Britain’s most infamous playwright talks politics, famous muses and the true meaning of ‘Stoppardian’.

The tall, hunched figure smoking on the roof terrace of the National Theatre has his back to me, but his Wildean mien, and indeed mane, makes him unmistakable.

As he smokes, he contemplates the inky clouds over the equally black Thames and, for a moment, I contemplate him. If only he had a silk scarf draped over his shoulder, this tableau vivant would be complete.

Sir Tom Stoppard’s face, when he turns, is still, at 72, as brooding and handsome as ever. In his youth he was compared with Mick Jagger, because of his pout, but a better comparison would be with David Gilmour of Pink Floyd.

That a playwright should be compared with a pop star at all is revealing. There was always something quite rock and roll about Sir Tom.

That, indeed, was the title of his most recent play, written in 2006, the one about the role of pop music in the emergence of democracy in Czechoslovakia between the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

His new play, or rather the new National Theatre revival of his old play Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977), features music too, a full orchestra, with a score written by Andre Previn, and we shall come to that.

Few contemporary playwrights have a style so distinctive that their surname enters the language as an adjective. There’s Pinteresque and Stoppardian and, well, that’s about it.

Stoppardian seems to mean dealing with philosophical concepts in a witty, ironic and linguistically complex way, usually with multiple timelines and visual humour.

A good example is Arcadia (1993), a bittersweet country-house comedy that sweeps between Regency England and today, taking in discussions of romanticism, classicism and thermodynamics.

But what does he think it means? I imagine he is going to groan and say he hates the word, but he shrugs.

‘It doesn’t mean anything as bounded as other epithets made from surnames do. I don’t think Stoppardian has a precise definition.

‘For me, personally, it means something different to what others mean by it. To me it means another hapless, feckless, fatuous episode in my life, brought on by my own forgetfulness or incompetence.’

Example? He thinks. ‘Well, last month I found myself waiting for an electric train in Tokyo, unable to read any of the signs. I was standing on the platform with two cases and this bag,’ he lifts up a bulging, brown leather shoulder bag.

‘It had my passport in it, as well as my money, credit cards, everything. A train arrived early and, as they are incredibly punctual about everything there, I figured it couldn’t be mine. But to make sure, I got on the train to find a guard to show my ticket to.

‘Then I heard a hiss and a clunk behind me and the doors were closing and the train was moving off, with my bags still on the platform. “That’s it,” I thought, “I’m f—ed”.’

This being Japan he got off at the next station, phoned the agent he is with in Japan and his bags were duly collected and sent to meet him on the next train. ‘Anyway, the point of that story is that Stoppardian for me means the ability to cock things up.’

What do we know about Sir Tom Stoppard? He was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937. His family moved to Singapore, where his father was killed in a Japanese bombing raid. His mother remarried a British Army major.

He went to an English public school in the North of England, Pocklington, and instead of going to university, went into journalism, working as a reporter and theatre critic for a Bristol newspaper. His first play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, was written in 1966 and proved a critical and box office success.

He married, had two children, got divorced, remarried and had two more children, one of whom, Ed, has become a successful actor.

During his second marriage, to the television presenter, agony aunt and anti-smoking campaigner Dr Miriam Stoppard, he had an affair with Felicity Kendall, the actress he considered his muse. He now lives alone in Chelsea Harbour.

He has written some fine Hollywood screenplays, including Shakespeare in Love, for which he won an Oscar, and some average ones such as K-19: The Widowmaker. And he has never stopped having hit plays, though they have become less absurdist and more political over the years.

Sir Tom is hard to place politically. He campaigns about human rights, which is usually a left-leaning cause, but he tells me his impression of David Cameron is that he is ‘an intelligent politician’.

Thatcher, meanwhile, took a shine to him and they met on a few occasions. ‘But I remember feeling out of my depth with her because I’m not a political animal and I shouldn’t have been there. I listened mostly.’

I ask him what he imagines the first line of his obituary will be. He thinks again. ‘Tom Stoppard, the father of the actor Ed Stoppard, has died.’

And when the obituary gives three examples of his plays, what does he suppose they will be? ‘Hmm. I wouldn’t deny you an answer, but I don’t have favourites. I would say Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Arcadia and the one I am writing now, which I haven’t started.’

Sir Tom likes being sidetracked and he won’t be rushed. Having seen nearly all his plays and rarely been disappointed by them, I expect the rub to be that I will be disappointed by him in person. I am not.

His conversation, as he maunders through linguistics, Cold War politics and aesthetics, is as rich and multilayered as you would hope. ‘I could go on chattering in this garrulous way for hours,’ he says at one point.

Curiously, he seems to swing from insouciance to vague insecurity, from self-deprecation to recognition of the regard in which others hold him.

He also has a love of cheap gags.‘The days of the digital watch are numbered.’ Or: ‘If Beethoven had been killed in a plane crash at the age of 22, it would have changed the history of music and of aviation.’

There is a typical example in Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. A doctor says of a psychiatric patient: ‘Yes, he has an identity problem. I forget his name.’

Sir Tom is cerebral and autodidactic but not, he protests, academic even though his plays are studied in universities.

Has his lifelong intellectual energy and curiosity been a compensation for leaving school at 17?

‘Depends whether you mean compensating for it consciously or unconsciously. Certainly, I didn’t even think of it as a deprivation. I was delighted to not go to university. I couldn’t wait to be out of education. I wanted to be a reporter and I had a wonderful time doing it.

‘It was years and years before I felt a sense that I had missed out on something. I began to have certain kinds of regret about it, but that was partly to do with not having had time to read the stuff that everyone assumed I must have read because everyone has, and partly because those friends of mine who had got to know each other at university I felt were part of some stimulating, linked group and that was enviable. I didn’t feel part of that.’

Perhaps he was liberated by not having gone?

‘I think if I had it would have affected my work. I can imagine that I would not have become a writer at all, or if I had, a different type of writer.

‘I don’t, by the way, look back in poignancy about all that, I don’t worry about it. You deal with what you’ve got. And there are probably aspects to the autodidact life that compensate. They take me into areas where I wouldn’t have had time to go at all.

‘As a playwright, you can cover a lot of waterfront without being able to hold your own against an expert in any of those areas. I have no illusions about that.’

I ask what is it like having experts and academics analyse his work. ‘The thing that happens remarkably often is that the people who are writing a dissertation believe they need to speak to me in order to do their dissertation. They need to interview me,’ Sir Tom says.

‘I have a stock reply which is that “the examiner wants to know what you think, not what I think”. I write polite little notes, which say: “Honestly, you do not need me, you think you do but I am irrelevant to what you are doing.” Obviously, the yes or no factual questions I can answer, but the interpretations…’

He shakes his head. ‘The whole thing derives from a misapprehension about creative writing, which is that the writer is working from a set of principles or a thesis and the play is the end product of that predisposition, but, actually, the idea turns out to be the end product of the play, and the less I know about this play I am trying to write, the better.

‘The more doors there are for you to open, the better the play. Take Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, if the metaphor had been specific, the play would not have had the freedom to go where it wanted. Some students don’t see it as a metaphor but a puzzle to which I have the answer, and if only I would impart it they would get an alpha.’

He pushes the door ajar and, without rising from the sofa, lights up a cigarette and blows the smoke out.

‘A friend of a reporter I knew from the Daily Sketch came to the first night and he said it was about “two reporters on a story that doesn’t stand up”, which was about right.’

We talk about Degas’s tendency to rework his completed works, taking them off the walls and then destroying them by reworking.

‘I would be the other kind of painter, taking paint off rather than adding. I’m not a theoretician about playwriting but I have a strong sense that plays have to be pitched, the scene, the line, the word, at the exact point where the audience has just the right amount of information. It’s like Occam’s razor.’

Of course it is. And as I wrack my brains to think of what Occam’s razor is (something about the simplest explanation being the best one?) I am reminded of something a friend said when I told him I was interviewing Sir Tom: that he always comes out of his plays with a headache. The friend also spoke of Sir Tom’s plays being ‘emotionally cold’.

I don’t see this myself, but it is revealing how divisive a playwright Sir Tom can be. I find his plays warm, but then that warmth may be to do with their humour rather than their emotional texture.

Sir Tom reckons you can ‘miss the laugh’ in two polar ways. ‘You can miss it by giving the audience too much information, so they have no work to do, or you can miss it by not giving them enough.

‘This applies to every line, so it is not a generality about how oblique, or opaque, or transparent the play ought to be. It is a moment-to-moment decision you are making when you are writing the play, rehearsing it and acting it. The perfect play is when the audience has to reach to pick it up.’

He taps a support holding up the shelf behind him. ‘If you take this as the line, with the audience on one side and the author on the other, you have a dead moment if you only get this far.’ He taps the wall on one side of the support. ‘Or if you overshoot to here.’ He taps the other side.

One of the best lines in The Real Thing is spoken by a writer. He is comparing a good script to a cricket bat that is ‘sprung, like a dance floor’. If you hit the ball properly with it it will ‘travel 200 yards in four seconds’ and make a noise ‘like a trout taking a fly’.

If you write a bad script, or hit a ball with an ordinary plank of wood, it will travel about 10ft and you’ll drop the bat and dance about ‘with your hands stuck into your armpits’.

It’s a lovely metaphor and it seems to be about the music of language. Sir Tom lights up another cigarette, nudges the terrace door open a little wider.

‘An actor asked me this morning: “What does this word mean?” and I couldn’t really answer, because the character was in a riff. His words have their value in their sound and their imagery; it didn’t have any logical place in the sentence he was speaking.

‘It’s probably an aspect of the cricket bat speech. The information itself isn’t enough, which is why I am half in terror of being translated because they miss the sound. I think that is the writer’s metaphorical signature you were asking about.’

Sir Tom has translated Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, among other plays, and a few months ago he visited Chekhov’s house near Moscow for the first time and sat in the chair where he wrote The Seagull. ‘It got to me. The chair, the table, the inkpots. I’m susceptible to that kind of romanticism.’

Is there a desk in his own study that he imagines people will one day want to sit at and hold his pen? ‘This is a lose-lose question, because I’m not proud of self-deprecation, even when it is sincere. I cannot think of myself as that sort of person in literary history, and I don’t, actually…’

At this point I interrupt, filling the pause, and he loses his train of thought.

A grin. ‘Perhaps that was God telling me to shut up. For a long time I managed to think two things simultaneously, that I am actually a good playwright, and that the next time I write a play I will be revealed as someone who is no good at all.

‘Part of me wants to avoid revivals because I think people will realise they have been fooled. The scales will fall from their eyes. So, in other words, I don’t have this centre of gravity at all about how good I am or how long I will last and it is better to be circumspect about that.’

While Pinter seemed austere and serious in his black polonecks, Sir Tom always seemed to cut a more romantic, amused, bohemian figure: the windswept hair, the scarves, the muse.

We are on the subject of Felicity Kendall. ‘Yes, she was my muse, in a sense. It’s a funny word. I’m not sure it’s the same as having an actual muse. But wanting to write for particular actors, such as her, goes back to the first time I worked with actors.

‘I wrote Jumpers for John Wood. I loved him as an actor and wanted to write for him. I don’t think the muse was a personification. She was more the spirit of inspiration and I could do with one now. I was thinking the other day, how did I begin last time? I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t think how I did it.’

For the first time, Sir Tom seems suddenly maudlin. I suggest the way to get around his block might be to write a memoir. Does he keep a diary?

‘No. And here’s a piece of self-analysis for you, I think I am mostly, unconsciously, trying not to co-operate with posterity. I am trying to destroy my papers.’

He sighs. ‘I keep some letters. I have a couple from Laurence Olivier and one from John Steinbeck. But the rest of my life I destroy as I go along.’

With this, he slowly lights up another cigarette and, as if sighing, blows the smoke out into the dark, London air.


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.