Sun, Feb 26, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Rice to visit the `center of the world'

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Condoleezza Rice will visit Blackburn and Liverpool in north-west England and attend a Royal Liverpool Philharmonic concert in a few weeks' time, with many in the audience hoping she will succumb to temptation and get up on stage herself.

The US secretary of state, whose teenage dream was to be a concert pianist, will be on an extraordinary "informal" tour of the region hosted by Jack Straw, the UK foreign secretary, who wants to show off the region's cultural richness, successful integration, and what he calls the "center of the world": his Blackburn constituency.

The unusual three-night jaunt returns a trip Straw made last October to Rice's home state of Alabama. It originated in a chance remark by Rice at a press conference with Straw in London last year.

"When the founding fathers said `we the people', they didn't mean me", she said. "Condi" suggested the UK foreign secretary visit her birthplace, Birmingham, Alabama, which was on the frontline of the civil rights battles of the 1960s.

On the three-day trip -- part of a state department strategy to introduce foreign ministers to life outside Washington -- they visited a church where four schoolgirls, one of them a friend of Rice, were killed in a racist bomb attack in 1963. Rice took Straw to dinner at Jim 'N' Nick's restaurant, which served baby back ribs and chocolate cream pie. They also went on the field before the start of a local American football game between the Universities of Alabama and Tennessee.

The UK foreign secretary then made an offer Ms Rice could not refuse. "I have invited Condi to the center of the world, to Blackburn, and to a real football game rather than to rugby with commercials, which I am told is called American football," he boasted.

Sadly, the local soccer team, Blackburn Rovers, have no home match on the weekend which Rice has freed from her crowded global timetable (the date is not being released for security reasons at official request). She could, however, watch Everton, Liverpool or even Wigan. "But as a Blackburn politician you're not going to get him to take her anywhere else", a diplomat said.

A British Foreign Office spokesman said on Friday that Straw wanted to show her part of modern Britain with strong local economies. "Blackburn is a multiracial town and very well integrated," he added.

The centerpiece of the secretary of state's visit will be a speech and question-and-answer session she will hold in the town before an invited audience. It is being jointly organized by Chatham House, Britain's premier foreign policy think-tank, and the BBC Today program.

Outside diplomacy, music and American football are Rice's keenest interests. Her father wanted a boy, she has said, "but he decided he had to teach me everything about football ... It was music with my mother, and sports and history with my father."

Since taking her new job last year, Rice has been coy about playing the piano in public. On an official trip to Paris last year she asked to see the Hector Berlioz Conservatoire but did not offer to play. She told the young musicians that if she was ever able to learn all of Dvorak's A major piano quintet she would play for them.

A formal invitation for her to play with the Liverpool Philharmonic was under consideration but for the moment appears to be ruled out.

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