For two politicians desperate not to mention the war, a trip to see the construction of a new fighter jet was not the most diplomatic place to begin. But British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on Friday guided US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice around the BAE Systems factory in the Ribble valley on the first day of her visit to the northwest England.
Rice, a talented pianist who also loves the Beatles, had apparently long wondered about the region, puzzling over the line about "4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire" from the Beatles' A Day in the Life.
"I never understood that song," she was reported as saying before the trip. "Perhaps now I'll get the chance."
When the inevitable potholes question was sprung on the pitch at Blackburn Rovers football club's stadium, Rice paused and looked stunned. Straw stepped in as gallantly as he could.
"They used to have a lot of holes but the town improved," he said, explaining how reports of a man with a clipboard counting the ruts in the town's roads inspired John Lennon.
"Oh, yes, yes, yes," she replied. But her ordeal wasn't over. Can you sing it? She looked terrified. "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," she blurted out, before scurrying down the tunnel, Rovers shirt in hand. Even this was fraught with hazard. Straw had "Rice 10" put on the back; Rice was asked if this was the number of days Iran had to comply over its nuclear program.
Straw had hoped to show the secretary of state the passion of English football's Premiership. The trip was designed around Blackburn v Wigan until, as Straw put it, "the forces of commerce" stepped in and Sky TV rearranged the game for its Monday night TV schedules.
If diplomacy is sometimes the absence of plain speaking, both secretaries found a friend in the cavernous warehouse hosting the Joint Strike Fighter, the US$256 billion US-UK project.
While Rice spoke of the importance of "humility and patience" in "the quest for justice and freedom" around the world and Straw talked of our "duty to help democracy triumph in Iraq," the words on the wall at the factory provided reassurance: The warplane would "mature the global sustainment solution."
The 50 pupils from Pleckgate school who risked detention by skiving off lessons to protest against Rice's visit were blunter. "Hey, hey, Condi hey, how many kids did you kill today?" they shouted.
Inside, their schoolmates were scornful. "I think the protests are wrong because we should be proud to have such a high-profile visitor," said Jabbar Khan, 16, a prefect who joined a line of 25 pupils to shake Rice's hand.
It was not quite on-message: Rice was relaxed about the anger of those she was deftly shielded from by police outriders and three dozen US security staff. "I've seen it in every city I've visited in the US," she said. "People have the right to protest. That's what democracy is all about."
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