Look, stop trying to help people.

You don't just walk on by when you see a child getting its hair pulled out by an orangutan escaped from the zoo. In such a case you must interfere, no ifs, ands or buts.

But when I warn against helping people, I mean in your own trade or your own milieu. On several occasions I have broken my back, once working till 3 in the morning, to help out some editor or other who wanted a story instantly because something they had counted on fell through.

Once I got a note saying thanks. But if they get something, they assume it can't possibly be any good. It's only when they don't get it that they start thinking how wonderful it would have been.

Now when I was young there was nobody in 15 counties round that was such a little old helper. I recall a time at another newspaper when the two music critics fell ill from too much caviar and champagne, evidently, and a young reporter interested in music was sent to review a symphony orchestra in their stead.

"God, I don't have the knack, you know," he said. "I can judge the music but I don't know how you sound like a critic."

To the rescue in a flash, I gave him a 15-minute course, which is all any critic needs, and I could tell he caught on, as he spoke strangely the rest of the day. But then he asked me to sort of bat out a review of a symphony on the typewriter so he could see something on paper.


"This reading of the fourth was notable chiefly for the clarity of the brass, always difficult to achieve in a scherzo, especially in the tuba motif. It should never suggest the Salvation Armpah. Equally restrained and accurate was the line of the second violins, a pleasure throughout the work, neither obtrusive nor muted -- not lost in the general lushness of sound. The Pomponia Divertimento, far less ambitious of course, had a swirling country freshness, albeit the bassoons were unduly timid. Turning to the Mozart, one must object to the failure of the legato, which in Mozart does not mean a dreamy mindlessness like a cat purring over eggnog, but an all-encompassing serenity into which no sudden assaults may intrude. Here the musical director seemed almost to be thinking of Smetana rather than Mozart, and yet blah blah blah."

Mike got the idea perfectly and said he spent intermission getting somebody to identify the various instruments for him -- oboes and English horns and all those vague things that don't look at all like a bass viol.

Next morning his review read well, I thought. He noted the "reading," which in those days was much smarter than "playing," though it has probably gone out of favor now. His comments made sense until I read with horror that "the bassoons were unduly timid."

Imagine my despair. Here these bassoonists, highly professional, were being roughly criticized by a fellow who barely knew the difference between a viola d'amore and an organ grinder's monkey.

"Great grief, Mike," I cried, "I gave you the sample just to show how you want the review to flow right along. I didn't mean copy the line about the bassoons. There probably weren't any bassoons in that particular piece."

"Oh, yeah, there were two bassoons and they were unduly timid," he said.

Well, I felt very bad about it. A few days later Mike got a letter from the conductor, welcoming Mike to the circle of music reviewers, and adding that he especially appreciated the observation on the bassoons' being timid. Exactly what he thought. Told the bassoonists so himself.

Maybe they were timid. But my own fear was that once a reviewer said they were timid, the conductor got to rumbling about in his head and concluded they were. Conductors can be quite hypnotized sometimes by the comments of outsiders.

So I stopped helping out newcomers to the newspaper trade. Oh, once I did suggest to a cub (a word quite useful for infuriating new reporters) that perhaps the tirade of the archbishop was more important (and thus should be higher up in the story) than the fact that orange juice was served in the lobby instead of the rose garden.

But by and large I decline to give advice.

It is not wanted, even when needed. It is not appreciated, even when tactfully given. It is not rewarded, even when most valuable. Listen, we live in a cold world, in which our good works are barely tolerated and never applauded. Sometimes the young -- in an age of collapsing standards and the republic gone to the dogs -- actually think their way is better. Good grief. Good almighty grief.