I recently had the opportunity, while dodging poshies at the Oxford/Cambridge boat race, to talk to a friend who studied science while I was an English student at university. He was one of those who delighted in telling me when we were both 21: "You'll never get a job reading books, you know." I now have a job reading books. My unfortunate friend is still working for a living.
Conversations like that remind me how lucky I am. But I wouldn't have been lucky had it not been for two deeply inspirational English teachers. This is why I want to weep when I read the comments of Dr Mary Bousted, a former English teacher, at last week's annual conference of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. "My subject is no more," she said. "It has been replaced by a newcomer: literacy.
"What is the difference between English and literacy? Quite a lot, as it happens. Because literacy, as a subject, is based on the naming of parts. Children rarely read whole books; they read parts of books."
Gordon Brown has been called the most literate prime minister since Winston Churchill. The Bookstart programme, which he has championed since he was Chancellor, has been credited with helping millions of children to love books. When he appeared at last year's London Book Fair, he talked (with a charm and infectious enthusiasm that he has never managed to bring to his passion for post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory) about the books that inspired him in his childhood. So he should be ashamed that teachers now blame his government for the end of reading as fun.
According to Dr Bousted, what happens in schools now is a long way from inspiring a love of books. "Extracts are mined for adjectives, and adverbs, and active verbs, and nouns," she reported. "Where has the concept of pleasure gone?"
A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families responded that Shakespeare is "prescribed" by the National Curriculum and that literature "from different cultures ... should be studied at Key Stages 2, 3 and 4". Perhaps the spokesman grew up in Blair's Britain, because those are not the words of someone who ever thought reading should be pleasurable.
It is easier for an English teacher to be inspirational than it is for many teachers in schools. There is a reason Robin Williams did not make a film called Dead Mathematicians Society. And the English teachers at my comprehensive were movie-perfect examples. They read me Hardy poems until I cried. They talked to me like grown-ups about literature. They helped me to apply for Cambridge when the headteacher said that I would never get in because I was "deviant". (I got in because I was deviant – duh.) They changed my life.
Mining extracts for adjectives and nouns can be fun too, of course. But only for a person who already loves language and literature. I hope that there are still people in schools like Robin Williams, my English teachers and Dr Bousted. Because not everyone can end up reading books for a living, unfortunately; but everyone should be given the opportunity to love books for life.