In search of the perfect fruit pastille

Government continues to insist on frittering away public money on research projects whose worth is in severe doubt

Good news for some, shipmates. The supply of pregnant Wrens is drying up. There have been no sightings these six months past, and the Courts of Justice in the Strand, where whole flotillas of laden vessels were wont to berth before disembarking filled to the gunwales with booty, have become much calmer now.

You might think the Government would be pleased. One less drain on the taxpayer’s purse is surely a cause for rejoicing. But not a bit of it. The pound raised in taxation is not as other money. Since it was not earned but merely collected as one might pick up leaves in autumn, it is devalued immediately upon receipt.

It follows that it can be lightly disbursed with a heigh and a ho and a heigh-nonny-no.

I suppose it was with just such a sprightliness of step that the Department of Trade & Industry showered 750,000 upon Rowntree’s research centre in York to finance the confectioner’s investigation into why its fruit pastilles are so tasty.

Speaking for myself, I do not find the product particularly enticing, nor am I able to detect any similarity of flavour between the pastilles and the fruits that they are supposed to resemble.

Plainly, however, I am in a minority. The sweets are the best-selling of their kind in Britain (is there much competition?) and have been made for 150 years from a traditional recipe.

That said, one would have thought the subject exhausted. But Nestlé, which owns Rowntree, having got its hands on money raised from the pastille-sucking masses by legalised extortion, is determined to probe further.

With the help of the department of applied biology at the University of York, the company will seek to discover how the pastille achieves its unique texture. Dr Steve Whitehouse, senior scientist at Nestlé, says: “We are not looking to change the fruit pastille but any product is always under review with the aim of improving it.”

You can see why he is a fruit pastille scientist and not a professor of linguistics or logic, since he plainly believes that improvement is not change. He is in good company. Dr Rukmal Abeysekera, a member of the university team charged with the task of anatomising the pastille, says: “The basic science has to be researched and understood, so that the sweet can continue to be produced.”

One would have thought that with 150 years of successful production in the bag, the need for research was less than compelling. And can he really mean that without his analysis the continued supply of fruit pastilles is imperilled?

None of this nonsense would matter a jot if it were not for the use of taxpayer’s money. Nestlé is entitled to conduct any research it wants, providing it pays for it from its own pocket. It might, for example, care to investigate the blue Smartie or the coffee-flavoured Matchmaker. It can, for all I care, dissect its own existence – but not with my money.

In his book Parliament of Whores, A Lone Humourist Attempts to Explain the Entire US Government, PJ O’Rourke argues that every time the government spends money on anything you have to ask yourself: “Would I be prepared to kill my kindly, grey-haired mother for this?”

In the case of defence spending, the argument is simple. “Come on, Ma, everybody’s in this together. If those Canadian hordes come down over the border, we’ll all be dead meat. Pony up.”

In the case of helping cripples, orphans and blind people, the argument is almost as persuasive. “Mother, I know you don’t know these people from Adam, but we’ve got 5,000 years of Judeo-Christian-Muslim-Buddhist-Hindu-Confucian-animist-jungle-God morality going here. Fork over the dough.”

But day care doesn’t seem quite so pressing: “You’re paying for the next-door neighbour’s baby-sitter, or it’s curtains for you, Mom.”

Maybe try instead: “Nestlé wants to know why Rowntree’s pastilles are so tangy and scrumptious. Cough up your pension, Mother.”

How many millions of public money are wasted on research every year we shall never know. But it would make a lottery jackpot look like small change. Where do you suppose the University of East London found the loot to finance its investigation into the behavioural characteristics of the orchestra? The chances are you need look no further than the nearest mirror.

Richard Kwiatkowski, the university’s senior lecturer in occupational psychology, was pleased to declare that the study “confirmed a stereotypical image which had developed about different types of musician”. Well, that’s money well spent.

According to the research, brass instruments are played by beer-swilling extroverts, while the string players are introverted and serious. Told of these findings, a spokesman for the Musicians Union said: “It is an age-old myth that brass players like a drink, string players are fuddy-duddy and everyone hates the conductor. We could have told them that without all the research.”

But where would be the fun in that? How would Dr Rukmal Abeyseker fill each empty day at the University of York should someone tap him on the shoulder and gently whisper: “The fruit pastilles are fine just the way they are”?

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