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Straw stumped by Homer as Latin text controversy hits Blackburn

LABOUR PARTY spin-doctors and others of a nervous disposition may wish quietly to abandon Jack Straw's campaign to revive speakers' corners. Judging by the Home Secretary's experience on Saturday in Blackburn, Lancashire, the "political hurly-burly" that Mr Straw believes they will revive might be a little too robust for the spin-doctors' tastes.

Mr Straw addressed his constituents from a public bench outside Marks & Spencer, which has doubled as his town's speakers' corner since 1983, and he said the questioning to which he was subjected proved "as rigorous as any Paxman interview".

Indeed, Newsnight would be unlikely simultaneously to press him on the Greek classics, Spanish diesel prices and Dutch immigration rules. Stephen Blake, one of his first questioners, asked him if he read Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. If so, he would know the concept of "guest friendship", which had not been bestowed upon General Augusto Pinochet. "Proceedings before the courts" prevented him from discussing Homer's angle, Mr Straw replied, although of course he understood it.

But there was no such escape from the next questioner, demanding to know whether Mr Straw really did invest the money in extra police officers he had claimed. Were government statistics "designed to inform or confuse?" and was it not best to be "blunt with the soundbite?" asked Kevin Breslin. "It's different here because I've got time to explain things to people," said Mr Straw. "On television "there's only 15 seconds".

Tips for generating a speakers' corner crowd, Mr Straw later confided, included "finding a tame Tory" to pick an argument with (though a previous attempt at this had ended when a woman hit the Tory over the head with a handbag).

It also seems handy to have family experiences to draw on. Referring to his mother - an infant teacher - had helped him out with a woman who did not want to send her child to school until the age of seven. And mention of his great grandfather - an immigrant German Jew - eased him through a discussion of immigration issues.

But no manner of help prepared him for one woman's assertion that Tony Blair had called public-sector workers "stuck in the mud". Being in their number, she was displeased, so Mr Straw trod deferentially.

"I don't think [Mr Blair] said that but if he did ... I will check it out, and of course I agree with everything the Prime Minister says," he replied with good grace.