How to skin a LION
The young graduates heading out into the world will confront so many perplexing challenges. There’s the first apartment. The first real job. All the questions about dating and budgeting. Where will they turn for advice — their friends? Google?
Why not rely, instead, on the timetested wisdom of the ages?
Those sage insights are now readily available in a little book by Claire Cock-Starkey called “How to Skin a Lion: A Treasury of Outmoded Advice” (Univ. of Chicago Press, $14).
No longer must the young person setting forth on the river of life wonder, “How do I make Stilton cheese?” or “How can I read the future with snails?” All those common questions and more are clearly answered in this handsome compendium of knowledge culled from the archives of the British Library.
Just a few minutes with this book are enough to make one marvel at the keen wisdom of our ancestors. While today millions of people frantically scan dating apps for suitable mates, readers in the late 19th century could depend upon “The Book of Charms and Ceremonies” for instructions “to see your future husband in a dream.” If further clairvoyance is needed, herein is the secret to “reading moles.”
Wondering “how to catch and preserve eels”? You have come to the right place!
Cock-Starkey notes that much of this vital advice is the kind of knowledge that used to be passed from parents to children in less hectic times, but now, with soccer practice and Chinese lessons and Mom on her iPhone, how will Junior learn “how to quiet bees”?
“In the past people had to be a lot more self-sufficient,” Cock-Starkey tells me via e-mail, “and learning some of these practical skills would have been essential to daily life. Today with modern conveniences and instructive YouTube videos at our fingertips, I think parents are now more likely to pass on emotional, rather than practical advice. I know that with my children, I am more concerned with helping them to navigate life socially, than teaching them how to fashion an elephant’s foot into something useful.”
Easy as it is to snicker at much of this arcane advice, her book also suggests how little we do — and can do — for ourselves in the 21st century. “I am fascinated by the skills people used to possess that are now sadly lacking from modern life,” Cock-Starkey says. “This I think is especially brought to mind by the entry about ‘How to survive without a fridge.’ We all take chilled drinks and frozen ice creams for granted, but just 150 years ago, ice was a luxury! Huge chunks of ice were carved from frozen lakes in North America and then transported hundreds of miles across the ocean to Europe to massive warehouses. From here the blocks of ice were taken all over Britain to be stored in stone ice houses, and servants would chip chunks off to serve their employers with an ice cool drink. The mind boggles at this epic journey simply for the joy of a cool drink on a summer’s day.”
If we’re tempted to think we don’t actually need much of this advice anymore, “How to Skin a Lion” reminds us how at bay we are nowadays without accepted rituals. “The Victorians were very big on creating elaborate rules with which to navigate life,” Cock-Starkey says. “Everyone was kept in their place, and people knew how to act ‘appropriately.’ In dark times — such as with death — these rules and rituals can be very useful for people, and perhaps these are the sorts of social rituals that could still be of some comfort.” She goes on to note, though, that “many of the other forms of etiquette were extremely restrictive and only served to preserve the social order.”
For all her work in the archives of the British Library, Cock-Starkey is no Luddite. “Google holds an answer for anything!” she says. “In fact, when I was starting out writing this book, I wanted to make sure no one had used the title ‘How to Skin a Lion,’ so I googled it. Lo and behold, the top search return on Google was an actual YouTube video showing how to skin a mountain lion. In a way I found this so reassuring.”
Claire Cock-Starkey’s book is filled with knowledge that, these days, is more interesting than useful.