Welcome to Blackburn, Condi!

Jack Straw's invitation was all it took to lure Condoleezza Rice to the jewel of Lancashire. Ahead of her arrival on Friday, Ian Herbert offers the US Secretary of State a whistle-stop tour
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The Independent Online

Condoleezza Rice's penchant for eye-catching footwear has been an open secret ever since the day she arrived at a German army base in high-heeled, knee-length boots last year. So it is just as well that her brief visit to Britain this week will place her within walking distance of Tommy Ball's Giant Shoe Emporium.

Locals in Blackburn, which will receive the American Secretary of State on Friday, swear that Tommy's is the best value shoe establishment in Britain. A casual glance at the shelves this weekend revealed enough cheap, knee length lines to kit out a boot camp. The Ladies' Xoxo Katryn boot (£12.99; in chocolate or caramel) offers sharp heels, which could prove useful should Ms Rice find herself anywhere near Michael Winterbottom, a Blackburnian whose Road to Guantanamo film was less than complimentary towards the Bush administration in which she serves.

The shop, which has attracted coach trips from London and Scotland in recent years, provides some sense of how the town Ms Rice will visit has needed to pursue new sources of income following the closure of the 140 cotton mills which made it a centre of cotton manufacture in the 18th century. The height of the cotton revolution came around 1780, when the "spinning jenny" machine was invented in this part of Lancashire and thousands were employed in the mills.

Marilyn Rigby, the shop's owner, is evidently ready to roll out the red carpet in this former Lancashire mill town for a woman she knows little about. "We would open the doors early or late for to have a quiet shop," she said. "She might appreciate the privacy."

If the shoppers in her car park are anything to go by Ms Rice - whose invitation follows Jack Straw's trip to help her campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, last year - need have no worries when she arrives ahead of the inaugural BBC/Chatham House lecture on international affairs, which she will deliver here on Friday.

Her visit is the biggest state occasion since Mahatma Gandhi arrived in 1931 to inspect the local cotton mills but the customers are displaying some confusion about the difference between Condoleezza and Candice Michelle (a model).

"I've read it in the paper but I'll be at work," said one customer (a lame excuse, since the timings have not been disclosed to her). "I know who she is but it doesn't interest me," added another.

The indifference may reflect that fact that the town has been out of the party habit since 1995 when Blackburn Rovers won football's Premier League. Everyone got excited four years later, when the council was in the running to get city status but Sunderland won instead and Blackburn, it's football side relegated in the same year, remained one of the few non-cities in Britain to be in possession of a cathedral. The town is not quite accustomed to seeing celebrities either, unless you count fashion designer Wayne Hemingway and motorbike champion Carl Fogerty, or snooker player Dennis Taylor (Irish, but a resident.)

But that is not to say that the council newspaper The Shuttle, whose current lead headline screams "Condi comes to the centre of the world" is entirely inaccurate. If it is expresso coffee Ms Rice wants, then she will discover the two blends which are officially Britain's finest. To find them, she need only follow the scent emanating from a refurbished 1850s arcade just down the hill from Tommy's. It will lead her to Exchange Coffee, where more than 40 different types of Arabica coffee bean are roasted to order on the premises. Ms Rice will be gone before the arrival of Jamaica Blue, arguably the world's finest bean and exported only in wooden barrels, but the expresso won the only two expresso golds handed out at the recent Guild of Fine Food Retailers awards. Ms Rice will also be welcome to choose from one of 65 loose teas, according to one the managers, Richard Isherwood. "An ordinary latte is available but we have different [coffee] roasts on every day."

Possibly the finest sausages in the nation are to be found a short drive out of Blackburn town centre, too, at the award-winning Fairfield farm shop where properietor Louise Edge makes three-quarters of a ton of the stuff every week but doesn't go in for awards. Local appreciation of said sausages was enhanced after the vicar of a local Baptist church told the congregation they should buy them and the entire choir obediently pitched up one Saturday. But Mrs Edge will not be sending sausages by mail order to Ms Rice, even if asked. "It's always been my firm view that if you want produce you should buy it locally," she said.

The same rules does not apply at the Chilli Lime Deli where proprietor John Caffrey has Iraqi olive oil on sale amid pomegranate molasses, chilli jam and more - a reminder, he says, of the country's happier times. Mr Caffrey will also afford Ms Rice the privacy he believes she deserves. "I only know the [Rovers] footballers are in here from the way the other customers stop talking," he says. "I'm not too hot on celebrities, though I do recognise some of the Radio Lancashire presenters by sight."

Across the road at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery there is another fine token of Iraq: a 4,500-year-old clay tablet which represents one of the earliest examples of handwriting and is part of the museum's peerless manuscript and coin collection loaned out to the Getty Museum of Fine Art among others. It's arguably a more mouthwatering prospect that the chance to watch Mr Straw's beloved Blackburn Rovers (though Wigan Athletic are in town for a mouth-watering Lancashire a week tonight).

All this and more is Ms Rice's - and without too much threat of a noisy reception. Blackburnians are known to like a robust debate - just ask Mr Straw, one of whose Saturday morning Speaker's Corner orations a few years back near Marks & Sparks elicited questions on subjects as diverse as Homer's Iliad, Spanish diesel prices and Dutch immigration rules. But ever since Gandhi's arrival, as part of his protest about the foreign manufactured cloth, most of which came from Blackburn, locals have shown good grace.

"When George Galloway arrived a few days ago to stir things up ahead of [Ms Rice's] visit, it was a total flop," said a senior journalist at Asian Image the Blackburn weekly with a 30,000 circulation. "There's always one who wants a protest but it never comes to anything." He is talking about Tassadiq Rehman, who led an al-Muhajiroun rally in the town which won support shortly after the attacks of 11 September 2001. The poor showing of former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, who stood on an anti-war ticket in last year's general election, suggests anti-war sentiment is weak among Blackburn's Muslims, who account for 20 per cent of the population.

"When visits like this occur, it presents us with an opportunity to counter prejudices about Islam. We would be foolish to pass them up," said Ibrahim Master, the deputy Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire.

This contrasts with the anti-war campaign in Liverpool, whose activists have kicked up such a fuss about Ms Rice's visit that the poet Roger McGough withdrew on Thursday from a role compèring a gala night in the Secretary of State's honour at the city's Philharmonic Hall. The city's Liberal Democrat council leader is also cool on the visit and the local MP Jane Kennedy has told the city it risks "letting itself down".

The only unanswered question is where Ms Rice and Mr Straw may chose to dine. The obvious answer is nationally renowned Northcote Manor. But is there a dress-down equivalent to Jim N'Nicks, the typical southern barbecue joint where Mr Straw was entertained? Sirwan Mustafa, the Iraqi Kurd proprietor of The Khyber curry house, in the Asian Whalley Range district, says he is preparing to serve "something special" during Ms Rice's visit, in case she pops in. "Some people do not want her to come in here but I do," he says. "We like the British and the Americans."

But the Asian Image newspaper suggests the Khyber is overrated and struggles to name an alternative. Such is the paucity of good establishments that the restaurant reviewer has reverted to visiting take-away joints - and this may solve the dining problem for Ms Rice. "He sometimes takes two or three people along with him and that seems fine," said the paper's journalist.