Possibly the greatest, certainly the most famous scientific thinker since Einstein is sitting in his motorised wheelchair grinning at me. ‘Look behind the door,’ Professor Stephen Hawking says in his computer-generated, Dalek-like voice. I look. There’s a framed black-and-white photograph hanging there, which shows him in the foreground and Marilyn Monroe leaning against a Cadillac in the background. I smile. The superimposition is funny and subtle. Perhaps the professor has just had it done and wants to show everyone. But I suspect he doesn’t want to get drawn into a long conversation about it; it’s just his way of saying hello and breaking the ice.
All Hawking’s conversations are long, even his short ones. He raises his eyebrows for ‘yes’, winks his left eye for ‘no’, but for the most part communicates via a voice synthesiser at the rate of 15 to 20 words a minute. He suffers from motor neurone disease, a rare condition which degenerates the central nervous system and leads to a wasting of the muscles. It does not affect the brain or the senses. Hawking was first diagnosed with it when he was 21, at which age he was told he had a life expectancy of two to three years. He is now 57.
He has cheated death, but his body is paralysed – apart from a little movement in his twisted fingers. He doesn’t type with these so much as apply pressure to two pads, one in each hand, in order to select letters, words and phrases from an index on his computer monitor. He scrolls up and down the screen constantly, at great speed. But, inevitably, the writing process is agonisingly slow. Only when he has constructed the whole sentence or paragraph on screen does he activate his robotic voice to speak it. As a definition of Hell, it would be hard to improve upon the perversity of this predicament: a man with a freakishly quick, brilliant and creative mind condemned forever to articulate his thoughts at the speed of an imbecile.
We’ve no time for small talk then. I have come here – to Cambridge University’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, where Hawking holds the professorial chair once held by Isaac Newton – on the turn of the millennium to ask him what he thinks the future has in store for the human race.
If the world’s population continues to grow at its present rate – doubling every 40 years – there isn’t going to be enough room for us all on Earth by the year 2600. So will we, I ask, be able to spread out to other planets? His hands go into action. The only sounds in the room are the clicking of the pressure pads and the whirring of the computer. The electronic voice delivers the answer five minutes later. ‘We shall probably manage a manned or, should I say, personned, flight to Mars in the next century,’ Hawking says. ‘But Earth is by far the most favoured planet in the solar system. Mars is small, cold and without much atmosphere, and the other planets are quite unsuitable for human beings. We either have to learn to live in space stations or travel to the next star. We won’t do that in the next century.’
I ask Hawking how fast we will be able to travel on our journey to the next star. Pause. Answer: ‘I’m afraid that however clever we may become we will never be able to travel faster than light. If we could travel faster than light we could go back in time. We have not seen any tourists from the future. That means that travel to other stars is going to be a slow and tedious business, using rockets rather than warp drives. A 100,000-year round trip to the centre of the galaxy. In that time the human race will have changed beyond all recognition, if it hasn’t wiped itself out.’
Even though there is ice on the ground outside and a bitingly cold wind blowing in over the Fens, Hawking has his window open; his assistant, Chris, has explained to me that this is because the professor thinks better when he’s cold. I try to stop my teeth from chattering as I ask whether we humans will keep on changing, or will we eventually reach an ultimate level of development and knowledge? Click click click. ‘In the next 100 years, or even in the next 20, we may discover a complete theory of the basic laws of the universe (the so-called Theory of Everything in which quantum theory is unified with Einstein’s theory of general relativity), but there will be no limit to the complexity of the biological or electronic systems we can build under these laws.’
I’m just about to ask a supplementary question when the hands start up again. A few minutes pass before Hawking adds: ‘By far the most complex systems we have are our own bodies. There haven’t been any significant changes in human DNA in the past 10,000 years. But soon we will be able to increase the complexity of our internal record, our DNA, without having to wait for the slow process of biological evolution.’
The professor’s predictions – especially his thoughts on improving the human body – seem all the more poignant when you listen to him deliver them in person. Time is even more relative than usual in his company; it actually seems to slow down during those long pauses between my questions and his answers. My interview lasts for four hours, with breaks when a nurse comes in and I’m asked to leave the room. Since the professor had an operation on his oesophagus early last year, the problem he had with food getting into his lungs has been reduced, but he still needs regular suction.
I don’t, however, have to leave his room when the nurse comes in to spoon-feed him with an assortment of pills. These are taken with sips of tea which is mostly spilled onto the bib that the nurse ties around his neck. Hawking has thick lips, parchment-smooth skin and a schoolboy fringe, which his nurse parts to one side for him. While all this is going on, the professor patiently continues working the pressure-pads in his hands to compose sentences and paragraphs on his computer screen.
I ask if developing improved humans won’t cause great social and political problems with respect to unimproved humans? ‘I’m not advocating human genetic engineering,’ Hawking replies metallically. ‘I’m just saying it’s likely to happen and we should consider how to deal with it.’
When engaged in conversation with Stephen Hawking none of the usual laws of social interaction apply. After the first few minutes of being with him, however, the long pauses no longer seem awkward. Apart from his big, disarming smile and his expressive eyes – ‘twinkling’ seems the most apt, if hackneyed, description of them – there is no body language to help interpret his words. But the monotone voice does give his utterances an amused, deadpan quality (the voice goes up and down in tone quite musically, but the emphasis it gives to certain words is not necessarily a reflection of their importance in the sentence). Thus, when asked if electronic complexity will go on for ever, or whether there will be a natural limit, his eyes twinkle, his hands do their frenetic work, and 10 minutes later the voice delivers what sounds like a dry comeback.
‘On the biological side, the limit of human intelligence up to now has been set by the size of the human brain that will pass through the birth canal,’ Hawking says. ‘Having watched my three children being born, I know how difficult it is to get the head out. But in the next 100 years I expect we will learn how to grow babies outside the human body so this limitation will be removed. But ultimately, increases in the size of the human brain through genetic engineering will come up against the problem that the chemical messages responsible for our mental activity are relatively slow-moving – so further increases in the complexity of the brain will be at the expense of speed. We can be quick-witted or very intelligent, but not both.’
It’s time to ask the big one: will we make contact with aliens in the next millennium? Hawking smiles. His fingers click the pressure-pads. The answer comes seven minutes later. ‘The human race has been in its present form for only the past two million years out of the 15 billion or so since the Big Bang. So even if life developed in other stellar systems, the chances of catching it at a recognisably human stage are very small. Any alien life we encounter will be much more primitive or much more advanced than us. And if it’s more advanced, why hasn’t it spread through the galaxy and visited Earth? It could be that there is an advanced race out there which is aware of our existence but is leaving us to stew in our own primitive juices. However, I doubt they would be so considerate to a lower life form. There is a sick joke that the reason we have not been contacted by extra-terrestrials is that when a civilisation reaches our stage of development it becomes unstable and destroys itself.’
Stephen Hawking has 10 nurses who each do three 10-hour shifts a week. He rises at 7.45am, has physiotherapy, arrives for work at his department at about 11.30am, goes home – five minutes away in the grounds of an all-female college – at about 7pm and is bathed and put to bed by midnight. A nurse turns him over during the night. According to one of the nurses I met, he is a pussycat to work for, always puts people at their ease, rarely complains and hates to be pitied or patronised. One of his friends, the physicist David Schramm, says that he is also an incorrigible flirt: a party animal who likes to dance in his wheelchair. His daughter Lucy says he has an amazing capacity to push those around him to the very edge of physical and mental collapse, while smiling to himself.
Hawking is well known for his sense of humour – he likes joking about the American accent his voice synthesiser has given him and about his appearances as himself in his two favourite American (‘which isn’t saying much’) programmes, Star Trek and The Simpsons. His intolerance towards fools is also well documented. There are stories of how he runs over the feet of people who annoy him – and he once went to full throttle and rammed a car that was blocking his ramp. When asked if it is true that he uses his wheelchair as a weapon he will reply: ‘That’s a malicious rumour. I’ll run over anyone who repeats it.’
The intermittent nature of our conversation gives me a good chance to study his room. There is a karaoke machine on the floor and a Marilyn Monroe calendar by the door. There’s a Homer Simpson clock on the wall and, next to a row of Russian dolls on a shelf, a Homer Simpson card that says: ‘Every time I learn something new it pushes some old stuff out of my brain.’ There is a sticker on the door saying: ‘Quiet Please The Boss is Asleep’ – it’s all junior common room humour, c. 1973; the professor frozen in time. Also on the shelves there are photographs of Hawking’s children and grandchild. He has said that the thing he regretted most about being paralysed was not being able to play with his children when they were young. His daughter tells a rather touching story of how, as a treat at meal-times, he used to make her laugh by wiggling his ears.
There are also scores of books on the shelves with titles such as The Left Hand of Creation, Quantum Gravity, Black Holes in Two Dimensions and Particle Cosmology. But I can’t see a copy of the phenomenally successful A Brief History of Time, which Hawking wrote in 1988. In it he attempted to explain to a general readership his theory of how the universe began. And even though few people have been able to get beyond the first dozen or so pages, it was translated into 65 languages and became one of the biggest selling non-fiction books of all time.
It must have made him very rich indeed. Certainly it has made him famous enough to command fees of about £50,000 for a single public lecture in America and the Far East, and £100,000 for appearing in television advertisements for Specsavers. In all, his commercial endeavours are thought to be worth more than £1 million a year.
We normally associate being rich and successful with living a life of luxury – but what, I ask him, does wealth and success mean to him? ‘I may be successful in my work,’ he says through his machine. ‘But I’m hardly rich on the scale of people in the City. To lead a reasonably normal life, I need a lot of nursing care – and I won’t get that on the NHS. I would be stuck in a home without a computer or much individual attention and I probably wouldn’t survive long. So it has been very important to earn enough to pay for my care both now and in the future.’
In 1995 Stephen Hawking married his nurse, Elaine, the former wife of the man who invented his voice synthesiser. It was the same year he divorced Jane, his first wife and the mother of his three children. Stephen had met Jane at a New Year’s Eve party in 1962, just as his illness was beginning to take its toll, and he married her three years later. Last year she wrote an autobiography, a damning account of her life with Hawking. In it she alludes rather cruelly to the complicated nature of the couple’s sex life; she also describes herself as a ‘drudge’ and her husband as ‘a masterly puppeteer’ sometimes made despotic by the combination of public adulation and an illness that left him as helpless as an infant.
She received little thanks for devoting her life to caring for him, she wrote, and often came close to suicide. In the early 1990s when it was obvious their marriage had broken down, she had a discreet affair with a Cambridge choir-master who eventually moved into the Hawking household, apparently with Stephen’s tacit understanding. But a 24-hour nursing team also moved in and Jane accused them of dressing provocatively and trying to manipulate her husband emotionally.
Although Professor Hawking does not comment on his first marriage, claiming never to have read Jane’s book, he does reflect that: ‘There are aspects of my celebrity I don’t like, but it would be hypocritical to complain. I can generally ignore it by going off to think in 11 dimensions.’
Stephen Hawking was born on January 8, 1942, 300 years to the day after the death of his hero, Galileo. He was brought up in St Albans and was in many ways a normal, clumsy, inky-fingered child – except that he used to make fireworks and cannibalise television and radio sets to build computers, before computers had really been invented. He also had handwriting that was so bad it was unreadable and a stutter that he inherited from his father, a medical researcher described by one family friend as a disconcerting eccentric with below-average charm.
At Oxford, Stephen Hawking never attended lectures, soon realised he was intellectually superior to his tutors and grew bored with life. He took a first in Physics, but only after a viva revealed his genius for problem-solving and his contempt for course work. It has sometimes been suggested that had it not been for his illness Hawking might not have focused his mind and gone on to make the contribution to science that he did. It galvanised him and forced him to solve problems not on a blackboard but geometrically and pictorially in his head – in 11 dimensions.
It is tempting to read much into the paradox of his condition: a pure mind wandering the universe while trapped in a wasted body. Like Milton’s blindness or Beethoven’s deafness, it seems at once heroic, tragic and romantic. But Hawking dismisses the description. ‘I have never felt myself as a perfect soul living in an imperfect body. Although I may take pride in my intelligence, I have to accept that the disability is also part of me.’
Yet if we have souls, his is surely a romantic one. He loves listening to Wagner. And he refers to his longing to discover, through physics and cosmology, the mind of God. His friends say he sometimes feels a crushing sense of loneliness – even though he rarely experiences the luxury of being on his own. I ask him if he has any recurring dreams. ‘I think I dream a lot, but normally I don’t remember what I dream. One dream I do remember is being in a hot-air balloon. For me the balloon is a symbol of hope. I first had the dream at my lowest point when I caught pneumonia and had to have a tracheotomy operation that removed my power of speech.’
That was in 1985. His condition then was so bad that his first wife was asked to give her permission to switch off his life support machine. She refused. Presumably Hawking didn’t expect that he would still be around to see in the new millennium? ‘No.’ he says. ‘But now I would be disappointed if I didn’t live long enough to be sure that there was indeed a picture into which everything fitted.’
I’ve heard Professor Hawking described as many things: a bloody-minded genius, a witty manipulator, a prima donna. But what three words would he use to describe himself? There is a long pause before that unemotional computerised voice penetrates the icy Cambridge air: ‘Determined, optimistic and . . . I can’t think of a third. My wife would say stubborn and out of touch with reality.’ I leave as I came in four hours earlier, with a smile on my face.


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.