It's grim up north, if you're the US Secretary of State

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Indy Politics

The first stop on Condoleezza Rice's magical mystery tour of the North-west was to a military industrial site on the outskirts of Blackburn, a compound of grey, prefabricated buildings as dark as the billowing rainclouds above.

At the next stop, outside a school, there were pupils among a group of 150 protesters chanting: "Hey, hey, Condi Rice, how many kids did you kill today?" It can be grim up north when you're the American Secretary of State, and one of the architects of the war on Iraq.

Making her first trip to the North-west on a return invitation from Jack Straw, she had to run the gauntlet of local protests which dogged every event. But the number of demonstrators was lower than expected, particularly in Liverpool last night where just 1,000 people showed up for what had been billed as the largest demonstration ever seen in the region.

Ms Rice put on a brave face. She told teenagers on the student committee inside Pleckgate High School in Blackburn: "People have a right to protest. I'm not just going to visit places where people agree with me. That would be really unfortunate. Each individual all over the world has the God-given right to express themselves."

Some of the pupils exercised that right. Their parents pulled them out of school for the day after the headmaster, Robin Campbell, rejected their appeal to withdraw the invitation to Ms Rice.

The two-day shuttle between Blackburn and Liverpool, the 2008 European capital of culture, to show off the "real" Britain had unravelled even before it began. A visit to a Blackburn mosque was cancelled amid anger over Mr Straw's lack of consultation before he issued his invitation to the Ms Rice.

"It shows a certain insensitivity on Jack Straw's part, as Foreign Secretary, not as an MP, because of what is happening in Iraq," said Dave Harling, a Labour councillor, who was against the war. "It's not appropriate that she comes here."

The Stop the War coalition which is staging protest rallies in Blackburn and Liverpool, says it is opposed to the two-day visit by a "warmonger and torturer".

But the embarrassment for Mr Straw, in the constituency which he has held for 27 years, did not stop there. Outside forces intervened; Sky Television delayed to Monday a football match between Mr Straw's home team, Blackburn Rovers, and Wigan, originally scheduled for today.

So Ms Rice found herself watching the junior team of the Blackburn academy warm up at Ewood Park as a rare ray of sunshine lit up the stadium, and police helicopters circled.

By yesterday afternoon, rumours were rife that some members of a gospel choir who were to perform at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts for Ms Rice wanted to pull out. Students at the institute, where a handful of protesters braved the rain, complained they had been informed of the visit in an e-mail only last Wednesday.

As Ms Rice, arrived, she was booed and jeered. Jon Netton, a student, said it was a "disgrace" that Ms Rice had been invited. "We wish she hadn't been invited. Why should we be seen to condone the actions of this woman?"

Inside, a small group of students wore T-shirts saying "No Torture, No Compromise." Outside, a group of 50 protesters stood with a coffin draped in the Stars and Stripes. The institute's founder, Sir Paul McCartney, was not present. One performer, Jennifer John, said her appearance depended on being allowed to sing John Lennon's anti-war anthem "Imagine". She dedicated it to people protesting peacefully outside before she began to sing. Halfway through the song she broke into "Give Peace a Chance."

Mr Straw recognised in a speech at Ewood Park that the invasion of Iraq was "controversial and, by God, it was here in Blackburn".

At least Ms Rice's trip along the long and winding road between the two cities will clear up one mystery that she said had always puzzled her. The avowed Beatles fan now knows exactly why John Lennon sang of reading the news about "4,000 holes in Blackburn Lancashire" in the lyrics of "A Day in the Life". Mr Straw explained that there used to be "a man with a clipboard" in Blackburn charged with counting the number of potholes.

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