It’s not the crisply-tailored suit and tie that makes Rory Stewart OBE stand out in a London hotel lobby. It is not even his dark, slightly dishevelled hair — hair that allows him to pass for a native while travelling across dangerous terrain in the Middle East. It is the small, incongruous rucksack slung over his shoulder. It is not an affectation. The man is one part diplomat, two parts explorer — and he is about to fly back out to Afghanistan where he is running a project to preserve the country’s heritage. He is, moreover, a figure from a bygone age: imperial, heroic, a Lawrence of Arabia who has somehow slipped through a crack in the time-space continuum.
That is not to say he is physically imposing. When, at the relatively tender age of 29, he was appointed deputy governor of a province of 850,000 people in the Marsh Arab region of southern Iraq, he was known as ‘boss’, ‘governor’ and sometimes, because of his slight 5ft 8in frame, ‘chicken legs.’ That was in September 2003, six months after the US-led invasion. In that role he not only had to negotiate hostage releases but also deal with gangsters, tribal vendettas and a full Islamic insurgency during which his governor’s compound was besieged for three days by mortars and heavy gun fire, an experience which even he had to admit was ‘slightly alarming’.
I say ‘even he’ because, for all his mildness of voice and gentle, Old Etonian manners, Rory Stewart is made of strong stuff. In 2000, he took an 18 month sabbatical from the Foreign Office to go on a solitary, 6,000-mile walk across Asia. His journey culminated in a six-week trek through Afghanistan, shortly after the collapse of the Taliban. It took him over some of the most forbidding terrain in the world, in an area where US forces were hunting Osama bin Laden. Besides mountain ranges and freezing temperatures he had to contend with Pashtun soldiers demanding that he voice his support for Al-Qaeda. As he wrote in The Places in Between, an evocative account of his journey: ‘The new government had been in place for only two weeks; there was no electricity between Herat and Kabul, no television and no T-shirts. In many houses the only piece of foreign technology was a Kalashnikov.’
It helped that he was a speaker of Dari, the local Persian dialect. He also speaks Farsi and some Arabic, which was one of the reasons he was chosen to be a deputy governor in Iraq. Other reasons include his background. After Eton, a short service limited commission with the Black Watch and a degree in History and Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford, he became, like his father before him, a diplomat and was duly posted to a war zone, Kosovo.
He has written a new book. It is about his time governing in Iraq and is called, Occupational Hazards — My time governing in Iraq. He volunteered for that job; was it, I ask, with a view to getting a book out of it? ‘No, I was actually extremely reluctant to write a book because I was working for the government. My previous book had been about what I did as a private citizen.’
Does the Civil Service Code apply to him? ‘I’m not sure.’ Was the book vetted? He shakes his head and grimaces jokily. ‘One of the flaws of my new book, I think, is that I sometimes gave into the temptation to see things as slightly comical or exotic. It can seem strange, especially when people are mortaring you or screaming that you are an infidel in these very artificial, melodramatic engagements. But I wanted to convey the texture of ordinary people’s lives, what their expectations of government were, and how they negotiated cocky, strutting, self-confident foreigners.’
There were indeed some strange episodes. He was given so much development money by the Americans he wasn’t able to get through it all. In one month alone he was encouraged to spend 10 million dollars: the money arrived vacuum packed in million dollar bricks. He ran out of projects and had to return $1.5 million. ‘It felt surreal, at times. As if we were in a parallel world, normalised only because of the way Saddam had administered these provinces through personal governors who only handed out cash to Ba’ath party supporters.’
He is being modest. His book is not flawed. It is, on the contrary, a compelling, insightful and beautifully written memoir that makes you suspect that the occupation, or liberation, depending on your viewpoint, was doomed from the start. ‘Better plans and more troops might have given us a small advantage in 2003,’ he says now. ‘But direct foreign rule was never going to turn Iraq into a liberal democracy. Retrospective analysis that focuses on the failure to stop looting in the early days, or the abolition of the Iraqi army or the de-ba’athification programme, is missing the point which is that, even if those things had gone right, it would still have been a mess. It’s partly because of who we are, and what our culture is, and partly because of what Iraqi society was like after the fall of Saddam.’
He was in favour of the invasion, back in the spring of 2003. ‘I thought it would be a good thing. I felt that a lot of the opponents of the war had underestimated how horrendous Saddam was.  I went in thinking that, with a little bit of goodwill, it shouldn’t be too difficult to out-perform Saddam, and make Iraq more humane and prosperous. But the good will simply wasn’t there. These things were difficult to predict in advance. I haven’t seen anyone who was anti the war predicting exactly this would be the mess we would be in. As the months rolled on, it became clear to me that the hostility among quiet large areas of the population meant our errors were being magnified. People keep saying  “the electricity in Iraq still doesn’t work” but it still doesn’t work in parts of Afghanistan and Kosovo: the difference in those countries is that large numbers of people are well disposed toward us and are prepared to see our failure as incompetence rather than a deliberate conspiracy to humiliate them, which is how the Iraqis see it.’
Did the Iraqis not believe that our presence was temporary? ‘No one believed that. Even when the date of handover was clear — June 30 2004. However much I said: “We are leaving in three months” I couldn’t get anyone to believe me. Even if they had, they were just so horrified and insulted by our continuing presence that the fact that we would eventually hand over didn’t matter to them.’
So we should withdraw now? ‘My instinct is that Iraqi politicians are much more competent than we give them credit for being and that among the many evils the least would be taking the risk of withdrawing and letting them take more responsibility. The Iraqi government is canny enough to come to some accommodation with the insurgents and they haven’t so far been forced to do that because of the presence of our troops.’
One day, during the Sadr insurgency in April 2004, five thousand people suddenly arrived outside Stewart’s building shouting ‘Death to the Governor!’ and ‘Mr Rory is a donkey!’ When the shells started landing, did he think his number was up? ‘I was surprised by the feeling that, sub-consciously, I had always been expecting it. Maybe because I’d read children’s stories about it, or watched films about it. Watching my bodyguard team, former soldiers who were manning the guns on the roof and defending the compound during those three days of siege, I felt calmer because I could see how calm and professional they were being — not just rising to the challenge but almost enjoying it. There is a degree of play acting  for someone like me. I was in charge of planning how to react and it was quite empowering. The more difficult  experience was for my civilians who were locked in a room with no idea of what was going on, just hearing a hundred mortars and RPGs slam into the compound, and the sound of a 50 cal on the roof, but not being able to see what was happening. Although it was theoretically more dangerous being outside the concrete room at least we could see what was happening.’
He must have gone into Iraq with every expectation of not returning. Did he write last letters to his parents? ‘Oh yes, all that sort of thing. Every time I left Britain I mentally prepared myself and felt, as far as I could be, at ease with the world. I’d said what I wanted to say to my parents and friends.’
He dedicates his new book to his father: ‘A great man, a fierce ally and a most constant friend’. ‘He’s now 84 and just flew back from Fiji where he’s been writing a guidebook. He’s an amazing man. Fought at D-Day. When I was a child he was posted to Malaysia and there he would take me out into the jungle and teach me jungle craft. My three sisters would say I was the son he desperately wanted because I was happy to do irregular Greek verbs with him when I was six. Between six and nine every morning before I went to school he would take me fencing in Hyde Park.’
Rory Stewart didn’t take his sword with him for his trek across Afghanistan. Instead he took a dictionary, a walking stick, two pairs of socks, a change of clothes, a sleeping bag and some emergency rations. He suffered diarrhoea and dysentery, became riddled with bed bug bites and survived on little more than bread and vegetables. Now and again, Stewart’s diplomatic skills failed him. He got it badly wrong in Bamiyan, the site of the desecrated Buddhas in Afghanistan, when he ignored the security patrol’s orders to stop. ‘One of them chased after me and punched me in the face. The others just kicked me. In the end, I talked myself out of it and got away with one black eye.’
He took it as a compliment when British special forces, meeting him in deep snow, wound their transport window down to tell him: ‘You’re a fucking nutter’ before motoring on, leaving him on the road, exhausted in frozen socks.
Did he wonder if he was, actually, a nutter? ‘I did feel in Afghanistan that I had overstepped the mark. One of the reasons I ended the walk there was that I realised how lucky I was going to have to be to make it to Kabul and felt I owed it to my parents to come back if I made it that far. I never regretted it. I could have been shot but it felt like being an explorer and that was exhilarating. No one else has walked across Afghanistan in the winter maybe in the last 20 years and possibly the last 400 years.’
Did he feel lonely on his walk? ‘My objective was to try as much as possible to force myself into village culture, so it was easier travelling alone because it gives me sufficient vulnerability and isolation to push myself into a village and talk to people.’
When I ask why he felt the need to do that trek, he talks of the near-hypnotic pleasure of walking, of the unhindered connection with the physical world made by his rhythmic progression. ‘But also my great text is Don Quixote. He is sitting reading all these books about chivalry, then he puts his barber’s basin on his head and gets out this old map and sets of to be a knight errant. But he finds that 16th century society is not corresponding at all to his dreams of Arthurian romance and dragons. I think, in a sense, we are all Don Quixote. One of the aspects of being human is wanting to be more than human and creating heroes and playing a grand game with your life. Like Don Quixote, though, we all realise that what we are doing as we are strapping ourselves up and putting on our helmets is faintly ludicrous. The kind of glamour you are pursuing is vain and dies with you. It means nothing. But you do it because it makes you feel alive. On high ridges looking out over an intense, dark blue sky I feel more alive — more alive than I would feel walking down the King’s Road where I feel a tiny, isolated, irrelevant person surrounded by people in fashionable clothes and huge adverts for underwear that I don’t really understand.’
Chasing dragons? Wouldn’t it be easier to do it with mind expanding drugs? “Maybe I should try that. It would finish any possibility of a diplomatic career, though.’
It hasn’t hurt David Cameron’s career. ‘Well, OK. But at Oxford I was too square to do that.’
The lonely self exploration; how does that impact on his love life? ‘I’m pretty single. It is very difficult, that aspect. The reality is, I feel much lonelier in London than I do on an Afghan mountain. In London you feel you ought to have all these things — the wife and children — and so you feel more lonely. Whereas in Afghanistan I have a whole rationale, a story I can tell myself.
His friend the actress Clemmie Burton Hill had told me: ‘Rory has great equanimity, optimism and integrity. His adventurism is not gratuitous. He operate on different parameters to the rest of us, to a moral purpose.’ Sigh. Women, I put it to him, must love his swashbuckling ways. “I don’t think they do, actually. I hoped my walk would impress the girls — definitely — but I don’t think  it did.’ His full lips part into a wide toothy smile.
How about the family seat in Crieff, Scotland; that must make hearts flutter? “No, I think what I need is a sports car.’
It is academic anyway — for English debutants, at least — because for the next two years Rory Stewart OBE will be in Afghanistan, a place which in recent weeks has become almost as dangerous for Westerners as Iraq. In one incident alone ??? were killed. Does he blend in there? ‘I’m not very good at growing a beard. It comes out all wispy and rubbish.’ Has he learned to live with the threat of being taken hostage? ‘Being an Arab speaker, or being immersed in their culture, doesn’t seem to help. Look at Margaret Hassan in Iraq. The only thing that does help a bit is body language, I think.’ He pats his chest. ‘I instinctively do this, all the time. It’s all about manners. How you sit. How you place your feet. The amount of energy you put into greeting.’ At this point he holds his hand to his chest and says softly: ‘Salaam aleikum. Chetor hastid? Jan-e-shoma jur ast? Khub hastid? Sahat-e-shoma khub ast. Zinde bashi.’ It translates as: ‘Peace be with you. How are you? Is your soul healthy? Long life to you.’ Or more simply: ‘Hello.’ When I was in nasty situations in Afghanistan I thought if I can just get them to say ‘salaam’ back I will be 50% safer. I smiled a lot in Iraq, but Afghans are much more reserved and austere… But none of this being polite to people on the street is going to stop me getting my head chopped off!’ He laughs the enigmatic laugh of a Kipling hero, an intrepid Englishman, a fucking nutter.


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.