Umberto Eco has made a name – and fortune – for himself in the role of thinking man to the masses. Not that we understand what he is going on about most of the time. Nigel Farndale asks him to explain himself

‘Mooo! Mooo!’ Umberto Eco says by way of opening when I meet him in his high-ceilinged apartment overlooking the piazza Castello in Milan.

‘I’m supposed to do this exercise for my throat,’ the 73-year-old Italian philosopher and novelist explains. ‘Mooo! Mooo! I had an operation on my vocal chords and am still recovering.’ I tell him I will understand if he needs to rest his voice during our interview, or indeed if he needs to moo from time to time.

Though he has a paunch and unexpectedly small, geisha-like feet, Eco has an energetic stride – as I discover when he leads the way along a winding corridor and I try to keep up with him. We pass through a labyrinthine library containing 30,000 books – he has a further 20,000 at his 17th-century palazzo near Urbino – and into a drawing-room full of curiosities: a glass cabinet containing seashells, rare comics and illustrated children’s books, a classical sculpture of a nude man with his arms missing, a jar containing a pair of dog’s testicles, a lute, a banjo, a collection of recorders, and a collage of paintbrushes by his friend the Pop artist Arman.

Although Eco is still best known for his first novel, The Name of the Rose (1980), a medieval murder mystery that sold ten million copies, it is as an academic that he would like to be remembered. He has been a professor at Bologna, the oldest university in Europe, for more than 30 years. He has also lectured at Harvard, Yale, Cambridge and numerous other famous universities and, to fill in the rest of his time, writes cerebral essays on uncerebral subjects ranging from football to pornography and coffee pots.

He is one of the fathers of postmodern literary criticism – the general gist of his approach being that it doesn’t matter what an author intends to say, readers are entitled to interpret works of literature in any way they choose. He was also a pioneer of semiotics, the study of culture as a web of signs and messages to be decoded for hidden meaning.

Doesn’t it drive him mad, always seeing meaning where others just see things?

‘It does become a habit, but you are not obliged to be on duty at every moment,’ he says in his heavy Italian accent. ‘If I drink a glass of scotch I am thinking only of the scotch; I am not thinking about what the brand of scotch I am drinking says about my personality. I know what you mean, though, and I suppose the answer is that I am driven no more mad than a pianist who always has melodies in his head.’

He strokes his beard as he says this, and I notice he wears his watch over his shirt cuff, with the face on the inside of his wrist. Is this meaningful?

‘There are two practical reasons for it – one is that in my job I am obliged to attend a lot of symposia, which are frequently very boring. If I do this to check the time [he bends his arm], everybody notices. If I do it this way [he looks down at his watch without moving his wrist], I can check surreptitiously without showing it.

‘As for the sleeve, that is because my watch-strap gives me eczema. So,’ he says with a laugh, ‘there is a meaning there, but not a terribly interesting one.’

I see he is also chewing on a dummy cigarette. ‘Yes, I gave up smoking five months ago. I find it helps to have something in my mouth. I like nicotine because it excites my brain and helps me work. In the first two months after quitting I couldn’t work. I felt lazy. Then I tried nicotine patches.’ He has, he says, smoked 60 a day for most of his adult life. Hasn’t he left it a little late to start worrying about his health? ‘Perhaps I am not as wise as I like to think I am.’

His second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, took eight years to write. It was about three editors at a Milan publishing house trying to link every conspiracy theory in history, including that now famous one about the medieval Knights Templar and the secret of the Holy Grail.

‘I know, I know,’ he says with a laugh. ‘My book included the plot for The Da Vinci Code. But I was not being a prophet. It was old occult material. It was already all there. I treated it in a more sceptical way than Dan Brown did. He had the excellent idea of treating it as if it were true. Millions of people believed him. They took it seriously, but it was all a hoax.’

The Da Vinci Code is one of the few novels to have sold more than The Name of the Rose, I point out. Must be quite galling, that. He shrugs. Has he read it? ‘Yes.’ Did he like it? He shrugs again. ‘It’s a page-turner.’

The Vatican was not keen on Foucault’s Pendulum, by all accounts. Its official newspaper described it as being full of ‘profanations, blas-phemies, buffooneries and filth, held together by the mortar of arrogance and cynicism’. Even the late Pope condemned Eco personally as, ‘the mystifier deluxe’. Is it true he was all but excommunicated?

‘No. The whole affair was nothing but an invention of the newspapers that needed to have an Italian Salman Rushdie.’

Salman Rushdie, interestingly enough, described Foucault’s Pendulum as ‘humourless, devoid of character, entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word and mind-numbingly full of gobbledygook of all sorts’. Other writers, academics and critics, perhaps envious of the success of Eco’s first novel, also put the boot in, accusing the author of wearing his learning too heavily. Was it all just professional jealousy, does he think?

‘When I went from being an academic to being a member of the community of writers some of my former colleagues did look on me with a certain resentment. But not all, and it is only after my work as a novelist that I received 33 honorary degrees from universities around the world.’

Many academics, I suggest, seem to have felt that Eco’s main intellectual interest was in showing off. Is that fair? Is he an exhibitionist?

‘I think every professor and writer is in some way an exhibitionist because his or her normal activity is a theatrical one. When you give a lesson the situation is the same as writing a book. You have to capture the attention, the complicity of your audience.’

Even though Eco makes subjects such as metaphysics and semiotics relatively accessible through his playful prose, he must suspect that many of his ideas go over the heads of his millions of readers. I mean, if a clever chap like Salman Rushdie struggles with it, what hope do the rest of us have? He shrugs again. ‘I write what I write.’

Does he worry, though, that some people buy his books in order to impress their friends, but never actually read them?

‘If some people are so weak that they buy my books because they are piled high in bookshops, and then do not understand them, that is not my fault. If people buy my books for vanity, I consider it a tax on idiocy.’

Is he a vain man himself – intellectually, I mean? ‘Obviously there is a pleasure in teaching because it is a way to keep you young. But I think a poet or philosopher writing a paper who doesn’t hope that his work will last for 1,000 years is a fool. Anyway, intellectual vanity does not exclude humility. If you write a poem, you hope to be as good as Shakespeare, but you accept you probably won’t be and that you will have much to learn.

‘I would describe myself as an insecure optimist who is sensitive to criticism. I always fear to be wrong. Those who are always certain of their own work risk being idiots. Insecurity is a great force, apropos of teaching. The moment I start a new class I feel panic. If you don’t feel panic, you cannot succeed.’

It seems remarkable, given his success as a novelist, that he still teaches. ‘My success obliged me to seek greater privacy, but that is the only real difference it has made to my life. It is difficult going to [film] premières, for example, because people want to interview me or hand me their manuscript. I continued with my life as a scholar, publishing academic books. There was a continual osmosis between my academic research and my novels.’

His latest novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, is about a rare-book dealer who loses his ‘autobiographical’ memory – he doesn’t know his own name or recognise his wife – but still has his ‘semantic’ memory and so is able to quote from every book he has ever read. The hero is the same age as Eco and has had similar life experiences. There is, then, I presume, much of his own autobiography in this book.

‘It is difficult for me to recognise it as autobiography because it is more the biography of a generation. But it is obvious I gave to the character a lot of my personal memories. The “historic” or “public” memories are from my private collection of memorabilia, from the Flash Gordon or Mickey Mouse cartoons of my youth. The illustrations I use in the book are all from my own collection, as displayed in that cabinet back there.’ He directs a thumb over his shoulder. ‘The character lived his childhood through books and cartoons, as did I. They dominated my life.’

So cartoons are to him what the madeleine was to Proust, a trigger to memory? ‘No. I had to fight against Proust in this book. If you write a novel about memory, you have to. So I did the contrary of the great Proust. He went inside himself to retrieve senses, smells and memories. My hero does the opposite because he is only confronted with the external memories, public memories which a whole generation shared.’

At one point in the book the hero remembers fighting with the Resistance during the war. Although he was only a teenager, Eco did something akin to this, having first been a committed Fascist.

‘In 1942, at the age of ten, I received the First Provincial Award of Ludi Juveniles – a compulsory competition for young Italian Fascists, that is for every young Italian. I elaborated with rhetorical skill on the subject, “Should we die for the glory of Mussolini and the immortal destiny of Italy?” My answer was positive. I was a smart boy.’ He recalls being proud of his Fascist youth uniform. ‘I spent the following two years among the Germans – Fascists and partisans shooting at one another – and I learnt how to dodge a bullet. It was good exercise.’

Can he recall exactly when he became disillusioned with Mussolini? He gives the question a contemplative nod before answering.

‘There were two letters I wrote nine months apart. I found them when I was doing research for this book. In the first, which I wrote when I was ten, I was, rhetorically at least, a fanatical Fascist. You see, as a child I was exposed every day to the propaganda. It was like a religion. Saying I didn’t believe in Mussolini would have been as shocking as saying

I didn’t believe in God. I was born under him – I never knew anything else. I loved him. It would have been perverse if I hadn’t. In the second letter nine months later I had become sceptical and disillusioned. I tried to work out what had happened in between. It might have been that

I was no longer optimistic about the outcome of the war, but more likely it was to do with the radio and with reading American cartoon books.

I did research and remembered that at the same time as we were hearing official Fascist songs on Italian radio we also began listening to silly humorous songs on Radio Free London – we were learning about everyday life elsewhere. I began to fall in love with the idea of Englishness. I began to read about Jeeves and Bertie.’

Umberto Eco was born in Alessandria, a medieval fortress city in the Po valley in northern Italy. His grandfather was a typographer and a committed socialist who organised strikes. His father was an office clerk for a manufacturer of iron bathtubs. He describes his family as being ‘petit bourgeois’.

Did his father have aspirations to be an intellectual? ‘He never had the chance. He was the first child of a family of 13. They were poor. My father left school early and went to work. But he was a voracious reader and went to the book kiosks and read books there so he didn’t have to pay for them. When they chased him off he would simply go to another kiosk.’

His father died of a heart attack in 1962, and his mother died ten years later. ‘My father didn’t want me to be a philosopher, he wanted me to be a lawyer,’ Eco says. ‘But he accepted my decision when I enrolled at Turin university. It was important for me to show him it could be a fruitful experience, and I think he was pleased when I became a lecturer at 24. I think he was proud, too, when I published my doctoral dissertation on medieval aesthetics. I know he secretly read it entirely, even though he couldn’t understand all the Latin in it.’

Eco clears his throat. He does another ‘Mooo!’ Clearly, after an hour and a half of talking, his vocal chords are feeling the strain. Promising that this will be my last question, I ask whether the success he had with The Name of the Rose was diminished because his father was not around to see it.

‘Yes,’ he says, ‘absolutely. I was 50. As a consequence, the pleasure of that success for me was diminished. To this day, every day, I silently tell my father about what I am doing. He could be sceptical, and every time I was too enthusiastic he was there to provide me with a cold shower.

‘We are always children, I think, even when we are old. We always need parental approval. I never needed it as much from my mother, though, because I knew she was convinced I was a genius from the age of five! With my own children I tried to strike more of a balance between my mother’s approach and my father’s.’

He married his German-born wife, Renate, the year his father died. She too is an academic, teaching architecture at Milan university. The couple have two grown-up children: Stefano, a television producer, and Carlotta, an architect.

‘I honed my storytelling skills by telling my children complicated bedtime stories,’ Eco recalls. ‘When they left home I didn’t have anyone to tell the stories to, so I began to write.’

Now he has grandchildren to tell stories to, when his voice is strong enough. They reward him by painting portraits of him. One, pinned to the wall, is by a four-year-old. It shows a round, jolly face with glasses, a scruffy beard and a big grin. Oddly enough, the likeness is uncanny. •


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.