Permutations, Swapping Chairs and Beetroot


 It can be use­ful to sit in someone else’s chair every now and again, if only to scuttle back with relief to your own.

I’ve been sit­ting in B. S. Johnson’s seat this week, ima­gin­ing his frus­tra­tion at hav­ing his exper­i­ment­al nov­els widely praised but rarely bought. Johnson’s finest work, The Unfor­tu­nates, pub­lished in 1969,  involves per­muta­tions — so many of them, in fact, that it took me a whole after­noon to work out the num­ber.

The Unfor­tu­nates has only twenty-sev­en short chapters, one of them a mere para­graph long. And yet it’s impossible to read the full ver­sion in a life­time, how­ever pre­co­ciously early you start. The reas­on is that, apart from the first and the last chapters, the oth­er twenty-five can be read in any order. This loose-leaved exper­i­ment was Johnson’s attempt to escape the lin­ear restric­tions of the con­ven­tion­al nov­el. Instead of being trapped inside a glued-on cov­er, The Unfor­tu­nates comes heaped-up in a box, with the disin­genu­ous instruc­tion that ‘if read­ers prefer not to accept the ran­dom order in which they receive the nov­el, then they may re-arrange the sec­tions into any oth­er ran­dom order before read­ing’. I’ve cal­cu­lated all the pos­sible per­muta­tions of those twenty five inter­change­able chapters and the num­ber I’m left with is:


which is oth­er­wise known as fif­teen sep­til­lion, five hun­dred and elev­en sex­til­lion, two hun­dred and ten quin­til­lion, forty three quad­ril­lion, three hun­dred and thirty tril­lion, nine hun­dred and eighty five bil­lion, nine hun­dred and eighty four mil­lion dif­fer­ent pos­sib­il­it­ies. You can nev­er hope to read them all and it’s pos­sible that the ver­sion you do read will be unique.

Johnson’s attempt to look at things from a dif­fer­ent angle stemmed from his belief that we should try to ‘under­stand without gen­er­al­isa­tion, to see each piece of received truth, or gen­er­al­isa­tion, as true only if is true for me’. To gen­er­al­ise, he argued, is ‘to tell lies’. So, newly enthu­si­ast­ic about avoid­ing gen­er­al­isa­tions while embra­cing the extraordin­ary pos­sib­il­it­ies thrown up by per­muta­tions, I planned my lunch.

My Great Auntie Susie ate exactly the same thing for lunch every single day of the week: pickled beet­root in vin­eg­ar, crumbly Lan­cashire cheese, a slice of brown bread spread with but­ter so thick that she could take an impres­sion of her teeth from the indent­a­tions they left, and a mug of tea the col­our of an old penny. By cal­cu­lat­ing the per­muta­tions, I made a beet­root salad for lunch today that is both spe­cific­ally Great Auntie Susie’s, but is also a vari­ation on her theme.


  • Bunch of smallish raw beet­root (big­ger than snook­er, smal­ler than hockey), leaves still attached — around one per per­son
  • Goat’s curd or very young goat’s cheese
  • Small salad leaves
  • Chopped chives
  • Hand­ful of wal­nuts
  • Extra vir­gin olive oil
  • Lem­on juice
  • Maple syr­up

Cut the leaves and roots off the beet­root. Save the leaves for later. Wash the beet­root, but don’t peel them. Wrap them in a tight sil­ver-foil par­cel and bake in the oven at 170 F for around two hours. When they’re tender, take them out and peel them. Slice the beet­root and arrange on a plate with spoon­fuls of goat’s curd. Wash and dry the raw beet­root leaves and scat­ter them on a plate, along with some oth­er small salad leaves, the wal­nuts and a scat­ter­ing of chives. Make a dress­ing from the olive oil, lem­on juice and maple syr­up — four parts oil, two parts lem­on, one part syr­up. Sea­son to taste and trickle over the salad.

Eat the salad out­side, sit­ting in someone’s else’s seat and star­ing at someone else’s view.

I ima­gine that B. S. John­son would have been a good lunch com­pan­ion. Sadly, he lost heart,  gave up on his ignored exper­i­ments and com­mit­ted sui­cide at the age of forty. I would like to have told him that not only did I buy his book, but that I treas­ure it too.



If You are inter­ested in pur­chas­ing medic­a­ments online, now may be the time to do so. So the next ques­tion is where can you find info that is reli­able. You can get such info fast and con­veni­ently by going online. There are many ill­nesses such as schizo­phrenia which have no cure. One of the most pop phys­ic is Via­gra. What about com­par­is­on between Cial­is versus Levitra and ? Nearly every adult knows about . Oth­er ques­tion we have to is . The symp­toms of sexu­al dis­orders in men include lack of sexu­al fantas­ies. Not­with­stand­ing sex is not vital for good health, it’s cer­tainly good for any­one. So if you are exper­i­en­cing erectile prob­lems, it is essen­tial to see a cer­ti­fied doc­tor imme­di­ately for a com­plete med­ic test­ing. Cer­tainly, online phar­macy can hands-down help you for solv­ing your all per­son­al dif­fi­culties.

10 thoughts on “Permutations, Swapping Chairs and Beetroot

  1. What a wel­come return. Your blog is a work of art. The pho­to­graphy gets bet­ter and bet­ter and your Euphor­bi­as con­firm how incred­ibly pho­to­gen­ic they are. I don’t anti­cip­ate read­ing The Unfor­tu­nates any time soon but I might try your Beet­root salad.

    • Even bet­ter, try the salad while read­ing the book. It’s worth it, I prom­ise. Thanks so much for leav­ing a com­ment — it’s always a treat and I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. I always think that you must have run out of those per­fect cam­era shots, but they just keep com­ing and com­ing. Amaz­ing as usu­al Charlie!

  3. What a thought­ful post! Your pics are amaz­ing and you can tell that there are a lot of thought­ful moments here! Happy week-end to you!

    • Thank you, Cheri — it’s always such a pleas­ure to know that a post has had an impact. Enjoy your week­end too.

  4. Not hav­ing a maths brain I’m impressed that you worked this out and now on a mis­sion to find B. S. John­son’s book. How spe­cial to have a unique read­ing exper­i­ence. Love the idea and sad to hear of its cre­at­ors demise in such a way.
    Beau­ti­ful salad and those euphor­bi­as are stun­ning. Is this your garden?

    • Once I’d worked the num­ber out, I had to do the cal­cu­la­tion again because I simply couldn’t believe it. I won­der if B. S. John­son knew too. For years it was vir­tu­ally impossible to get hold of his nov­el, but it’s been repub­lished in a box by Pic­ador. It’s worth read­ing, Sally and I’d love to know what you think of it.

  5. Ah, I saw your new post pop up into my inbox and smiled. I know that I am always in for a verbal treat! And I was not mis­taken… Bril­liantly thought out and writ­ten (and a bit taken for my writ­ing work­shop as an example of writ­ing mas­tery). Just beau­ti­ful pho­to­graphs, too. I love the thoughts this whole swap­ping chairs concept has stirred up. And a beet salad. I am not a big fan of beets but how deli­cious they are when eaten with goat cheese!

    • You’re very gen­er­ous, Jam­ie — as ever. I like the thought that some­thing has wriggled its way into your writ­ing work­shop — a kind of verbal chair swap­ping. Thanks so much for leav­ing a com­ment.

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