It’s not the tilting columns that make you smile, diverting though they are. Nor is it the mirrored walls that swerve and collide in random curves and playful angles. What amuses, as you walk through MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, is the yellow hazard sign erected by students at an intersection of walkways. ‘Nerds x-ing’ it warns, under a stick man with glasses, rucksack and satchel.

It could be argued that I am here, in snowy Boston, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to meet the king of the nerds, the godfather of the geeks, the ultimate web-lebrity (there is such a word, I saw it in The Guardian). But that would seem disrespectful. And Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the world wide web, deserves respect. He could have become a multi-billionaire by charging royalties for his invention. Instead, with Olympian selflessness, he gave it to the world for free. No charge. Help yourself. That was 15 years ago this April.

He is not just British by nationality, he is British by temperament. A reserved and modest man, he shuns the limelight, preferring instead to closet himself in academia – lecturing, working with research students, staring wistfully into space as he tries to solve a software conundrum. He rarely agrees to be interviewed and on the odd occasion when he does, you suspect it is merely out of politeness. He seems intense and nervy, his small, starey eyes flitting around the room like a cornered heron’s. But he has good bone structure, a toned physique and an air of youthfulness about him that belie his 52 years. Perhaps it is simply a matter of his reputation preceding him, but his greatness seems almost palpable, an aura that surrounds him like a Ready Brek glow. He was, indeed, voted the greatest living Briton in 2004. That was the year he was knighted. Three years after that he became one of only 24 people entitled to have the letters OM after his name. Not that he would use them.

His office reflects his unassuming, if slightly geeky nature (he considers the term ‘geek’ a compliment, by the way). There are sandals under his desk, an orange cagoule on the hanger, a rucksack on the table. His sheet-metal shelves are dotted with lever arch files, ringbound computer texts and even – how old fashioned – a book (Cybermetric Orientation Programming is its title). But apart from a small photograph of his wife, Nancy, the mother of their two teenage children, Alice and Ben, there are no pictures. The thing that dominates this room, inevitably, is a computer, one with a big, really big, flat screen. It’s a Mac, as far as I can tell, though he will not say because, as head of the World Wide Web Consortium, the impartial body that sets international standards for web use, he avoids endorsements.

That’s the thing about this place. As important to the computer world – and therefore the world generally – as Silicon Valley. I tell him I was surprised that I was able to walk in off the street without any security checks. ‘Well, we’re a campus. It wouldn’t be practical. We only have ideas here. There is more security next door. They have a nuclear reactor there.’

That may sound funny, but Sir Tim has no sense of humour as far as I can tell. When, for example, I ask him if he ever wakes up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, screaming: ‘My God! I’ve created a monster!’ he blinks, cocks his head to one side and says: ‘No. Um. No, I don’t.’ He is a great blinker. And a fidget. Ironically for one who revolutionised the way the human race communicates, he is himself a fairly hopeless communicator. It’s not just that he ums and aahs, he also gabbles, clicks his tongue, gulps and, when excited, runswordstogether. And as he talks he makes notes. He is no good at remembering names and faces and, occasionally, he will spin round on his chair to Google the word he is looking for.

He first proposed the web in 1989, he tells me, while developing ways to control computers remotely at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research based in Geneva. The internet already existed as a series of computers linked by cables. His idea was to allow computers all over the world to talk to each other – through the internet, using a language of his devising (HyperText Markup Language, or HTML as it is better known). He never got the project formally approved, but quietly tinkered with it anyway, getting the first browser up and running on Christmas Day, 1990. The unwieldy name and initials ‘www’ – they have three times more syllables than the phrase they’re abbreviating – came about as a result of the inventor’s modesty. Originally he had come up with the name The Information Mine, but he found the initials, TIM, embarrassing.

On 30 April, 1993, Sir Tim’s browser was placed in the public domain. His invention spread across the planet like a cheer in a crowd, partly because it coincided with the growth in personal computers, partly because, thanks to the generosity of its creator, it was open to anyone. Now more than a billion people use the web and it has more pages than there are neurons in the brain, 100 billion by some estimates.

The concept of cyberspace, moreover, with its fathomless resource of information, has revolutionised the way we work, shop and play. Without Sir Tim there would be no Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and, yes, It is no exaggeration to call his invention the most significant since the printing press. But it has also helped gamblers bankrupt themselves, fraudsters prey on the gullible, and pornographers sell their virtual wares; and, of course, it has created a sinister new breed of paedophile. That’s partly what I mean by characterising Sir Tim as a Dr Frankenstein. His monster could prove to be a force for good or bad. The jury is still out.

‘I had the idea for it. I defined how it would work. But it was actually created by people,’ he says. ‘So when you refer to the web as a monster well, yes, it has all these arms and legs but the arms and legs are humanity. The technology allows humanity to express itself and interact. If you are frightened of it then you are frightened of what humanity can do.’

And not without good reason… I ask whether he has heard about the copycat suicides in Wales, the ones in which 17 teenagers hanged themselves in order, it seems, to get on a virtual wall of remembrance on the web. He hasn’t and scribbles it down to look up later.

‘Well that has always been a fear,’ he says. ‘That the web will become cult-like because you can filter off your mail and form a cultural pothole with steep slippery sides where the only form of communication is people telling you to commit suicide. Another fear is that, because of the web, we will all end up speaking McDonald’s English across the globe and end up with a vocabulary of 2,000 words.

‘These are opposite fears: one that it will make everything too bland; the other that it will lead to cults and cultural potholes. But there are few global things on the web. There is no one newspaper read all over the globe because, actually, the web is composed of a tangled mess of groups of different sizes. They all interconnect, so you don’t have one mushy group. That is the middle path. Interconnected communities. That is how the world can survive.’

It soon becomes apparent that when Sir Tim refers to ‘the world’ he usually means the virtual world, the world wide web. ‘What the web does is change the shape of communication,’ he says. ‘For example, all these wormholes. It’s not on a sphere any more. The world is flat, as Tom… sorry, I’m not very good with names. The guy who wrote that… New York… I get name blanks. He wrote the, um, world is flat…’ Sir Tim spins round and Googles the name. ‘Friedman. Tom Friedman. He describes the world as flat but actually it is multiply-connected.’

In his Who’s Who entry, Sir Tim does not mention his family, but he met his first wife, Jane, while reading physics at Oxford and they married soon after he graduated (with a First). That was in 1976. They both went to work in Poole, he for Plessey Controls as a programmer, she for Plessey Telecommunications. He met his second wife, an American, in Geneva while working for CERN. That was in the late 1980s. It was through an amateur acting group. She was a software engineer and former figure skater. They married in 1990, the year he invented the web. On the ‘frequently asked questions’ section of his page, the question ‘Can you tell me more about your personal life?’ gets the answer: ‘No, I can’t – sorry.’

But ask him whether the web has brought out the best in people or the worst and he will purse his lips. ‘It has reflected humanity,’ he says after a brief stare out of the window. ‘I believe there are more good people than bad. I’m an optimist. Perhaps that makes me naive. But in general, people’s experience of the web has been positive – people who have saved a relative by finding out from the web what disease they had. But people complain about the smutty sites and the phishing, and the pretend bank sites trying to steal your identity. They also complain about the people who process information gleaned from the web without taking any trouble to find out whether it is true or not.’

I ask if he has looked at any porn sites. ‘Um, I haven’t spent a lot of time going into the goriest side of it, but I have logged on to a bunch of social networking sites to see how they work. I prefer more open protocols. I think part of the push for Web Science is that we realise no one understands the web in the way that we understand the brain. What would happen if we changed the parameters slightly? Email, for example, started as a friendly academic tool, it worked until people had the internet in their homes and restrictions on using the web were relaxed, and then it quickly reached a tipping point. Then the email disintegrated.’

Ah yes, all that spam about Viagra. ‘Exactly. It wasn’t designed for that. We now have to go back and redesign the technical stuff to cut down on spam. We also have to ask what happens to democracy in the internet age. Will the blogosphere end up being more exciting than, with all due respect, the Telegraph online? Who knows? But I think we will end up placing more importance on reliable reporting. Democracy depends on it. Otherwise people end up electing leaders purely on the basis of rumour and celebrity status rather than facts and science. Maybe with the web we can produce a democratic system that works even better. Applying all the brainpower in the world to solve problems.’

The comment reveals the high idealism that lies just below Sir Tim’s surface. Perhaps aware of this, and the immodesty that it might represent, he quickly deflates the conversation with a reminder that, actually, his invention was born of low practicality. ‘Partly I invented the web for myself because it was something I needed. A lot of ideas, such as the spreadsheet, were developed by geeks who needed them. I needed this. I wanted it for my job. My job was designing software for particle accelerators and physics experiments. I was working with a distributed group of people and I needed to reach them and gather their data. It was partly frustration. A lot of people express frustration at the software on their computers, but some have the ability to fix it. A geek will sit down – and I use “geek” as a term of high praise – and write a programme and fix it.’

Sir Tim believes that if his technology had been in his total control it would probably not have reached the critical mass it needed to reach in order to work. In other words, if he had charged royalties as well as asking every user to use the same Uniform Resource Locator (URL), large companies and geeks in garages alike would have dropped his invention. ‘There was a rival system to mine being worked on called the Gopher,’ he recalls. ‘That could well have been the one we are all using now if the University of Minnesota hadn’t tried to extract royalties for it.’

So, there we have it. Sir Tim insists it wasn’t altruism on his part, this business of not charging royalties, so much as practicality. But I’m not sure I believe him entirely. ‘No, really, it was just a matter of being practical. It was also to do with the ethos of the time. The spirit of the internet was not one of patents and royalties but of academic openness.’

He dismisses the notion, by the way, that his invention came to him in a eureka moment. ‘I think the eureka moment is a myth. I think our creativity is subconscious. It happens slowly… it’s not that you are really clever and you just thought it up, it’s because you’ve been washing dishes, skiing, talking to people, reading up, concentrating on different aspects of the problem. My hunch is that Archimedes spent a week thinking about the displacement of water, then eventually it came to him. I don’t believe it came to him in his bath. It’s a nice story.’

He also dismisses the suggestion that he has an exceptional mind. ‘I am an ordinary person. I was just a programmer with some useful experience that happened to line up with what I wanted to do with the web. I’m sort of bright and given to thinking about technical things, but then so are a lot of people. I didn’t have any magic. My boss allowed me to do it in my spare time and I put in the effort to write the code. It wasn’t because I was some kind of star.’

Even so, does he find that computer geeks are in awe of him? ‘Not people I work with, partly because I am so… well, my spelling is terrible, just terrible. We chat a lot on the internet and they always note how I can’t spell and how my letters arrive in different orders.’

This apparent dyslexia apart, he claims not to have many insecurities. ‘I think I’m middle of the road there, though throughout the web I was always concerned that it was going to break and there are still things I do worry about. There is also net neutrality, which I worry about. If large corporations control our access to the internet and determine which websites we can go to, we’ll lose its openness and its democratic nature. I think a lot of people are worried about privacy and inappropriate use of data.’

He tends not to dwell on what he might have done with the billions he could have earned if people had been prepared to hand over royalties. ‘It would be nice to be in Bill Gates’s position, where you could donate huge sums to tackling world health problems. We all ask ourselves what we would do if we had loads and loads of money. I would buy huge tracts of coastline in the UK and donate it to the National Trust. I’d also buy ugly buildings and knock them down.’

Diplomatically, he does not fuel the speculation that he is no fan of Bill Gates. ‘Um, I don’t know him… not, er, personally… do I? Er… let me think. One of the interesting things about inventing the web is that I do get to meet all kinds of people.’

I bet he does. He must be the Nelson Mandela of the computer world. Everyone must want to meet him. ‘Actually he’s an example. I did get to meet Mandela.’

As an adult, Sir Tim rejected his Anglican upbringing, which, he says, ‘relieved a great tension’. He certainly hasn’t replaced religion with materialism. Until recently he drove a 13-year-old VW Rabbit. ‘I’ve just replaced it with a little VW Eos. You’re right though. I’m not very materialistic. I enjoy being in nature, so protecting nature would be how I would want to spend money.’

Other than paying for skiing holidays, his pleasures in life come cheap. He likes ‘wandering around in shorts and sandals. Walking in woods. That sort of thing.’ He also plays the piano a little. And the guitar. ‘Ralph McTell songs mostly, although that was when I was a student really. I also listened to a lot of Steeleye Span then.’

His parents were both mathematicians and they worked on one of the earliest computers. I ask what it was like growing up in such a cerebral household. No television presumably?

‘There wasn’t an atmosphere of high seriousness, if that’s what you mean. The whole point about mathematics in our house was that it was fun. We were always joking. I wouldn’t say it was an intellectual house. For a lot of my childhood we didn’t have a television so it wasn’t a question of what to watch. What we did have was a drawer of scrap materials which I could use to make gadgets. A baring, or a nozzle, or tubing, or springs. I would glue things together. Washing-up-liquid bottles. I would make Airfix models as well, but they were too formal for me. I preferred my “scrapmat box” – scrap materials box. Then I got a train set and became fascinated in the electronics side of that.’

He was soon itching to build his own computer. At Oxford, after being banned from using the nuclear physics lab’s computer (thanks to an incident in which he hacked into it for rag week), he managed it. He built a computer with a soldering iron, an M6800 processor and an old television.

Happy, rebellious days. A far cry from the responsibilities he now has. As well as acting as a sort of regulatory authority for the development of the web, Sir Tim and his team at MIT are also working on the next stage in the web’s evolution, the semantic web. Its searches can be expressed in natural language, such as ‘Where can I find the nearest store with cheap Manolo Blahnik shoes?’

Having invented the web and changed the world for ever, did he suffer from difficult ‘second album’ syndrome? He blinks again. Does not smile. ‘The semantic web I’m working on is not a follow-up to the web, it is part of it. It’s about using one application in another. Putting my bank statements onto my calendar, say. It is about allowing your computer to understand what a date on a statement means. But that is not to say computers will be able to analyse what data mean in a philosophical sense, in the evening over a drink.’

Some evidence of humour, after all. Perhaps he has just grown used to Americans not getting British humour, and so has given up on it. Although he often comes back to Britain, Sir Tim feels part-American now. ‘It’s inevitable, really, being married to an American and having children grow up immersed in American culture. They have American accents. My American accent is probably less pronounced. British people usually think I have an American accent and the Americans usually think I have a British accent, so I guess that makes me in the middle.’

Berners-Lee is not an easy man to read, and is certainly not given to self-disclosure. Ask him if he’s sociable, for example, and he will tell you that on the Myers-Briggs test, he rates ‘pretty much in the middle on introversion v extroversion.’ In the middle again. As we have seen, he also believes there is a middle way for the web to develop, between suicide cults and McDonald’s blandness. Yet actually I think he is more exotic than this middling characterisation allows. And more romantic. All that walking in the woods. All those hippy ideals about sharing and democracy.

‘People get things wrong about me,’ he says as we embark on a quick tour of the building, starting with a black cube in the corner of his office which has the same NEXTSTEP operating system he designed the web on.

I ask what things people get wrong about him. He nods earnestly. ‘I only played tiddlywinks as a student to get a ride to Cambridge one day. I wasn’t a champion or anything. Things can get out of proportion.’


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.