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The column: An intoxicating thought

The world may not drink Bobby's mead like Coca-Cola. But it might have, says Howard Jacobson, if things had worked out differently for his great-grandmother
In a hotel bar in California I learn something I never knew about my family.

We could have been drinks magnates.

It's a cousin I haven't seen since the Sixties who tells me this. We are putting away cocktails in an agreeably poncy, pretend-old-world American hotel lounge, exchanging family stories (though we have both been great runners away from families), and letting one association lead to another. I recall how little we were a family of drinkers. He recalls, on the contrary, how drink had nearly made us fabulously wealthy. If only Bobby, my great-grandmother, had sold her recipe.

I've read about dynasties of drinks magnates - how each sibling must take up domicile at least a hundred miles from the others for fear a bomb might go off, or fire suddenly break out, or terrorists attack; how they must always travel separately and on different days so that no matter how many aeroplanes fall out of the air or cruise ships hit an iceberg there will always be at least one member of the family left alive in possession of the secrets of the brew. The Coca-Colas, the Ribenas, the Lucozades - that's how they all live. Joined in a terrible pride, fiercely protective of the recipe which is their fortune, but forever on edge. A family tragically divided by the very thing that unites them.

Worse when there's alcohol involved. So careful must the Chivas-Regals be, they haven't addressed a word to one another in decades. Centuries in the case of the Kentucky Bourbons who don't even know one another's names. That's liquor for you: it ups the ante every time. And the drink that could have made us rich, I discover, had so much alcoholic content, so much fire in its belly, that representatives from the Manchester brewers Boddingtons camped outside my great-grandmother's house in Hightown for a whole year, waiting for a single opportunity to prostrate themselves before her, beg her secret and shower her with cash. But my great-grandmother never left her house. She had chickens in the backyard, God in her heart, and progeny with a key to the scullery door. There was never any reason for her to go out. The one time my great-cousins Alan and Ellis persuaded her to leave the house was when they bought a new van with no seats in it. They parked it in the cobbled dustbin alley behind the house, carried her out tied into my late great-grandfather's favourite chair, roped the chair to the slats in the van's interior, and drove her to the Blackpool illuminations. It was the most uncomfortable journey of her life, sitting sideways with the rope cutting into her flesh, unable to see a thing. Eighty years earlier she'd come over in a horse and trap from Lithuania. Compared to this journey to see the Blackpool illuminations in Alan and Ellis's van, the trek from Eastern Europe had been a picnic.

Mead, that was the drink with which she might have made us rich. Mead such as Milton has Eve fermenting from berries growing wild in the Garden of Eden. Only in my great grandmother's case I believe it must have been more like metheglin - a spicy, healing ferment of hyssop, honey and water. Not that I have any reason to make that assumption. It's just that I don't remember any of my grandparents or great-grandparents ever having a garden or handling fruit. And I associate them more with medicine than abundance.

My cousin in California disagrees with me about this. He recalls my great- grandmother up to her elbows in grapes.

I am grateful to him for the cornucopian image. Suddenly I perceive the Eastern European connection between my Bobby and Anna Karenina. The ice breaks, spring rushes in, bees buzz and the grape juice flows. That may not be seasonally accurate, but you understand what I'm driving at. For the first time I am able to see myself as the child of sensual plenty.

Mead, eh? I'm not sure I really know what mead is, but I am intoxicated by its Teutonic ring. Close your eyes, say "mead", and there are the silver Rhinemaidens in their tight-laced bodices spilling fuming tankards into the leather-chapped laps of the warriors of Odin. Hardly more mythologically on song, I grant you, than my grasp of the coming of spring in St Petersburg, but again you'll know what I'm driving at. If your great-grandmother fermented a mead for the secret of which every brewer in the country was prepared to pay handsomely, you can no longer go on thinking of yourself as the scion of abstemious stock. Hallelujah! I am the fruit of pisspots!

My cousin calms me down. Pisspots we were not. Not even your average hedonists. But he knew the Lithuanian side of the family far better than I ever did, and he humanizes it for me. My great-aunties, for example, any number of whom seemed to inhabit my great-grandmother's little house in 1949, more and more of them materializing I didn't know from where whenever I was taken on a formal visit to the place, each descending on me out of the distempered darkness with a furry kiss and a mouldy penny, pinching both my cheeks (knitsch! knitsch!), bewildering me not just with their number but with their extraordinary resemblance to one another - these same great-aunties my cousin remembers as spinsterly hoydens, falling in love with Hightown shlemiels, climbing on to the backs of little old men's motorbikes when they themselves were in their 50s, getting into belated scrapes almost like the aunties of boys whose great-grandmothers hadn't hobbled over from the Baltic States a century before. So if not hedonists, hoydenists at least.

But why didn't Bobby sell her secret brew? My cousin has no idea. The more interesting question for him is where the recipe might be now. If we could find it would it still make us wealthy? Fabulously wealthy? Already we are starting to be watchful of each other, the curse of Coca-Cola come upon us.