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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 April 2006, 14:55 GMT 15:55 UK
Rice gets to see the 'real' UK
By Robin Brant
BBC political correspondent in Blackburn

Condoleezza Rice with a Blackburn Rovers' football shirt
She wanted to be goalkeeper but was given a position up front

"She's the American vice-president."

"Vice-president of America."

"She is foreign corres... foreign minister from America."

Bingo, one out of three isn't bad, most of the pub-goers in Blackburn might not have known who she is, but most knew that Condi was coming.

It has been all over the local paper, then the heavy mob arrived, with earpieces and big cars.

Then all of a sudden town hall workers were almost outnumbered by Lancashire police search teams.

Their sniffer dogs saw parts of the impressive building that most councillors never reach.

Condoleezza Rice - Condi to her boss, Dr Rice to her old students, Secretary Rice to her subordinates - is in Blackburn for a few days, to see the "real" side of Britain.

Cotton connection

Some say it is about culture.

Some say it is about showing her the town which was once the centre of the cotton industry - that owed so much to her enslaved forefathers, who picked the buds in her home state of Alabama.

Others say it is a mini-break in the country with Jack Straw, British foreign secretary.

They are indifferent to the visit, confused as to why she is in town, and what the place gains from the event

By all indications, especially his gushing ones, he is her friend, confidante, and, of course, diplomatic ally.

He is also the MP for Blackburn. Last year he went to see her place in Birmingham, Alabama, once known as "Bombingham" because of its place in the violent history of the US's segregationist past.

Blackburn was the return leg of the tour, as he wanted to show her around his adopted home.

Re-arranged fixture

There was football - soccer - with a visit to Blackburn Rovers. They were supposed to see a game but Sky shifted the fixture to Monday.

Instead she met a few players and was presented with a shirt.

"Oh, look at that - I'll be a goalkeeper," she said with a laugh.

Condoleezza Rice and Jack Straw
Mr Straw has been showing off his adopted town

You can already hear people starting to debate about whether or not she is a safe pair of hands.

"Show us the shirt," the photographers shout, and she obediently turns it round to display the back with the number 10 and with "Rice" across the shoulders.

With her track record of achievement she could be running out at Ewood Park next season.

Darts Tarts

Over the road from the stadium, in the Fox And Hounds pub, I talk to women interested in another sport.

Anne and Vicky play for the ladies darts team. From international stateswoman to a group which calls itself Darts Tarts.

"Blackburn is a terribly run-down place," one of them says.

She claims to relish the chance to meet people who disagree with her

"Even Accrington, Burnley - and I hate to say Burnley - are better than Blackburn. They are not going to show anything off around here."

They are indifferent to the visit, confused as to why she is in town, and what the place gains from the event.

Another group of women are angrier though. Some in Blackburn's sizeable Muslim population think the woman so closely associated with the decision to invade Iraq should not be here.

And certainly not planning to visit a mosque.

'Strong woman'

At the Bangor Street community centre in Whalley Range, while her son plays in the background, Sameena tells me: "To be honest I don't think it is the right time... with all the tensions.

"I think people in Blackburn are quite sensitive to that at the moment."

Protesters marching in Blackburn
Not everyone welcomed the US Secretary of State's visit

Upstairs in the women's gym, where the apparatus was ready and waiting for her visit should the "in-her-50s-and-fanatical-about-fitness" Secretary of State decide to drop by, one woman on the treadmill says she would like to chat Condoleezza Rice.

"She's a strong woman, she knows her own mind, she is focused.

"But I may not agree with her politics," she says while catching her breath.

That is a familiar response, and one Secretary of State Rice claims is used to. She claims to relish the chance to meet people who disagree with her.

Exchange trips

The journey from Birmingham to Blackburn has been littered with numerous cities, where protesters have lined the streets, or diplomats with different views have sat awaiting her arrival.

In Blackburn there was a handful of demonstrators.

One thing is certain though, this visit confirms a trend has developed.

Tony Blair took George Bush to Sedgefield. Now Jack Straw has toured Blackburn with Condoleezza Rice.

I bet the US Treasury Secretary John Snow can't wait for the quiet weekend in Fife with Gordon Brown.




SEE ALSO:
In pictures: Rice visits Blackburn
31 Mar 06 |  In Pictures
What do you think of Rice's UK visit?
31 Mar 06 |  Have Your Say
Profile: Condoleezza Rice
30 Mar 06 |  Americas


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