Local reads: How To Skin A Lion

Claire Cock-Starkey

From Victorian etiquette to cooking up a love potion, Claire Cock-Starkey’s latest novel is a treasury of eclectic, often amusing, antiquated skills and advice. Jenny Shelton talks the the local author about her inspiration

First off, how do you skin a lion?

Very carefully! If you get it wrong the skin will shrink or stretch and your lion skin will no longer resemble a lion: I think we’ve all seen the results of some bad taxidermy in country houses, so clearly it is not an easy skill to learn. However should you want to learn, you can find a rather spiffing (if gruesome) technique in my book.

What was your inspiration for the book?

I am fascinated by the pre-Google world. Today we have an answer for everything at our fingertips. As I was researching my previous book The Georgian Art of Gambling, I noticed references to so many lost modes of dress, etiquette, hobbies and skills. This inspired me to search out some of the skills that were once commonly known or passed down through families and to try and preserve them for future generations.

Do you have a favourite antiquated skill?

I am a big fan of ‘How to get rid of fleas’. The advice was written by an Englishman in India, passing on the methods recounted by locals. He advised covering the floor of your house with straw and setting it on fire, or driving a herd of buffalo through the house in the hope the fleas would jump aboard the passing beasts. I love the fact that – and even the author admits this – although you may end up with a flea-free residence, you may also have either burnt down or trashed your house in the process!


I am a big fan of ‘How to get rid of fleas’... He advised driving a herd of buffalo through the house in the hope the fleas would jump aboard the passing beasts


 Did you try any of them out (presumably not the above)?

I tried out quite a few of the more doable entries for my blog, www.nonfictioness.com. I made mushroom ketchup (the most salty condiment I have ever tried – I ended up binning it!), told my fortune with playing cards, darned socks, attempted to assess people’s characters by their facial moles, made lemon barley water and bandaged an arm. Some were more successful than others but it was great fun trying out some of the skills and I learnt a few things along the way.

What did it tell you about life in the past?

One of the things the book reminds us is how far from self-sufficiency we have come. We are so used to throwing away broken items and buying new ones, popping to the shops for food and looking up information on the Internet, that we no longer appreciate the hard work and skills that used to go into daily life. One entry that I think really encapsulates this is ‘How to survive without a fridge’. Today we expect to be able to open the fridge and grab a cold drink, but just 150 years ago this was impossible. Back then, ice was harvested from glacial lakes in North America, covered in sawdust to prevent it from melting and transported across the ocean to be stored at the wharves in London and Liverpool. From there, huge chunks of ice would be taken by horse and cart to the ice houses and then finally, after an epic journey, servants would chip off an ice cube to cool your drink.

How did you find out about the lost arts?

I spent many hours in the British Library poring through old books. When I started researching, I wrote a list of lost skills I wanted to include such as how to train a falcon, how to get presented at court and how to shoe a horse, then I searched for pre-1940s books on these subjects. Sometimes I would find an especially useful book and it would then lead me in a whole new direction.

Any Cambridge-related advice?

Unfortunately I didn’t find any specifically Cambridge-related, but I suspect that much of the information in the book would be of use to your average Cambridge-dweller of the past.

Where do you write?

I do all my writing at home in my little study in Harston. And for my next project I am researching both at the British Library and Cambridge University Library which has been great, as it is such an iconic building it is a real pleasure to use it. Not only that, but living in such a beautiful historic city is so inspiring.

Are there any skills you would bring back?

Plenty! I think in these days of austerity we need to regain some of our old self-sufficiency and get back to making our own cheese, growing and preserving our own fruit and veg, keeping bees and smoking our own bacon. I found learning how to darn very useful: it may no longer be worth darning a sock (as socks are so cheap to buy) but I darned a hole in a much-loved jumper, giving it a new lease of life!


I think in these days of austerity we need to regain some of our old self-sufficiency and get back to making our own cheese, growing and preserving our own fruit and veg


Are there any you’re glad have disappeared?

I found many of the entries relating to etiquette fairly bonkers. The idea of trying to follow all these rules when making conversation... it must have been so stressful back then. That said, there are some occasions where having social rules can help people to cope with difficult situations. For example, if you read ‘How to mourn like a Victorian’, you can imagine that having a set of social norms for how to act when someone dies can be useful to help navigate a very difficult time.

So what’s next for you?

I’m currently researching and writing my next book, based on life in the pre- Google world. I am thoroughly enjoying immersing myself in some amazing 17th century books, full of fabulous historical titbits! I have been tweeting little snippets of research as I go along, so keep an eye on my Twitter feed @nonfictioness for more.

How to Skin A Lion is available from Heffers or online via Amazon

www.nonfictioness.com