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The Musings of James Bayley by Susan Stokes-Chapman

Updated: Oct 18, 2019

Susan at Damascena; superb coordination with the decor

Stepping from Temple Row and into Damascena can feel like stepping into another world. The warm lighting, the smell of spiced drinks and the muwashah music all work to create an atmosphere that welcomes you in and asks you to sit a while. When we headed inside the coffee house to find Susan Stokes-Chapman however, we found out that there was a whole other side of the story that we were missing – and who better to reveal it to us than a historical fiction writer with a fondness for research and a pen for poetry? We sat down with Susan to have a chat about Overhear, underground vaults and the hidden histories of the city.

‘I think Overhear is a fascinating project.’ Susan tells us. ‘It’s a bit like Pokémon Go!, isn’t it? And the idea of having a literary face to it feels really intriguing, a worthwhile cause. For me, it also felt like an opportunity to expand. I’m more of a historical fiction writer and I’m trying to branch out into poetry more so I thought this would be the perfect excuse to get me going with that.’

Though she is branching out into new forms of writing, Susan assures us that she is also very much approaching this in the context of her own established interests: ‘I am very much interested in the history, not only of the people, but of buildings – the history of the city. When Overhear initially contacted me, I asked if there were any historical buildings that I could use,’ she says. ‘Tom suggested Damascena because of it being directly opposite St Phillips – which is a Georgian built Church – and that was exactly what I wanted. I wanted to focus on the building itself, its history and its evolution.’

‘I started by coming in here at the beginning of the month and managed to wrangle my way down into the vaults. There was quite a bit of research involved, actually. It wasn’t enough for me to have a look and say isn’t that pretty and it’s been around since such and such, I wanted more information than that.’

She has certainly found it - Susan pauses to get out a folder of papers to show us, thick with notes and photographs. ‘I took a lot of photos of the inside of the building,’ she tells us, ‘and when I went downstairs to the vaults I managed to get pictures of there too. After that, I went to Birmingham Library and looked at some of the old maps. I’m fascinated by anything when it comes to old documents. I think any opportunity to think about the history of a place and how it influences the history of culture is fascinating.’

She talks us through the timeline she’s uncovered: ‘There was talk of Damascena originally being a bank but having looked at directories for the city it looks like that wasn’t the case. It mostly seems to be a solicitor-based building from the 1830s all the way up to 1973. Then they changed into a Building Society, then an accountant’s, then in 2008 a hairdresser’s... and Damascena opened in 2017. I found that whole process fascinating, just to see the evolution of the building – and that’s what I wanted to approach the poem with.’

‘I think you have to be very careful,’ Susan admits, ‘because you can swamp yourself too much in historical research – you can research till the cows come home and you’ll never get started – but I like to have a strong basis to start from. For any historical writer there needs to be a development of authenticity without taking too much away from the story you’re trying to tell.’

So how has Susan incorporated all of this research into her piece?

‘I chose to do the poem from the point of view of James Bayley, the man buried in the vault in the St Phillips Churchyard directly opposite the Damascena building,’ she tells us, ‘I actually put the pentagram in the poem to identify the exact vault, so if anybody wanted to look, they would know that that’s the vault we were talking about, that’s where the perspective on this evolution is coming from.’

Susan records her poem - listen out for the atmospheric music!

‘It opens with “I was dust long before you arrived” because he was buried in 1773 and the building didn’t turn up until around 1833. He’s basically saying I watched you being built, and there are little lines in there that hint at the businesses that were here before: “your belly churned on men who breathed debt and divorce”, that’s the solicitors and then “the gunshots of gavels”, those are the auctioneers. I wanted to get the vaults in there too so “New York, London… Whitfields,” those are the vaults downstairs, “the year you exchanged logbooks for blow-buzz of hot air,” that’s when it became a hairdresser's… I’m kind of going through the story of the building itself.’

‘The second part of the poem is basically about Damascena itself. Mr Zein, who owns it, very kindly had a chat with me about his intentions for the place. It’s a Syrian cafe; the decoration, the colours, the menu is all influenced by Syria. He wanted to use the architecture of this space to create a sort of mezzanine, to make it feel like a riad.’ Susan points at two weathered doors hanging on the wall above us. ‘Those two are authentic riad doors. The decoration, the menu, the music all come into play in the second half of the poem. The first half of it is I saw you come to life, this is what you have been and the second half is this is what you are now.’

She concludes: ‘I wanted to get a piece out there that was relevant, yes to Damascena, but also to the experience of someone walking around the city. I’m quite excited by the idea of the walking tours, if it encourages people to get out and about and understand the city that they’re living in or visiting. You could just look at a building or sit and have a coffee and not understand the history, the cultural impact of it, but this gives you an opportunity to open up a little window in the city, experience places in a different way.’

To open up a window into Damascena’s history, head over there from 26th September onwards to collect Susan’s poem The Musings of James Bayley using the Overhear App.

Susan can be found on her website

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