No matter how corny they are, rock and roll redemption movies make me tearful. Last night I sniffled through the 2016 Irish movie Sing Street, about a boy who finds his way out of early 1980s brutal Dublin reality and into a wannabe model's heart through the power of perfectly xeroxed twitchy clever-clever pop-rock. U who?
I would be curious to know what my Irish friends who lived through that time in the city would make of the movie. But I thought the actual stuff of it, from the sheer joy that teenage boys get from discovering they can make songs together to finding common ground with a scabby skinhead, rang kind of true. So many lives were, as Lou Reed had it, 'saved by rock and roll'. (Will EDMers be able to say the same 20 years from now?)
The movie looked about right too, apart from a shot of Connor, the hero, wearing a pair of bootcut flares in what I guess was meant to be 1985. And, now I think of it, his older brother wore those horrible acid or snow-washed jeans that appeared like a plague some time in the early 21st century. I can live with these minor anachronisms but I really can't accept one thing about the movie.
Skinhead boy's inarticulate defiance manifests itself in giving the finger to whoever's tormenting him. But back in the early 80s we only ever stuck two fingers up to authority. Oddly enough, the first time I clapped eyes on this appalling period faux-pas was in another skinhead movie, Shane Meadows's 2006 This Is England.
Two fingers good
I was always told that sticking up two fingers comes from English and Welsh longbowmen taunting the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. It was the practice of the French to cut off a captured archer's index and middle fingers so they couldn't use their longbows. Flicking Vs was a way of defying the enemy. The only problem is there's no evidence to suggest this actually happened.
Whatever its provenance, sticking up two fingers was definitely the insult of choice for those of us who inhabited the battleground that was the 1960s British school playground. There's something about snapping up one's hand from the wrist and flicking a V that's deeply satisfying. Believe me, I just tried it.
Oddly enough, the Great Beast Aleistair Crowley claimed to have invented the V for Victory sign as a magical counter to the Nazi swastika. According to him, he passed the V to friends in British intelligence in 1942 (he was a spy for MI5) and it was taken up by Churchill.
Giving someone the finger simply means 'F*ck you'. (Have you ever noticed that all American insults involve 'f*ck'? They're not a patch on, say, the Australians. Having said this, my favourite insult of all time comes from the great American rock and roll writer Lester Bangs who, in his mind at least, told some bland twerp like Eric Clapton to go 'eat a bowl of f*ck'. Isn't that great?)
Apparently, although it spread to the UK as a result of our slavish aping of all things American, giving the finger or flipping the bird is actually far older than flicking a V. It dates back to Ancient Greece and originally represented the phallus. 'F*ck you, Appolonia!'
Devil signs and the evil eye
Digressing somewhat, did you know that the heavy metal devil horns sign popularised by the mighty, if diminutive Ronnie James Dio originated in Sicily, where it was used to ward off the evil eye?
According to scholars, belief in the evil eye spread north from desert regions of Africa and it related to the idea of vital human liquids drying up. Eyes contain liquid, of course, as do testicles. Traditionally, Sicilian men placed what became the devil sign over their meat and two veg when a woman believed to have the evil eye looked at them.
As it migrated even further north, the sign for protection against the evil eye became the upside down horsehoe. So there you go.
But back to flicking Vs versus giving the finger. I guess it's simply that for a movie to make any money it has to make sense to Americans. Sticking up two fingers is, outside the UK, only understood as a heinous insult in former commonwealth countries to which Brits emigrated. Which reminds me.
From 1978 to 79 I was an exchange student in Michigan. Back then, Yanks had no idea what the word 'wank' meant. A fellow exchange student from New Zealand was sent to a tiny town somewhere deep in Flyoverland. Having played rugby all his life, probably barefoot, he was a natural for American football. His high school liked to put players' nicknames on the back of their football shirts. When my friend was asked what his was, he said 'Wank'.
'So I'm racing down the field, on my way to a touchdown, Dave,' he said. 'When I hear the cheerleaders chanting "Go Wank! Go Wank!". I was laughing so much I had to stop running and got flattened by some 10-foot tall farm boy. That was the end of my football career.'
Now, of course, wanking has made serious inroads into American popular culture.