It Never Rains: Innocent Times, Beautiful Song, Beautiful Performance

Me, in Wuthering Heights mode, with the lovely Andy 

The other week, I was driving along with BBC R2 playing in the background. My husband is addicted to the Popmaster Quiz, although he seldom gets more than three points. Neither do I, unless it's something from the late sixties or seventies. I don't often have Radio 2 on in the car but suddenly, Ken Bruce played this song, and I was transported back to my very early twenties, just finished university, with - theoretically anyway - the world at my feet. Anything seemed possible.

It was a very happy time. I was about to go off to work in Finland for a couple of years and this song, although in reality it's a rueful song about broken dreams, took me right back to that time and that feeling, as some songs do. Especially Albert Hammond's songs.

I suspect this video is from Top of the Pops or something like it. Look at the dancing girls, slightly shy, slightly awkward, aware of the cameras. These were more innocent times, but also dangerous times, mostly because of that very innocence. You can't watch this genuinely lovely performance without remembering that the programme - and the company - had also played host to one of the worst sexual predators the world has seen: Jimmy Saville of evil memory. 

Nevertheless, there's something happy about this unfussy performance, from the clever lyrics to the gentle way the singer engages with the youthful audience that makes you recall the best of that time. 

Watching it, I looked at the young girls dancing and thought back to myself at that age. The pressures on young women to conform to some hyper-sexualised image were there, but they were certainly fewer. Look at their not-terribly-glamorous clothes, look at the make-up or lack of it, look at their hair. We loved clothes and shopping and make-up just as much as girls do now, although most of us couldn't afford to spend too much on them. I remember wearing a long regency style Marks and Spencer's nightdress to a party, a party at which an older woman observed disapprovingly that some young women were wearing nightdresses at parties ...

 I was, however, lucky enough to have a mum who was a talented seamstress - her sisters had worked in tailoring - and she made me fashionable clothes from Vogue Paris Original patterns: a midi dress, a Jean Muir dress, a Doctor Zhivago coat in black wool, with fur around neck and cuffs. But nobody was posting endlessly doctored selfies online, few young women thought they needed plastic surgery to conform to some impossible standard of femininity, and magazines weren't posting pictures of female celebrities and slagging them off for looking anything but perfect. If we were bullied (as I was, mercilessly, in my early teens, moving to Scotland from England) we could at least escape once school was over, retreating into our own little bubble, with music for company. 

I've always had a soft spot for Hammond who is - incredibly - 78 now. Born in Gibraltar, a British national, he is one of our greatest singer songwriters and so often, when you love a song, you'll discover that he wrote it. Songs like Nothing's Gonna Stop Us, and 99 Miles From LA and Moonlight Lady. He's not always as appreciated as he should be, but then prophets have no honour in their own lands and all that. 

Nevertheless, thanks for playing It Never Rains, Ken. I could (and quite often do) listen to it over and over again. 

Oh Duolingo! What Have You Done?


Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

I can't remember exactly when I started learning Spanish on Duolingo but back in May of this year, I had been doing it for more than 1000 days (or a 'streak' in Duolingo's terms). I loved it and told a lot of people about it. I was usually on the site for between two and three hours a week. 

I allowed my streak to lapse when we spent a week in Barcelona, and sitting on the hotel balcony with a glass of wine, watching and listening to the world go by, in between visiting some of the city's wonderful architecture and restaurants, outranked the need to keep up or compete. Besides, I was practising my Spanish every day, albeit with limited success. And being intrigued by Catalan too. Making that leap from exercises on a screen, not just to speaking, but to understanding what native speakers are saying, is always a hurdle for language learners. Still, I managed a fair bit, including asking for and understanding simple directions, buying things in shops, ordering in restaurants and so on. When we came back, I took up where I had left off, albeit with a much reduced 'streak' - but with a reinforced enthusiasm for the language and for the app too.

I hadn't ever subscribed, so I was bombarded with adverts, but some of them proved to be quite useful - and developers have to be paid. Since you can do more than one language simultaneously, I had taken the opportunity to refresh my much more competent French. Duolingo used to have blocks of stories, and as you progressed, there would be exercises associated with them, so that you could do some writing of your own. The fact that I found this much easier to do in French than in Spanish was an indication of where I was 'at' in both languages. And the sad thing is that I had begun - via much repetition and practice - to be able to write paragraphs in Spanish as well. I was about to sign up to the paid version.

Then, suddenly and without warning, Duolingo changed the entire structure of the app, the entire way in which you learn. 

There used to be a learning 'tree' through which you could progress but also go back to repeat certain parts till they were drummed into your head. I've taught English as a foreign language and the only way you know you're becoming reasonably fluent is when the right phrase or sentence pops straight into your mind. Now, the Duolingo site is a long tail of pretty anonymous exercises, and for those who have been using the site for a long time, when confronted with it, you have no idea where you are. To be scrupulously fair, there are 'guidebook' sections that are useful. But only when you can tie them in to where you were and where you are now. Initially, the stories (which I loved) seemed to have disappeared altogether, but now I find that they're scattered along this never-ending tail so you can't access the more advanced and more entertaining ones. It may be for years and it may be forever, as the song goes. Not for me. 

The app was very much 'gamified' - no bad thing in language learning, since it keeps you engaged - but now the points (aka rewards) system has been pruned to within an inch of its life. Making mistakes is penalised by directing users towards in-game purchases. The paid version is probably better in this respect, but I'm told that the penalties are still harsh.

I hate it.

I've tried. But every time I go back to it, determined to try an exercise, I get so bored by it that I can't finish even one. It sends me to sleep. And all for five points. Who would? 

For a while, although the PC version had changed, I had the old app on my phone, but then that changed to the hideous new version too. So far, the CEO is holding firm. But complaints are legion. 

I've thought about this a lot over the past couple of weeks, because losing Duolingo has been like losing a friendship and I've wondered why so many users like me are so incandescent. I had huge affection for the app and its cast of characters. Especially Eddy. I'd invested a huge amount of time and energy. Now, it's gone. 

Nobody likes change. I've thought about the unwelcome changes that have been imposed on users over the years by, for example, Facebook. No doubt they too lost people. And presumably, that's what the CEO of Duolingo was and still is thinking. 'They'll get used to it.' 

But these changes on social media sites stopped short of the catastrophic destruction of the central premise. So we got used to them. By contrast, Duolingo seems to have taken the decision to destroy a palace and complacently erect an expensive hovel. It no longer allows us to do what we want to do. For a great many users, it is no longer fit for purpose. (It remains to be seen whether Twitter will weather its own storm, but I'm having doubts there too, and for much the same reasons.) 

If I had paid for Duolingo, I'd be demanding a refund.  I haven't deleted it yet, because I'm holding out a faint hope that sense may prevail, but I'm not holding my breath either. Meanwhile, I've signed up to Babbel. Plenty of other language learning apps are available. Good luck in finding one that suits you.