Ruth Rogers – co-founder of the River Café and the most well-connected chef in Britain – is celebrating 20 years of serving cucina rustica to London’s politicos, authors and media moguls. But, she tells Nigel Farndale, she’s not power-hungry, just committed to the food revolution, as she demonstrates in the recipes she gives here

Blue carpets are being hoovered. A chrome-plated bar is being polished. Bookings are being taken. It is mid-morning, and the River Café, which this autumn celebrates its 20th anniversary as London’s most innovative and influential Italian restaurant, is humming into life. Sitting at a table alongside the flames of a wood-burning stove is a phlegmatic 59-year-old, one who somehow manages to look elegant in sauce-stained chef’s whites, checked trousers and clogs. She, Ruth Rogers – Ruthie, as she is known – is writing the lunch menu. She will write another tonight. The menus – always cucina rustica – change twice daily according to what fresh produce is available. For lunch today she is including taglierini alla piemontese con tartufi bianchi – fine pasta ribbons with the first of the season’s white truffles from Tuscany. The price seems not only fresh but eye-wateringly precise: £53.50.

‘I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and think, “Did I order the parmesan?”’ she says. ‘This is an improvement. I used to have anxiety dreams in which I would come into the kitchen in my pyjamas and it was empty. I would call my husband and say, “There’s nobody here!”’

More often, she has pleasant dreams about food. ‘Last night I dreamt I was cooking corn followed by lobster and clams – I guess because I just came back from a visit to the North Shore.’

That is near where she was born and raised, in bohemian Woodstock, upstate New York. There she would hang out with artists and musicians in cafés. On one occasion she realised Bob Dylan was sipping coffee at the next table. She struck up a conversation with him – such is her social ease, her comfort in her own skin. Her father was a doctor, her mother a trade-union organiser; both filled her head with left-wing liberal values. She arrived in London in 1968, aged 19, to do a BA in design at the London College of Printing. It was the high summer of the counter-culture.

Rogers has large, pale blue eyes, a residual trace of upstate springiness in her voice and a polite but distracted manner. She is telling me why dining at the River Café is a theatrical experience. ‘Dining out used to be scary. You would have to dress up. The wine waiter would make you feel inferior. The restaurant would be hushed. All the drama would be going on behind closed doors in the kitchen. Then in the late 1980s, around the time we opened, there was a shift in attitude. You were allowed to relax. With our open kitchen we brought the drama of cooking into the same space as the diners. Now you can engage more with what you are eating. There is contact. I can see diners from where I’m working over there.’ She wafts a hand in the direction of the serving counter that runs the length of the restaurant. ‘I very often watch when a plate is placed in front of someone. Watch their reaction.’

Watch them thinking, ‘Oh my God, Ruth Rogers is staring at me. Better look as if I’m enjoying it’? ‘I hope not,’ she says with a languid, throaty laugh. ‘I would hate that. I’m careful not to. It is more like a peek behind the curtain… Then there is the drama between the waiter and the customer, and between the customers themselves. People get divorced in restaurants. They get fired. I once had someone order a cake. He was going to propose. By the end of the evening they had cancelled the cake.’ Another laugh. ‘I guess it wasn’t going that well.’

She takes a sip of water, holding the glass in two hands like a schoolgirl. No rings, I notice, but a glittery Rolex that hangs loose on her slim wrist. The River Café, she explains, began life as a glorified works canteen: her husband, the architect Lord (Richard) Rogers, had moved his headquarters into the Thames Wharf complex and realised he and his staff had nowhere to eat. Her co-founder, co-author and co-Michelin-star-winning chef is Rose Gray. The two became friends in the early 1970s: the same dinner parties, the same anti-Vietnam protest marches. Together they wrote those vibrant, million-selling River Café cookbooks that changed the way we eat: all that emphasis on fresh ingredients, and vegetables and fruits harvested in season. You probably have one on your shelves. Their handwriting, I notice from the ingredients order book on the table, is almost identical. ‘Rose and I work together so well,’ Rogers says. ‘She cooked lunch here yesterday. I’m last night and today.’ Although their protégés include Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver – both learnt to cook in the kitchen here – Rogers, like Gray, is not a trained chef herself. More an intuitive cook who learned by watching, that’s how she puts it.

Rogers is appallingly well connected, in part because the River Café quickly established itself as a salon for the left-wing cognoscenti, with leading lights of the literary, media and political worlds turning up in droves. On a typical night you could spot a Salman Rushdie here, an Alan Rusbridger there, and, over by the bar, a Peter Mandelson. Still can, for that matter. ‘I suppose my husband brought some of that. With his connections. It did help in the beginning, but if it was just about being fashionable they wouldn’t have kept coming back. It’s true, we did overlap with the rise of New Labour in the mid 1990s, but we also coincided with a change in national taste. Now sophistication is not just knowing about paintings and the arts, it means knowing about food. When you come back from New York or London the first question used to be, “What plays did you see? What exhibitions?” Now people ask, “Where did you eat?”’

Twenty years is a long time for a restaurant to be in pole position, I note. And so many restaurants fall by the wayside. Did she make a pact with the devil? ‘If there is a secret to the success of the River Café, it is that Rose and I are still so excited by Italy. We go there regularly and we find it inspiring. It’s so regional. Town to town is different. You can go on exploring it for a lifetime. We go over with our chefs. This week it’s the olive-oil trip. It used to be Tuscany, now we are going to Parma. When you take the chefs they are exposed to Italian food and that is so awakening. To see the soil and the weather – how it affects the taste. They come back excited. Someone once said the River Café is another region of Italy, and that’s how we like to think of it.’

When in Italy she goes to small, out-of-the-way restaurants looking for ideas. Is that homage or larceny? ‘It’s interesting about ideas, because sometimes I will come back from Italy and the chef will ask, “Did you get any ideas?” And I go, “You know, what I really learnt from this trip is how simple Italian cooking is, how important fresh ingredients are.” But when you eat something good it does inspire you to come home and try and cook it. Rose lived in Italy for years. My connection is through my husband’s family. His mother came from Trieste, a northern town, though she lived in Florence. She would come in to the River Café and sample things and offer advice, to begin with. I think of her a lot when I am cooking. I hear that little voice. “Don’t put too many herbs on your fish.”’

I ask what advice she now gives aspiring cooks. ‘Don’t go to the market with a shopping list in your head. See what is there, buy it and come back and cook it. That’s the Italian way. Seasonal cooking makes you appreciate food more. When you are saying goodbye to melons you are saying hello to raspberries. Then we say goodbye to raspberries. Can you imagine being a raspberry coming over from New Zealand in a plane for thousands of miles? I know how I feel after a long-haul flight. You would feel a jaded raspberry.’

Rogers learnt to cook as a student. ‘Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was my bible. She will say an eighth of a tablespoon and then tell you the dimension of the spoon. Very precise. Like a science. It gave you confidence because you never had a failure with Julia Child. Discipline gives you freedom.’ Blimey. Sounds like a slogan the Nazis would have used. But compared with Ruthie?’n’?Rose, Julia Child is a hippy. The River Café cookbooks are so uncompromising, so… Germanic in their insistence on expensive, hard-to-obtain ingredients. ‘You must use salted anchovies from Greek, Spanish and Italian delicatessens. Small tins of anchovies soaked in oil are not suitable.’ Rogers doesn’t see it that way. ‘I think a cookbook should be a manual. It should be aspirational. We want to make people want to go out looking for the right ingredients. But, actually, we have done the River Café Cookbook Easy as well, which is less exacting.’

Their most famous recipe is the chocolate ‘nemesis’, which is notorious for refusing to turn out like the one in the picture. ‘You should always have a practice run before a dinner party,’ Rogers says in mitigation. ‘Dinner parties are nerve-racking. I’ve been to those horrible ones where you feel so sorry for the host, who is nervous before and exhausted after.’

Especially if she is one of the guests. ‘I get that line a lot. People say, “Oh, it’s too scary.” But I love to be cooked for. It is such a nice change, so actually I am a fairly generous guest. It is more scary for me to cook, because people come with expectations. I hardly ever do dinner parties any more. It is much scarier cooking a dinner party for eight on your own than for 120 with a team of chefs.’

She and Rose Gray did a television series a few years ago, but weren’t impressed with the medium. Indeed, she is now dismissive of the trivialising effect of televised cooking. ‘On one level, cooking on television has reached the public and got them interested in food. And if a chef becomes a celebrity, that is fine. But cooking as mere entertainment I think is detrimental. It makes for slap-dash or unethical use of out-of-season ingredients. And if you portray chefs as people who are bullying and loud, that doesn’t elevate our profession.’ Is she talking about Gordon Ramsay? ‘I like and respect Gordon, but it might be that he is straying from his passion, being sidetracked by television. Everyone has a different idea of what they want to do.’

Ouch. Her kitchen is known for its calmness. ‘We’ve never gone in for the Gordon Ramsay approach. It’s not our style. Rose and I are quite old-fashioned. I think the way you treat your staff affects the quality of their work. We believe you get the best work out of people by respecting them. Hope is our watchword rather than fear. I don’t think any employer should be abusive. Just because it is stressful, it doesn’t mean you should be rude. Our open kitchen dictates the manners of this restaurant.’

Richard Rogers arrives carrying his cycling helmet. He is just popping into his office, he says, then he will be back for lunch. His office is next door. He comes here for lunch most days. They met at a party when she was 21. He was 15 years her senior, and already married. It is not a subject she likes to dwell upon. ‘Breaking up marriages is a horrible thing,’ she has said in the past. ‘No Julie Andrews movie.’ He has three sons from his first marriage and they have two sons together. ‘It is a family business here,’ she says. ‘It just happens to be Rose’s family, not mine. That’s her son over there, our general manager. My children worked here at times, but they have chosen other careers. My kids eat here a lot.’

Ruth and Richard Rogers pop in and out of each other’s workplaces all day. ‘Often he will call over and say, “Can you come and look at this model?” Or I will ring him and say, “Come down and test this soup.” There is a contact, which is something we both like. We always try in our family to listen to the children, but our work is a constant conversation at home; we never stop talking about work.’ The Millennium Dome: that must have been weird to live through, all that flak? ‘Funnily enough, no, the Dome was just one project, like the Lloyd’s Building or the Pompidou Centre. A one-off. Richard has a big office. Lots of projects.’

She gives me a tour of her (surprisingly small) kitchen. On the way out we pass a waiter prepping the parsley, another doing the spinach. ‘They grill peppers but they don’t make the sauces,’ she says out of the corner of her mouth. ‘So if they are serving salsa verde and they have washed the capers and so on, and a customer asks what is in the sauce, they know. They have to be people who like food. It is more democratic that way, not us and them.’ There is a flash of steeliness – freedom through discipline – as she sees a jumper on the counter-top. ‘Whose is this?’ A waiter stops peeling garlic and says, ‘Sorry, that’s mine.’

I am joined by a friend for lunch. I order the capesante in padella – scallops seared with chicory, polenta, butter and parmesan – and the costoletta di vitello al forno, which, according to the menu, is a grilled-then-roasted veal chop (thick-cut) with salsa verde, dried porcini and sage al forno. Boy is it thick-cut. I must do a double-take because Ruth Rogers comes over laughing and says she was watching my expression from the other side of the restaurant when the plate was placed in front of me. Theatre indeed. A comedy of manners.


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.