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.




  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.

    1. 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!

    1. 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?

    1. 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!

    1. 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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