years, of everything from racism to homophobia to, probably, global warming. Try saying it. Roger Scruton. It’s brutal. It’s stark. It almost snarls at you. Can it be just coincidence that the closest word in the dictionary is ‘scruto’, a trap door? ‘Actually,’ says Roger Scruton, as he prepares to drive off in his battered old Land-Rover, one of his rare, taut grins playing about his face, ‘it’s an old Yorkshire name. It means one who treats dandruff sufferers.’
Two hours earlier, Roger Vernon Scruton looks blank as he opens the door of his Wiltshire farmhouse. ‘Forgot you were coming,’ he eventually says in his Marvin-the-Paranoid-Android voice. This is as it should be. You wouldn’t expect Britain’s most famous philosopher to consult his diary every day. Nor would you expect him to dress up for the occasion, even if he had remembered you were driving all the way down from London to visit him on his remote 35-acre farm with its four horses, orchard and ducks. He hasn’t, and he is wearing a blue moth-eaten tank top, grubby trousers and no shoes (but grey school socks that are threadbare and inside out). ‘Follow me,’ he says, and leads me through the kitchen and in to a sitting room that is – despite the log burner, the chairs that don’t match, the hunting horn, the Wagner recordings scattered on the floor, the small painting of a saddleback pig and the large portrait of Lord Fairfax in long wig and armour – somehow austere.
On the windowsill is a photo of two riders clearing a jump. One is Scruton, the other Sophie Jeffreys, the handsome, blonde 24-year-old he is marrying on 7 December. ‘This photo’, he says, ‘shows her competence and my incompetence.’ You can see what he means: he has a shocked look on his bespectacled face and is joggling awkwardly out of his saddle; her seat is perfect. ‘We met out hunting, believe it or not,’ he says. Sophie Jeffreys is half-sister to Lord Jeffreys, a Conservative peer who shares Scruton’s passion for country sports. She is also a descendant of Judge Jeffreys, whose enthusiasm for capital punishment you might expect Scruton to share. (Scruton is, after all, the man who once quipped on The Moral Maze that, ‘Punishment is a good thing. There should be more of it, and it should be more severe.’)
The couple are, by all accounts, smitten. The age difference seems not to be a barrier. Nor does Scruton’s contempt for television (he won’t allow a set in the house) nor his disdain for pop music. When asked if he worries that the marital home might be filled with the sound of Oasis, for instance, Scruton says: ‘No. She is very much not that sort of person. She has the same outlook as I have. She loves, as I do, classical music, architecture and the countryside. Old-fashioned decencies. Not a television-watching type. I don’t think there will be any conflict.’
No kidding. Scruton’s latest book, out this month, was tried out on his fiancée first – and she suggested some ‘vital improvements’. It’s called An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy and its modest aim is to rescue mankind from the trivialising uncertainty of science and to ‘replace the sarcasm which knows that we are merely animals, with the irony which sees we are not’. In recognition of the improvements suggested, Scruton considered renaming the book An Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Philosophy. Given that his last novel, Xanthippic Dialogues (1993), was essentially a send-up of scholarly writing in which Scruton draped himself in the clothes of Ancient Greek women the better to debate such topics as the role of the individual in society, you suspect that he may be only half joking.
All this might make you think that Scruton lacks the lightness of touch necessary to become a living national treasure, in the tradition of ‘Freddie’ Ayer and ‘Bertie’ Russell. I’m not so sure. There is, for instance, a story about Scruton’s time at Cambridge: when his girlfriend’s clothes were discovered in his college room – a serious offence – he told his tutor the clothes were his, and that he needed them because he was a transvestite. In fact, it could be that his sense of humour is so dry it is misinterpreted as pretentiousness. As a teenager, while at High Wycombe Grammar School, Scruton was accused of riding on the London Tube without a ticket. The case was made rather more serious by the allegation that he had given a false name to the police. This was solemnly read out in court as John Stuart Mill. And when once asked by the Guardian what phrase he most overused, he said, ‘the transcendental unity of apperception’. He added that his favourite smell was the French Literature section of the London Library.
The Cambridge don John Casey once said that Scruton’s philosophical armour-plating hides a quixotic, absurdist nature. It is an astute observation, even if the absurd aspects of Scruton’s life are not always intentional. In 1989, for example, I heard him give the inaugural lecture of the Royal Institute of Philosophy in a lecture hall at Durham University. As he was talking, a choir began practising in the next room. The choir grew louder and louder, until everyone else in the hall had to bite on their knuckles to avoid sniggering. But Scruton was unruffled. He did not smile, raise his soft, low voice, or vary his measured, monotone delivery, as if it were for him an everyday occurrence to be accompanied by a heavenly choir. It got worse. Later that night, I gave him a lift back to Durham Castle where he was staying in the Bishop’s Suite. Thinking I had got him back just before the Castle gates closed at midnight, I did not wait to see that he was let in. He wasn’t, and, next day, the campus was tittering with tales of how Scruton’s wan and wraith-like figure had been sighted flitting through the cobbled backstreets of Durham at two in the morning, still looking for a policeman to help him.
Scruton stares out of the window and, with limp fingers, drags on a fat cigar. ‘What’, he asks, ‘would you like to talk about now?’ Well, we could start with Animal Rights and Wrongs, a book he brought out in the summer. Or the First of June Prize, the award he was given this year by the people of the Czech Republic in recognition of the role he played in overthrowing Communism. But we plump, instead, for Modern Philosophy, out in paperback this year. When it was published, The Times devoted a leader to it, not least because it is, unlike most books on philosophy, readable and lucid, conveying complex ideas in a conversational style – or, as Scruton puts it, expressing the problems of the head in the language of the heart. Judged in this light, Scruton has earned a place on the same pedestal as Russell and Ayer – for what they, too, had was a gift for sharing their wisdom with others. Unlike them, though, he is not the apple of academe’s eye. Professor Ted Honderich of University College, London, for instance, went so far as to call him ‘the unthinking man’s thinking man’. (Scruton retaliated by calling Honderich ‘the thinking man’s unthinking man’.)
And if an Oxford chair once beckoned, it was off the cards once Scruton wrote The Meaning of Conservatism in 1980. ‘After that book,’ Scruton says, ‘it was ruled out that I would ever gain the highest of academic honours. Even if I deserved them. Which I didn’t. But being free from the possibility of those ambitions enabled me to write rude and disgraceful things about the intellectual establishment. It meant I was free to say some really enjoyable and unpleasant things and thereby give pleasure to others.’
He denies, though, that he makes his caustic comments solely because it excites him to do so. ‘No, I don’t enjoy being controversial, but it is enjoyable telling the truth about a conspiracy of silence or an established lie. If you are a right-wing academic, your colleagues think that you are not a proper philosopher at all. My right-wing stance has always heavily compromised my career. If you criticise the whole idea of human equality, which is basically what I do, you are going against a prevalent quasi-religious orthodoxy.’
His many enemies accuse him, though, of striking poses rather than expressing deeply held conservative convictions. The exhibitionist who subverts liberal pieties through ridicule, who declares unambiguously that there are no natural human rights, who describes democracy as a wildly raging contagion is, they say, exactly the sort of masochist who would take up fox-hunting at the age of 45 simply because he knew socialists would hate him for it.
There is, undoubtedly, a combative side to his nature, but it’s a mistake to suggest, as the Guardian once did, that his most controversial views – on multicultural education, say, or homosexuality – are just expressions of prejudice. Unlike true bigots, he welcomes serious debate and, you suspect, secretly wishes someone would come along and free him from his martyr’s cross by persuading him that his ‘offensive’ believes were wrong. ‘I don’t want to be right-wing,’ he says, ‘but I just am.’ He is similarly reluctant to set himself up as a moral arbiter, but he can’t help himself. ‘I have thousands of weaknesses and sins, like everyone else. I spend a lot of time regretting what I’ve done, feeling remorse for bad behaviour.’
It is depressing to consider the paradox implied by this. Here is an intellectual who feels he has to live with the indignity of upholding populist views that even some London taxi drivers might consider unsophisticated. Here is an essentially private, almost shy man who has felt obliged to court publicity all his life, even to the extent of appearing on television, a medium he despises. And here is a man who feels he has had no choice but to make himself unpopular with liberals even though he says he found the sack-loads of hate mail he has received over the years hurtful: ‘You’d think I would get used to it, but I don’t.’
It needn’t have been like this. Roger Scruton’s father was a Socialist. And so was Roger Scruton – until he went to teach at a French university, just before the country was torn apart by the student revolution of 1968. After this, Scruton became vehemently anti-Communist. Personal experience confirmed his views: ‘When I started visiting Eastern Europe and acquired friends there, I became indignant and frightened on their behalf. I had an experience of evil: the systematic negation of the human spirit. If you wanted a description of the devil’s work, that would be it: the world devoid of human spirit and freedom.’
In 1979, Roger Scruton was invited to address an underground seminar in Prague – ‘In a Communist society everything is forbidden unless permitted, the opposite of our assumption. Nobody had ever permitted anyone to gather in a private apartment and discuss philosophy, therefore it was considered a crime by the secret police.’ Vaclav Havel, the first President of the Czech Republic, was one of the students Scruton taught. Scruton learnt Czech, helped set up a resistance movement and found himself cast in the role of Scarlet Pimpernel – before eventually being arrested and expelled.
Whatever kudos this might have earned Scruton among the bien pensants was dispelled in 1982, when he set up The Salisbury Review, a right-wing magazine, and published Education and Race, an article by a Bradford schoolteacher, Ray Honeyford, which advocated that immigrants should be taught without respect for cultural difference. This established Scruton in the public consciousness as the natural successor to the other inflammatory right-winger Enoch Powell. Wherever Scruton went, demonstrators would be waiting. Some of his lectures had to be cancelled because city councils could not guarantee his safety.
Enoch Powell is one of Scruton’s heroes, along with Kant and Wittgenstein. ‘Enoch Powell suffered much more than me. He said things that all decent Englishmen in their hearts believes. But in the wrong tone of voice, and when it was so unfashionable. It became possible to label him…’ He hesitates. ‘In the most damning ways. I think he was very brave and stood for the right things, but he would not have made a good prime minister because he was totally unsound on the question of Communism and Russia. He never saw what it meant. He had a romantic 19th-century view of how great powers worked. For him it was as if Disraeli and Bismarck were still dividing up the Balkans.’
Scruton doesn’t think he would have made a good prime minister, either. ‘I did put myself forward as a Conservative candidate, about 20 years ago, ‘ he admits. ‘I had an interview with some old blue-rinse at Central Office but I was judged to be far too intellectual and was told to go away. I think they were right. I didn’t have the temperament to be a politician.’
One enduring myth about Scruton is that it was Powell who persuaded him to take up fox-hunting because to do so was every true Conservative’s duty. ‘He didn’t really get me into hunting but he did sell me his hunting gear,’ Scruton recalls. ‘I happened to be sitting next to him at a dinner when he said he was giving up. I was a bit poor at the time so I offered to buy his second hand clothes. I’ve still got his jacket but it never was quite big enough for me. It split down the seams. The story goes that when someone asked Powell about the hunting clothes, he said, ‘We’re just about the same size. Physically, I mean, not intellectually.’
It’s his physical being, really, that provides Scruton’s strongest claim to the status of national institution. The subject of hunting suddenly reminds Scruton that he is supposed to be picking up a horse, even as we speak. As he rushes outside to hitch up a rusty trailer to his Land-Rover, he becomes distracted by a chicken that has escaped from its coop. It looks at him quizzically as he potters across the field towards it, making clucking noises. As he draws closer he spreads his arms wide, and assumes a shuffling crouch, as though trying to hypnotise the bird. It is a comical sight. Gloriously undignified. And, yes, utterly endearing. Like the 16-year-old’s voice on the tape, it serves to remind you of a sentence in Scruton’s new book: ‘We all know in our hearts, even if we never put the matter in words, that the human subject is the strangest thing that we encounter.’
This appeared in November 1996. Sophie Scruton gave birth to a son, Samuel, in November 1998. Roger Scruton declared that Sam would not enjoy his childhood but would be more enjoyable company as a consequence. Sam would not be allowed to watch television or listen to pop, instead he would hunt, learn Greek by the age of six, as John Stuart Mill had done, and  learn the viola, because it is not much fun to play.
In 2002 the philosopher came unstuck briefly when he lost his column on the FT, after it was revealed he was receiving £60,000 a year to influence the media on behalf of a Japanese tobacco company.


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.