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The wonders of London

Before I ever laid eyes on London I laid ears on it, learning its streets, train stations and neighborhoods from song lyrics, as if all were diagramed on the A-to-Z Map of London that every newcomer to the city required. Or so I gathered from "Strange Town," by The Jam, which went: "I bought an A-to-Zed guidebook, trying to find the clubs and YMCAs ..."

On my first trip to London 20 years ago, I took the train in from the airport -- a new A-to-Z map in hand -- and found myself riding the Gatwick Express through my record collection, calling at Clapham Junction, which I knew as a Squeeze lyric ("I never thought it would happen with me and the girl from Clapham"), across Elvis Costello's Thames ("with the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne") and into Victoria Station (The Who: "Ask along that man who's wearing a carnation/Bring every single person from Victoria Station." ) And then I transferred to Waterloo, whose sunset so beguiled The Kinks.

But even more than a music town, London was -- from my strange perspective, at least -- a sports town, long before it dreamt of hosting the 2012 Olympics. I'd become transfixed as a young sportswriter by televised soccer, its games, postgame shows and panel discussions hosted by "the huge but semi-retired or injured or (more likely) suspended footballers who occasionally deigned to contribute to the analyses on TV," as Martin Amis puts it in his new novel, Lionel Asbo. "A squarely powerful, low-slung, much-punished body ... swathed in a suit of truly presidential costliness."

On one of my first visits to London, I bought a very large book called The Football Grounds of Great Britain, by Simon Inglis, and set about -- on foot and Tube and commuter train -- visiting the ancient soccer stadia of metropolitan London. They made Fenway Park and Wrigley Field look downright newfangled. Chelsea's Stamford Bridge carbon-dated to 1877. But then a man could walk for days in London and not X out all the soccer grounds on his A-to-Zed map. There were just too many, and too many teams: Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham, Fulham, Queens Park Rangers, Leyton Orient -- all these exotic names, like stickers on a steamer trunk, were mesmerizing: Crystal Palace, Charlton Athletic, Brentford, Millwall, Gillingham, Wimbledon ...

On another trip, I took the train to Wimbledon for the tennis -- the District Line to Southfields station on the London Underground, which also passes Overground. Gazing out from the elevated tracks, you're level with the rooftops and can't help but think of Mary Poppins alighting -- umbrella deployed as a parachute -- at No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane, where Dick Van Dyke came calling in his wonderfully terrible Mockney accent: "Ello, Guv'nuh". Nobody ever said that to me, but it didn't matter: London had me at 'ello.

There's something about that aerial view of London -- that Poppins-eye view, that London Eye view -- that fires the imagination. NBC will go to it over and over in the next two weeks, London from above, the river liked a wet shoelace dropped across a map.

In Londoners, an oral history of modern-day London, author Craig Taylor quotes a commercial airline pilot on that view from above: "When you do a departure along the northerly from Gatwick, you get a real sense of humanity. As you climb out over the city, you can see masses of people down there, all the buildings and all the built-up area are lit up. And at nighttime you've got the M25, which circles London, and you can see all these little beady lights that are dotted around in a very windy circle and you realize that it's six o'clock and all those little beady lights are actual cars, and they're all queuing around the M25. Day by day they're down there and you just think of the effort, all the effort, just to get by. It's a tough city. All those little dots, those beads of light, like a rosary, all those people, wanting to get in, wanting to get out."

It has never been more crowded than it will be these Olympics, seldom more abuzz, every one of those little dots, those rosary beads, represents a human soul striving, scheming, dreaming, despairing, giving up, moving up, moving out.

Arriving in teeming London always calls to mind Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities: "A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it ..."

Flying into London beats the hell out of flying out. In Rome, the tourist throws coins into Trevi fountain to guarantee his return. London requires something more. In London, in a pub near Charing Cross tube station, I once left a tooth, or part of one: It was sheared off when I bit into a hard object in a handful of peanuts that I'd bought by inserting a coin into a machine that was screwed to the wall.

The next morning, with a hangover and toothache, I flew out of London, over those places that I'd seen in my mind's eye -- that I'd heard in my mind's ear -- before ever setting foot in or on or near them: Wardour Street from "A-Bomb in Wardour Street" (The Jam), the Chinese restaurant Lee Ho Fook (from Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London"), all those neighborhoods on the endless A-to-Zed map -- Soho ("Rainy Night in Soho," The Pogues), Brixton ("Guns of Brixton," The Clash), Camden Town (Pulp: "Got the tickets from some f----- up bloke in Camden Town"). And on and on.

The best song about London is "London," by The Smiths, and I'm thinking about it now, marooned in the United States, while the Olympics get going over there. It's about a young man moving to the capital, loved ones waving goodbye from the train station platform, and the line that will echo for the next two weeks is the one about "the jealousy In the eyes/Of the ones who had to stay behind."

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