AUSTIN, TEXAS 2018
I can’t remember her name.
We’re standing in the Texas Capitol, at one end of the Senate Chamber. Tourists scatter around the dark green plush carpet and the brown wood and leather chairs as we stand next to a large, oak panelled window. Outside, the day is dazzling bright and the sky a radiant blue – the vivid weather is almost overwhelming to a Briton used to grey skies and rain. The heat gleams off the glass where the sun shines through the window, but the grand chamber is cool.
And here, in the political centre of the lone-star state on this beautiful morning in late May, I’m in conversation with a Texan tour-guide about the most improbable of subjects: Tony Blair.
She’s telling me what a lovely man he is. Such a powerful speaker. What a great leader he was – in Britain and in the world. The great things that he did for people in Africa, where she has family. How he stood up for Christians like her and how he himself was a good Christian. She tells me that she had seen him speak once and recounts the excitement she felt when she glimpsed him in the flesh.
I listen intently, with that nervous half-smile of someone who is lost for words – not knowing what to say or do other than to stand straight, be polite and listen. But it’s hard to stand straight when someone is a foot shorter than you; so I stoop, still listening, still smiling.
My two friends flank me on either side. God knows what they are thinking.
I had tried to mention, earlier in the conversation – which was becoming pretty one sided – that I had met Gordon Brown. But this was her story, and she batted my anecdote away. After all, she could do one better than having met Brown: she had met Blair himself.
After he had finished his speech he had come down from the podium and greeted what was, by the sounds of it, a small crowd. It must have been, so far as I can surmise, when he was still the prime minister. He was visiting West Africa, where our loquacious Texan was working or visiting family. She tells us how she saw him move towards her in the crowd as he spoke and shook hands with others. Her voice gets louder, her vowels more powerful, her eyes glow and her hands dart around like Tony’s as she tells us that, then, he came and greeted her.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked her.
‘J.—-,’ she responded.
‘That means “—-,” doesn’t it?’
‘Well that is a beautiful name,’ he chimed, looking into her eyes (or so she tells us.) He engaged in a few more pleasantries with the Texan before he moved off to greet others.
‘Why did this mean so much to her?’ I wonder, but don’t ask her why.
It’s only after this passionate, and lengthy, tale that we move on to the other, more banal and usual topics of small talk. ‘Where in Britain are you from?’ ‘ Do you study here?’ ‘Where are you going next?’
My friends get involved with this chapter of the exchange. But it lasts for less time than the previous chapter, and the fire behind her eyes fades the further we move from her story.
The Texan offers to show us around the lower legislative chamber, the Texas House of Representatives. But we have already been there.
We make some more pleasantries before the three of us say goodbye and exit the Senate Chamber. As we pass under the rotunda and emerge out of the pinkish marble of the Capitol Building, my friend makes a pointed remark.
‘I didn’t think I’d ever meet anyone who loved Tony Blair more than Roshan.’
Clearly my friend – and roommate for almost 6 months – didn’t easily forget my comparing him favourably to the then hard-left Labour leader.
‘Yeah, Roshan,’ the other chimed. ‘Now you know what it’s like to talk to you about politics.’
‘Lesson learned,’ I say, as we make our way out of the grounds of the Texas Capitol Building.
We would return there after dusk the following evening, brandishing a large toilet plunger between the three of us. But that’s a different story entirely.