Rice of the Rovers | ‘Condi’ cottons to Lancashire lads

Mixed messages for Rice in England’s northwest, from protests concerning the U.S. war in Iraq (left) to another addition to her replica-jersey collection. Blackburn manager Mark Hughes, left, and Straw do the honors. (Lancashire Evening Telegraph and AP)

Blackburn, England | The visit would not exactly qualify as ping-pong diplomacy, but sport as a means of high-level diplomatic exchange continues with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice‘s excursion to what has been termed “the center of the world.”

Rather than putting out fires in Davos or Doha, Rice played the role of exchange student late last week in the northwest of England. The trip had been organized so British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw could show Rice his native Blackburn, as Rice had escorted Straw through her hometown Birmingham, Alabama, last year. The diplomatic duo had taken in a University of Alabama football game, although Rice never attended the school; she went to the University of Denver, her precociousness as a scholar allowing her to start at 15. Straw, variously introduced on the Alabama trip as “Mr. Shaw” and “Mr. Snow,” called the gridiron clash “rugby with commercials.”

Returning the favor, Straw and Rice agreed that she would visit the northwest, her trip timed to the fixture between Blackburn and Wigan Athletic. With the Premiership schedule ever in flux to accommodate the maw that is SkyTV, programmers shifted the date to Monday night. Thus, the two ended up standing on an empty pitch last Friday watching two junior sides kick it about. Blackburn goalkeeper and U.S. international Brad Friedel gave Rice a pair of goalkeeping gloves, perhaps to defend against the own goals from Cabinet mate Donald Rumsfeld. (We made up this last bit.)

While Rice’s visit was met by protests (“We want chapatis, no more Rice,” shouted Muslim students outside Pleckgate High School), she and Straw appeared to be building a friendship through the cultural and sporting exchange:

They are a bit of an odd couple: an elegantly dressed African American woman who grew up in the segregated South and a plain blue-suit-and-tie Englishman who carries a red wooden box as a briefcase. Rice, 51, is a former academic whose sentences sometimes get tangled in modifiers, caveats and endless clauses; Straw, 59, is an experienced and candid politician whose skillful turns of phrase make good sound bites.

The two are linked, geographically, through their relationship to cotton. Blackburn-area mills spun the fibers picked by Rice’s forebears. Richard Arkwright‘s 1769 patent specification for a spinning machine helped launch an industrial revolution that made Britain’s northern cities and midlands seem like the engine of world economy. Mahatma Gandhi visited Lancashire mills in 1931, to see unemployed workers affected by his advocacy of hand-spinning and boycott of British-made garments.

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