Clearing, and A-level results time, is all about making decisions and choosing your path - and we're here to help you through the process. But are there times in history when people might have benefitted from a bit of guidance? Historian Dr Sean Lang takes a light-hearted look.
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1. Easy money!
History is full of examples of bad investment schemes that looked at first like no-brainers. In seventeenth-century Holland it was tulips; in eighteenth-century England it was the South Sea Company – not only was it trading in slaves but the scheme was a huge scam, which went spectacularly bust. It was the same story with railways in Victorian Britain, on Wall Street in the 1920s and in the dotcom boom of the 1990s: people want easy money, don’t check properly, and it all goes pear-shaped. Time after time.
2. Paying the Danegeld
The English King Ethelred II wasn’t called ‘Unredy’ – ‘ill-advised’ – for nothing: his response to devastating Viking raids on his kingdom was to pay them a large sum of money to go away. It was called Danegeld (Dane-money) but today we would call it a protection racket. It’s not difficult to work out what followed: the Danes came back the following year and Ethelred found the Danegeld rate had gone up. And the next year. And the next. Until they decided to take over the kingdom anyway.
3. Invading Afghanistan
If you want an example of people not learning from history, look no further than invasions of Afghanistan over the past couple of hundred years. It's been invaded four times – twice by the British Empire, once by the Soviet Union and once by a US-led coalition after the 9/11 attacks and every invasion has gone the same way: initial success: the invader takes the capital, Kabul, and puts its man in charge of the country. Then the Afghans start a guerrilla war, gradually making it impossible for the invaders to feel safe, and eventually they pack up and clear out – fast. It happened to the British (their first invasion was entirely wiped out), it happened to the Soviets (and helped bring the Soviet Union down too) and from 2001 to 2022 it happened to the United States and its allies. Do sit up at the back and pay attention – don't invade Afghanistan!
4. The one that got away
Pity the commissioning editors at various London publishing houses in the 1990s who turned down the adventures of a young boy at a school for wizards: JK Rowling was rejected by publisher after publisher until her Harry Potter proposal was taken up by a small independent unit called Bloomsbury, and even they only printed 500 copies – but it was enough to launch a phenomenon. And spare a thought for poor, hungover Mike Smith, an executive at Decca records, who on New Year’s Day 1962 listened to a band audition and turned them down, saying guitar groups were passé. They were The Beatles.
By Dr Sean Lang
Senior Lecturer, BA (Hons) History
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