At the climax of Kenneth Waterhouse's 1959 novel Billy Liar, the eponymous West Yorkshire lad has the chance to finally escape his humdrum, unexciting life as an undertaker's clerk in a small town called Stradhoughton by boarding the train to London and seeking fame and fortune there.
He is a fantasist, daydreaming about being the ruler of his own kingdom, and expects to make it as a famous comedy writer when he arrives in the capital. However, Billy hesitates, too afraid to take the risk, to leap into the unknown by leaving his familiar little world.
It may well have been the prospect of a long train journey without any music or a book to read that put him off. If our Billy was around for the maiden voyage of the proposed Y-shaped route of the High Speed 2 rail link, he'd be able to travel from Leeds to London at 200mph, arriving in the capital in under an hour and a half.
The very idea of travelling through the backbone of the country and into London in roughly the same amount of time it currently takes to journey between Waterloo and the south coast is awe-inspiring: trains gliding at speed through the green plains and between age-old towns, not only bringing investment and economic opportunity to long-forgotten parts of Britain, but above all broadening the horizons of millions, connecting people from provincial villages and suburbs to the capital city and the gateways to the rest of the world.
Until the end of July, the British people have the chance to speak up and respond to the Department of Transport's public consultation on High Speed 2. And the proposals have met fierce opposition.
Critics cry havoc over the threat to the natural beauty of the countryside, particularly in the southern counties between London and Birmingham, where they argue the new lines will scythe through scenic spots, bringing eighteen trains an hour speeding through the Chilterns, Buckinghamshire and Warwickshire.
A recent YouGov poll also highlighted public concerns over the expenditure of tens of millions of pounds on the scheme at a time when the government is attempting to relentlessly cut spending.
The debate has even on occasion threatened to boil over into all-out class war. Last month, advocates for High Speed 2 launched a poster campaign figuring a pin-striped, bowler-hat wearing gentleman looking outside his country estate, along with the words: "Their lawns or our jobs".
This is of course divisive language; but then the divide already exists. A week before the deadline for the public consultation, the Office for National Statistics will publish the 43rd edition of its annual report 'Regional Trends', which measures the differences in standards of living across Britain. Last year's report suggested people in the north east of England had an average household income of £400 a week, compared with Londoners who enjoyed an average net income of £620 per week. Across the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire, life expectancy was also shown to be lower, with higher mortality rates from cancer, respiratory and circulatory diseases.
There is a cultural divide between north and south which is not only about earnings or educational attainment or standards of personal health, but about how individuals view themselves and their place in the world.
A few fast trains between Leeds and London every day would not dramatically change all this, of course. A one-way ticket on a high-speed train would doubtless be expensive, and shortening the journey to the capital by an hour is hardly much. But it will give more people a shot at a wealthier, happier, healthier life. High Speed 2 will bring investment to the regions outside of London, pouring millions into the cities across the north and creating much-needed jobs. It will give Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, and other cities, the chance to become European and international centres in different fields of industry and arts by connecting them directly to the continent and the wider world.
When the BBC declared it was moving some of its most important programming to Manchester, a rump of its London-based staff refused to even countenance the idea of relocating to the northern badlands. It's wrong to call this attitude "old-fashioned": Manchester was one of the homes of the Industrial Revolution; people headed there to make their fortune. It's simply stupid, born of a modern British mentality that sees only limits and not opportunities.
One of the more priceless quotes in response to the pro-HS2 posters came from Jerry Marshall, chairman of AGHAST - the anti-high speed campaigning group whose name you can almost hear drawled painfully with a Home Counties long vowel. "I am looking at my lawn, it is only about 30ft long and it is hardly very posh. The truth is, it is more about ancient woodlands than lawns."
One man's lawn is another's ancient woodland; either way, these are English gardens whose fruits are unlikely ever to be tasted back up north unless we become a better-connected country with great cities that are economic, industrial and political hubs - not merely once-great settlements with a couple of smart shopping precincts, art galleries nobody visits, and a branch of KPMG.
Any move which endeavours to bring prosperity to the north of England has to be supported across the south. The huge north-south deficit which sees southerners and wealthy Londoners pay a disproportionate amount in taxation for the development projects and benefits in the north can at last be confronted head-on. The campaigners opposed to high-speed rail in the south might well end up with far more money to help them tend to their ancient woodlands too.
High-speed rail is an issue which demands thought about the future, not only the present. The greatest stakeholders in the future are those currently losing out most: figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency published last week show that youngsters from London and the south-east are far more likely to gain places at the country's foremost universities than pupils from the north, with three times as many places at Oxbridge going to southern-based students.
There is a cultural divide between north and south which is not only about earnings or educational attainment or standards of personal health, but about how individuals view themselves and their place in the world. By connecting the north to the rest of the world, we will bring not only jobs and investment to northern regions, but also a sense of purpose and an international place to northern cities, and with that a newfound self-confidence and ambition.
Who knows what might have been had Billy boarded that train to London all those years ago?