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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The title of a new book by British comedy writers John Lloyd and John Michinson is paradoxical. "The Book of the Dead" actually celebrates the lives of famous, unknown and sometimes strange people who have gone before.

John Lloyd and John Michinson join us from the mortuary - I mean, the studios of the BBC in Oxford, England. Welcome back to the program, both of you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHN MICHINSON (Co-Author, "The Book of the Dead: Lives of the Justly Famous and the Undeservedly Obscure"): Hello, Liane.

Mr. JOHN LLOYD (Co-Author, "The Book of the Dead: Lives of the Justly Famous and the Undeservedly Obscure"): Hi, Liane.

HANSEN: All right, we're going to have to distinguish between the two Johns. So let me start with you, John M. Three score and eight, thats 68, dead but extraordinary human beings are included, not in alphabetical order or chronological order. How did you decide whose corpse would be unearthed?

Mr. MICHINSON: We started with near on a thousand lives. And then what we started to do was to try and see the connections between people's lives. And we started to find that there was extraordinary clumpings that happened, and it was those clumpings that gave us the 10 chapters in the book. And thats why we came out with a rather odd quantity of 68 lives, winnowed down from the 90 billion that we started potentially with.

HANSEN: John Lloyd, the first chapter in the book is called "There's Nothing Like a Bad Start in Life." Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron, how could that be a bad start?

Mr. LLOYD: Well, she had an absolutely ghastly childhood because her mother basically didnt get on with Byron at all. And she only actually met Byron once in her whole life because she was banned from the household. And the reason that it was a good start for her, though, was that her mother so detested Byron for what he'd done to her that she refused to allow her daughter, Ada, to read any poetry or go anywhere near literature of any sort. And so, instead, brought her up to be a mathematician and a physicist.

And the reason that thats an extraordinary bit of luck is cause it's very rare in the 19th century for women to be allowed to do those kind of things. And she became incredibly popular around Victorian London, especially with scientists, obviously. And one of the people she made friends with was Charles Babbage, who is famous, of course, for inventing the very first computer, which is called the Difference Engine.

But Babbage never raised the money in his lifetime to actually build this thing. And it wasnt actually until, I think, the early years of this millennium that it was built by the - was it the British Museum, John? I cant remember.

Mr. MICHINSON: Yeah.

Mr. LLOYD: British Museum built it finally and it worked perfectly. What Ada did though was she got friendly with Babbage and she wrote the very first computer program, which really is an extraordinary thing, when you consider this is in the first half of the 19th century. And if you look on Microsoft stickers, on their logo - their hologram - is a little picture of Ada Lovelace. And in fact, the U.S. Defense Department even called their software language Ada, in her honor.

HANSEN: I want to go to a much maligned aristocrat, John Lloyd. Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, who you point out was not Russian, was named Sophie and hated being referred to as The Great, and apparently explain the means of her death were also greatly exaggerated.

Mr. LLOYD: Well, it wasnt anything to do with horses, if thats what you're thinking, Liane.

HANSEN: Well, thats the rumored is that, you know...

Mr. LLOYD: Well, we'll leave there. John is really the expert on the Russian characters in this. So Ill let him take up the story.

Mr. MICHINSON: Yeah, I mean she died at her toilette, I think is the polite way. And in fact she died in bed but she collapsed at her toilette and was carried to her bed and died peacefully. But the interesting thing is why the rumors; it was about her sexual proclivities in particular. It seemed to be the done thing.

Marie Antoinette suffered from the same problem, is if you were a high profile successful female royal, the rumors were spread to blacken your reputation. And that fact that most of the rumors about her sexual practices came from her own son, who was a rather nasty piece of work, who tried to blacken her reputation after she died.

The tragedy in a way is that she was a great, great ruler. I mean, she was enlightened. She completely transformed the city of St. Petersburg, built lots of buildings. But also, she created a whole new set of laws based on Enlightenment principles. They were called (unintelligible) and they were an inspiration for the American Constitution.

But she had a healthy appetite and did indeed have a string of lovers. And she basically liked young men for recreation but also for conversation. She was an intellectual as much as she was a sort of a woman who had strong sexual appetites. So it's a shame that all we remember her for is this one story that does - turns out not to be true at all anyway.

HANSEN: Im speaking with John Michinson and John Lloyd, authors of "The Book of the Dead: Lives of the Justly Famous and the Undeservedly Obscure."

One more, included in the chapter "Once You're Dead You're Made for Life," Jack Parsons who was considered the maverick pioneer of American rocket technology. He lived from 1914 to 1952. And, you know, if you want to talk about skeletons in the closet, you write - he first invoked Satan when he was 13?

Mr. LLOYD: Yeah. Jack Parsons who was born in 1914 and he died very young, only in 1952 he died. And he was a kind of crazy guy at school and the way he used to have fun was blowing things up. Fireworks was his big thing and science fiction. And he had a friend called Edward Foreman(ph), and they were sort of kids who were trouble at school all the time. And they got into spells and incantations, as well as explosions.

And they dropped out of high school and they joined a company called the Hercules Powder Company, which was an armaments manufacturer in California. And from that Jack became a kind of nationally famous rocket expert, and he went to CalTech. And by the end of World War II, this had become the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. And Werhner Von Braun, who's usually credited with inventing the U.S. space program, said it wasnt him, it was this guy Jack Parsons that nobody has ever heard of.

He was the guy, Jack, who created the solid fuels that we used in the Apollo space missions and stuff thats used in the propulsion Polaris nuclear missiles. And before every experiment, what this guy would do, dress up in his robes and invoke the spirit of Pan, the horned pagan god of fertility.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MICHINSON: So it's like a lot of people in the book. He's a kind of paradox. In one sense, he's a complete genius. In the other sense, a sort of total flake cause one of the things he got involved in was an organization called the Order Templi Orientis, which is a strange kind of Satanic organization led by Aleister Crowley, the great magician known as The Beast.

And one of the people that Jack Parsons got involved with was L. Ron Hubbard, would you believe, before he started Scientology. They both believed in UFOs, you know? One day while Parsons out in the desert, thinking he was meeting Venusians, Ron Hubbard ran off with all of his money and his girlfriend.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MICHINSON: So it's an interesting thing that very few people know that the U.S. space program actually owes itself to a practicing Satanist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MICHINSON: And he's got a crater on the Moon named after him. And get this, it's on the dark side.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Oh, one hates to think of the Faustian bargain he may have made for his soul, if he had one.

Mr. MICHINSON: Yeah, well, you know, you find these strange connections, you know, that everything is connected underneath. In the foreword, we say that actually everybody is related, in fact. And they're not just related of course in the physical or genetic sense, but in terms of characteristics.

I mean, there are experiences that are common to all of us, you know, being born, falling in love, falling out of love, maybe getting divorced these days and, of course, dying, that everybody goes through one way or another. A lot of the stories in here are very sad and also very heartwarming in a strange way, that part of the philosophy of the book is that everybody gets trouble in their life. Everyones going to have a rough deal sooner or later.

And what distinguishes many of the people in this book that no matter how tough their childhoods or the terrible things that fate threw at them, they very often picked themselves up and started all over again and achieved something extraordinary, which has made the world a better place.

HANSEN: And sometimes, to paraphrase: When the going gets tough, the tough get weird.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MICHINSON: Very good.

Mr. LLOYD: We should have called the book that - would be a much better title.

HANSEN: All right, a hundred years from now, someone else writes a book like this and you're both are in it. So you have a chance now to come clean. What skeletons would be found in your closet?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MICHINSON: Well, we're a Siamese twin, oddly.

Mr. LLOYD: Yeah.

Mr. MICHINSON: But very few people know that. But we're actually joined at the shoulder and hip.

Mr. LLOYD: Thats why you only ever get the two of us together, Im afraid.

Mr. MICHINSON: Yeah, you need a walk-in wardrobe for our skeleton. Im afraid it's a big, big skeleton.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: John Lloyd and John Michinson joined us from the BBC in Oxford, England. They are the authors of "The Book of the Dead: Lives of the Justly Famous and Undeservedly Obscure." Thank you, both.

Mr. MICHINSON: Thanks so much, Liane.

Mr. LLOYD: Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: And you can read the truth about Leonardo Da Vinci's life, including what he really invented on our site, NPR.org.

This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION. Im Liane Hansen.

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