I've adopted a new coffee bar in town as my favourite. It's a comfortable, tranquil place, the baristas are friendly and they make the coffee expertly with knowledge, pride - and beans, dark-roasted, Italian style. But I do have a quibble: although I like cappuccino I am becoming frustrated by its uniform ubiquity. Where can I get a lightly-roasted bean? Whatever happened to cafetieres? Then I saw a scene in a TV documentary which showed, in some distant province of England, a customer ordering coffee in a high street cafe. The proprietor shamelessly dipped a spoon into a catering-size tin of instant granules, mixed them with hot water in a mug and charged him £1 for the beverage. Is this the alternative offer?
I realise that the native culture of England is far from homogenous, although I came to that knowledge relatively late in life. (I attribute this to my upbringing - educated to become a model employee, ensconced in the culture of the armed forces of an empire in steep decline. Ours was not to reason why etc.) Not until I went away to university did I have my first face-to-face encounter with other English tribes, notably northerners (one of whom convincingly demonstrated how startlingly more vituperative curses can sound when uttered with northern vowels - try it yourself, at home).
My point is that broad national unification is a good thing - as long as it allows sufficient cultural diversity to ensure the expression and development of new ideas. The alternative - tribal conflict - is too debilitating to contemplate. The unification of England and, later, the rest of Britain into one polity was a long and bitter process during which coercion and subjugation were the primary means employed. Lately that unity has been tested (by more democratic means) and it would be naive nowadays to think of national boundaries as fixed, immutable or even "natural". Boundary disputes are inevitable: nation states come and go, some more quickly than others. In order for unity to endure, it is necessary not only to have shared interests, such as prosperity and security, but also more permanently binding agents, the first of which is a common language.
A current exhibition at the British Museum, Germany: Memories of a Nation, got me thinking about how comparatively uncomplicated it must have been to create a British nation. The story of Germany is confused by - among other things - the fact that it has so many neighbours and its territorial shifts have been so frequent, whereas Britain's island status has at least ensured a degree of geographical integrity. The art and artefacts comprising the exhibition are, therefore, not necessarily from Germany as defined by today's borders. In seeking to trace the roots of German identity within Europe through 600 years of cultural commonalities, the curator has assembled a necessarily diverse collection of objects. Among these is a copy of the Bible translated by Martin Luther in 1534 into the commonly spoken dialect of the German people, thereby loosening the stranglehold the Church had established on interpretation of the Gospels (one year later Coverdale published the first complete plain English translation). Now, with something comprehensible to read, Gutenberg's invention really came into its own.
I may have been lured into the exhibition by Bauhaus and the Beetle but I came out with a more profound understanding of how it might feel to be German and a strong desire to be more European. I found myself a pub where, over a pint of Suffolk ale made with Austrian hops, I fantasised about my ideal European Union - one where 'national boundaries' are redefined as 'cultural guidelines'; cappuccino is only one of many options on the menu; and the English language is de rigueur.