The whole point about a politician like Tam Dalyell, if you face the thing squarely, is that he lives, plays, breathes, eats and sleeps politics. So, to encounter his shambling figure in corridors other than those of the Palace of Westminster would be an aberration, a perversion of nature, an unsettler of the spirit. This, at least, is what I try to convince myself as I stare dumbly at the phone I have just put down. The conversation has gone like this:
Tam Dalyell, in a low, even voice: ‘Tam Dalyell here.’
Me: ‘Ah, yes, thanks for returning my call. I was wondering if I could tempt you into being the subject of an interview in the Sunday Telegraph Magazine. What I had in m…’
TD: ‘Can you come over to the Commons and do it now?’
Me, noting that my watch says it’s 8.45am: ‘Well, I hadn’t really. . .’
TD: ‘What about tomorrow morning at 8.30?’
Me: ‘I was thinking more along the lines of doing something at the old Dalyell ancestral home in Scotland. Ha ha ha.’
TD: ‘We could, but not for a few weeks.’
Me: ‘A few weeks wouldn’t be a problem.’
TD: ‘I’ll see you tomorrow at 8.30 then.’
The Binns, his 17th-century pile overlooking the Firth of Forth, is supposed to be quite something. According to a colleague of mine who once stayed there, it has turrets, peacocks and portraits of General ‘Bluidy Tam’ Dalyell (1615-1685), and his son, the first ‘Sir Tam’, scowling down from the walls. Of course, it also has an atmosphere of gloomy, Spartan discomfort, as provided by the 10th Baronet and current occupant, in keeping with his Old Labour pneuma.
But this must be taken on trust. For when I meet him at the appointed hour of 8.30, the Old Etonian warhorse who has been Labour MP for Linlithgow (formerly West Lothian) since 1962 is sitting in a high-backed chair, under the portraits of Balfour and Bonar Law, in the Chess Room of the House of Commons.  Though he says so himself, Tam Dalyell is a pretty nifty player. Indeed, the last visitor he faced across a chessboard in this room was Garry Kasparov, against whom he played a safe gambit. But this is small talk and, famously, Dalyell is not much given to it. Has to be at the Scottish Office for a meeting at ten, he says. Let’s crack on. Where do I want to start?
Well. Actually. The Scottish Office seems as good a place as any. The battle against the Devolution Bill is all but lost; having had its second reading, it is now going through its committee stage before the third reading, and looks set to reach the statute books before the summer recess. For this debate Dalyell has kept his powder dry. ‘I want to be on my feet for the entire proceedings,’ he intones darkly. ‘In the Speaker’s notebook, those who have already spoken tend to go down the list and so I have been saving myself.’
Dalyell is renowned for his quixotic pursuit of lost causes.  Indeed, his ability to ask 50 terse supplementary questions on the same subject often invites groans when he rises to speak in the Commons chamber. It will be recalled that it was he who, years after the General Belgrano was sunk, continued to badger Mrs Thatcher about whether it was sailing west or nor’-nor’-east at the time it went down. He was the one who relentlessly supported the Libyans whom he believed to be wrongly accused of the Lockerbie bombing. And it was to Tenacious Tam that Saddam Hussein looked for help, as an intermediary to lift sanctions in the aftermath of the Gulf War.
But it’s the thorny issue of whether power should be devolved to Scotland which has preoccupied most of the man’s waking thoughts for the past 20 years. During the 1977 devolution debate, Dalyell asked variations of the same question a staggering 190 times. The gist of it was: ‘Why is it possible for me to vote on, say, housing matters in Blackburn, Lancashire, but not on housing matters in Blackburn, West Lothian?’ Exasperated at hearing it asked so often, Enoch Powell noted dryly that the House was seized of the point, the penny had dropped, and so, for the convenience of all, let it be henceforth given the sobriquet ‘the West Lothian Question’.  And so it was.
‘Devolution is a motorway to a separate state, without an exit,’ Dalyell now says. ‘If that is what people want, they are entitled to vote accordingly. But it will open a Pandora’s Box. For one thing, it will lead to a resurgence of English nationalism. Now some might think this healthy. If you live in Prague wouldn’t you say that Czech nationalism was healthy?  Yet the relations between the Czech Republic and Slovakia get sourer and sourer. It won’t be so different here. When there are differences about resources and money, things will get difficult.’
The only light in the Chess Room is natural and soft, washing in from a leaded window which has a view over the brackish waters of the Thames. The right half of Dalyell’s long, jowly face is cast in shadow, the chiaroscuro emphasised by the dark Pugin panelling beyond it. The left half is topped by thick strands of wavy hair worn in the upturned ice-cream-cone style favoured by Douglas Hurd. Thick, owlish glasses magnify an eye that gleams with the light of intelligence. And there is something about the awkward construction of the jaw on this side of his face that seems to bear testimony to a lifetime of gnawing, gnawing and gnawing again at indigestible political conundrums.
Stuffed as he is with serious purpose, striving as he always does to do the square thing by one and all, Dalyell has become, over the years, a gentleman lacking in the softer emotions. He doesn’t chuckle much. But when he does his whole face creases up and his tongue lolls out of the left side of his mouth. It is a disarming, even charming, trait which seems to morph him, for a delightful instant, into Quentin Hogg.
Dalyell’s natural mode of speech shifts from low and deliberate to conspiratorial and distracted, and is often accompanied by furtive glances over your shoulder and his.  This is not so surprising, considering that he has nearly always been out in the cold politically and, as recently as last autumn, was threatened with deselection over his opposition to the Scottish Bill. But he’s never been one for bowing to pressure and, demoralising though it must be for the Labour whips, there are no inducements or entreaties with which his loyalty can be bought. He’s an old friend of Peter Mandelson, for instance, but it didn’t stop him calling the Minister without Portfolio’s claim that devolution would strengthen Scotland’s position in the United Kingdom ‘utterly preposterous’ and ‘silly’. This, of course, is why Dalyell has never advanced beyond the first unpaid rung of the ministerial ladder – Michael Foot appointed him Labour’s science spokesman in 1980, only to dismiss him two years later after he voted against the Falklands War. Dalyell is 65 now and in all probability he will not stand as an MP again in the next election.
When Tam Dalyell retires, it will be as a strangely successful failure who was one of the most feared, admired and mocked parliamentarians of his generation. He writes obituaries for the Independent, but says he has never been tempted to have a go at his own. Doubtless though, when it is written, it will refer to his having been the last of the great cussed aristocratic MPs in alliance with the proletariat. He will be characterised as a courteous, self-righteous, humourless, free spirit who had a reputation for being a bit cuckoo but also, so self-evidently, a Good Thing. It will conclude that he added to the gaiety of the nation, in an inimitably dour sort of way, but also became its conscience.
Dalyell accepts that, in terms of career advancement, the price for being a crusading politician has been high. ‘Of course it has,’ he says. ‘But, honestly, cross my heart, I never had any prime ministerial ambitions. It would be dishonest, though, to tell you I wouldn’t have dearly loved to have been a minister. Years ago it would have been Northern Ireland – so that I could get British troops out. Now it would be the DTI, with responsibility for science and technology [he has been a weekly columnist for New Scientist for 31 years].  Now, I’m not criticising Tony here because he took the decision that, with the exception of Glenda Jackson, who has just turned 60, he would have nobody in his Cabinet over 60.’ When asked if he thinks this ageist, he gives one of those Francis Urquhart arches of the eyebrow which says, ‘You might think that…’
‘As far as I’m concerned, there is no personal animosity between myself and my colleagues,’ he continues. ‘As it happens, I didn’t vote for Tony Blair. He knows this. I voted for John Prescott. But I get on perfectly well with Blair. Only the other week my wife and I were invited to lunch at Number 10.’  Forget the West Lothian Question; the Eric Morecambe Question is begged. What does he think of the Blair show so far? ‘Hmm. Interesting. I mean he’s got to realise that it’s a parliamentary democracy. My reservation is that he might become too presidential. I’m not criticising. Yet. My worry is that you mustn’t downgrade the Party too much because you will need it, especially in adversity… I thought the Question Time business was high-handed. On the other hand I thought the crucial decision to give the Bank of England its independence was bloody good… Rebranding? Well, I’m ancient Labour. I don’t like branding full stop. It’s no good expecting people to come to Britain to see what a modern society we are. The truth is, people go on holiday for other things. To see heritage. My wife and I went on a 17-day bus tour of Iran last year. Quite bluntly, on holiday you don’t go and see the innovations proclaimed by the Islamic Republic. I went to see the ancient sites.’
Tam Dalyell’s fascination with and expertise on the Middle East dates back to his childhood. In the Thirties his father was the British Resident in Bahrain. ‘Dad was a tough, gentle pillar of Anglo-Indian society,’ he says. ‘He was quite old when I was born, 45, and I was treated as an adult from an early age.’ As an only child, Tam was sent first to Harecroft Hall school in Cumbria, where most of the boys were children of the scientists who worked on the atom bomb programme, and then to Eton. ‘I was also treated as an adult at Eton because at that time it was a very sombre place. It was 1945 and they had taken a hell of a hammering in the war. Many of the masters there had stayed on and some of them were pretty shattered by the losses of their former pupils.’
He’s not sure if this means that he missed out on childhood. ‘There was very little frivolity,’ he reflects. When asked if this has shaped his character, given his reputation as a serious cove, he does the Quentin Hogg chuckle and says, ‘A serious cove. I can’t deny it.’
After Eton, he went up to to read maths at King’s College, Cambridge but two years’ National Service in Germany interrupted this and, when he returned, he decided to change to history – because ‘I was never a budding Einstein’ – and, amazingly, became president of the Cambridge University Conservative Association. School-teaching followed university but there may have been fleeting thoughts of a career in the Army. He had, after all, been a trooper in the Royal Scots Greys, now the Scots Dragoon Guards, the regiment founded in the 1660s by his ancestor Bluidy Tam (whose other claims to historical celebrity included opposing Cromwell in battle, escaping from the Tower of London, and introducing the thumbscrew to Britain).
‘I rather enjoyed my time in the Army,’ Dalyell says, ‘which was perverse of me because I was the despair of every sergeant-major. I waddled. I was very clumsy and only years later, four years ago in fact, did I discover why. I had a hip operation and the surgeon said you have a much longer left leg than right leg.’ He still has a shuffling gait to this day – and still manages to look mildly scruffy in his trademark grey flannel suit, comfortable shoes and ill-fitting navy blue mac. But there was more to his inclusion in the awkward squad than his appearance. ‘I got across people quite badly. I suppose it was partly my own fault. No one is perfect. But I also had alongside me in G Squadron some bloody-minded, awkward contemporaries.’ That’s rich. But there was also the little matter of his losing a Jeep. ‘That was much exaggerated,’ he says. ‘It’s easy to do on Salisbury Plain.’
The Suez Crisis marked his conversion to socialism. But given his obvious affection for the Army – today he is wearing the regimental tie of the Scots Dragoon Guards – it might be supposed that he would have shown, over the intervening years, more sympathy for the armed forces than he has. When it is suggested that he has a reputation for being critical of the services his face darkens. The comment touches an exposed nerve.
‘I have not been involved in criticism of the services,’ he says in an calm and level timbre. ‘I have good relations with my old regiment. Indeed, last summer they invited me to stay with them in Bosnia for a few days. They made me an honorary officer of the mess five years ago. On certain matters, though, I have been high-profile in criticising the actions of politicians in relationship to the services.’  He lists them. First there was his criticism of the Anglo-French Variable Geometry Aircraft. ‘What were we doing starting an expensive programme when the Americans were so far ahead with their F1-11? Absurd.’ Then came the Borneo War. ‘But not a word of criticism about the people who were fighting it. I just thought it would lead to another Vietnam in Asia.’ Next he locked horns with Denis Healey, the then Minister of Defence. ‘The campaign I am proudest of is the saving of Aldabra, an ecologically fragile coral atoll in the Indian Ocean. The Army wanted to desecrate it by building an airstrip on it.’ The Falklands came next. ‘With the arguable exception of the Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Lewin, I never made any criticism of servicemen whatsoever. I just thought the quarrel between two states there was like two bald men fighting over a comb.’
Finally there was the Gulf War. His father, he explains crisply, had worked under Sir Percy Cox, the great imperial proconsul in the Gulf. He knew how, in a bad temper, Cox had drawn a line in the sand to create the state of Kuwait.  ‘Depending on how you look at it,’ Dalyell says, ‘Kuwait is the 19th bloody state of Iraq. I’m not saying the Iraqis should have invaded but there are two sides to the story and the Kuwaitis were extremely provocative. My colleagues say I am naive but if you start a war like this you have to look at the outcome. There was no way that the coalition could have gone on to occupy Baghdad.’
Like Ted Heath before the Gulf War, after it Dalyell went to negotiate with Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister, in 1994. ‘But I wasn’t the creature of Saddam Hussein,’ he protests. ‘I did not tell John Smith before I went to Baghdad. His reaction was, “I’m glad you went. Thank God you didn’t tell me!” He chuckles at this memory. ‘When I came back, a number of rather silly Tories attacked me. But I immediately went to see Douglas Hurd and told him what had happened and his attitude was that I had every right to go – so lay off. I had a soul mate in Ted Heath. I have a soul mate in him in many ways. We always gossip, depending what mood he’s in.’
As was only to be expected – the man is nothing if not consistent – Dalyell was just about the only MP in the House brave enough to fly in the face of public opinion and present the case against bombing Iraq in February. His arguments were politely, ruthlessly terse and were directed on to their target, usually Robin Cook, with the clinical precision of a smart bomb. ‘Are we clear about what would happen if a missile hit a stockpile of nerve gas?’ was one. ‘A million Iranians died in the Iran-Iraq war yet Iran does not want to see a UN attack on Iraq, even though they are the neighbours the attack is supposed to protect: has anyone wondered why?’ was the gist of another, the answer being that the Iranians don’t want their region polluted. Anthrax spores carry on the wind. When asked what on earth he would do to resolve the situation, he answers that we should send a minister to Baghdad. ‘Frankly, I would at least try lifting sanctions by stages, because that might let loose all sorts of forces in Iraq that wished to change the regime… Sanctions strengthen Saddam, rather than weaken him. They allow him to blame anything that goes wrong on the wicked West.’
Taking part in the Commons debate on Iraq in February he pointed out, ‘I am one of comparatively few – a dwindling number of honourable members who have actually worn the Queen’s uniform, done gunnery and experienced the smell of cordite. Perhaps we are a bit less relaxed about unleashing war than those who have never been in a military situation.’ He was one of 25 MPs who voted against military action, compared to 493 ayes. The peaceful outcome later brokered by Kofi Annan gives him little satisfaction, however. ‘I think we’re not out of the woods yet,’ he says. ‘I suspect Madeleine Albright is looking for another excuse to strike. . . I was dismayed by the Labour Party’s enthusiasm for military action, but I can’t say I was surprised.’
Given the current disarray of the official opposition, some commentators believe it is down to Left-leaning elder statesmen such as Tam Dalyell, Gerald Kauffman, Ken Livingstone and Tony Benn to stiffen the prime ministerial sinews and provide the checks and balances that this Government, with its awesome majority, will doubtless need. Dalyell says he will be playing his cards carefully, though.
He voted with the Government on single mothers, for instance.  ‘I don’t think one should rebel on more than one subject at a time,’ he says, ‘because then you’re not taken seriously…  A sense of humour carries a terrible price. It takes so much skill and it is a tremendous temptation to be drawn into playing the fool.’
Whether his views on humour extend to his domestic life is not clear. He, a Presbyterian, has been married to Kathleen Wheatley, the Catholic daughter of a prominent Scottish Labour Lord, for 34 years. It was love, more or less, at first sight when they met in the lobby of the House of Commons: she was with a party of visiting research students from Cambridge and he was given the task of showing them around. He says, rather touchingly, that the secret of their matrimonial longevity, in a profession with such a dodgy track record, is simply love and friendship. ‘My wife is my chum and my friend. I’ve been very lucky. Tolerant is an understatement. The things she has had to put up with when I get my teeth into a campaign!’ Family friends describe Kathleen as long-suffering. She, good-naturedly, goes along with this view. The couple have a son and a daughter and she once commented that when her husband was in London and a child had measles, ‘it would not disturb his train of thought’.
She takes his eccentricities in her stride, too. He eats apples in their entirety, pips and core included, and even finishes other people’s when he sees them being left. His favourite pastime is digging up potatoes; it used to be bee-keeping until he got a stiff dressing-down for missing a vote in the House because his bees had swarmed. His wife also shares the common view that her husband is a bit obsessive.  ‘She tells me if she thinks I’m wrong,’ he says. ‘She has very strong opinions. But obsessiveness? Yes. I will confess to it.  If a cause is worth taking up, it is worth seeing through properly. Doggedness I would also confess to. The term I don’t like is “maverick”. How can I be one when I was the first Scot for 40 years to be elected to the constituency section of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party?’
He does not add, perhaps because it goes without saying, that he was chucked off the NEC after only a year’s tenure because of his un-Leftish support for Europe and nuclear power. As a politician he has been called many things – ‘out of his tiny
Chinese mind’ by Denis Healey, a ‘chump’ by Jim Callaghan –  and most descriptions of him have featured a well-known phrase including the words ‘the’ ‘in’ and ‘pain’. When asked why he thinks it is that, over the years, he seems none the less to have won the grudging respect of friend and enemy alike, he pauses to reflect for a moment. ‘I just don’t indulge in name-calling, I suppose. And I would like to think that I am the second-best-mannered man in the House of Commons. The man with the most beautiful manners is Tony Benn.’
I notice a small, black device on the window ledge. Hmm. Speaking of Tony Benn, doesn’t he always place a tape-recorder next to that of the journalist interviewing him? Has Tam Dalyell, the great conspiracy theorist, one-time confidant of Dick Crossman and the paranoid Harold Wilson, been recording this conversation? He follows my gaze, reaches for the device and clicks it on. It’s a radio, tuned to Radio 4. It’s time for the Scottish Office meeting and, with beautiful manners, Dalyell asks if I intend to return to my office by taxi. Good. Would I mind awfully if I dropped him off on the way? Splendid. Most kind.
This appeared in March 1998. In 2001, Tam Dalyell took over from his soul-mate Ted Heath as Father of the House.


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.