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‘Do you write?’: How a chance conversation led to new book celebrating V&A Dundee

Hannah Whaley outside V&A Dundee with book These Windows.

Hannah Whaley may never have become involved in the creation of new book These Windows if it hadn’t been for meeting the late Eddie Small.

The well-loved historian and writer, passed away suddenly last year at the age of 68, and was a true champion of Dundee and its creative inhabitants.

Among the many tributes was one from his niece, Tracy Smith, who described him as a “true gentleman, and loved by everyone”.

His death left a great sadness among the city’s literary community, and there’s a special dedication to him at the beginning of the publication, of which he would have been undoubtedly proud.

‘Do you write?’

Hannah, who is assistant director of the library at the University of Dundee, got involved with the creative writing department thanks to Eddie.

“Eddie was my introduction to it,” she explains. “I went along to an event that he was speaking at and the only seat that was left after he finished was next to me. So he sat down.

“And – Eddie being Eddie – he just started chatting. He was very forthright and said: ‘do you write?’.

“No one had directly asked me that before. I replied: ‘Well, I try to – but I haven’t really told anyone’. So he said: ‘we’ll get a coffee, then, and sort you out’.”

Writer and historian Eddie Small, who passed away in September 2020.

At first, Hannah would meet Eddie for a chat and he would set her some assignments to do in her spare time.

She laughs: “My husband would joke that it would be just like me to find someone who probably doesn’t actually work at the uni – I’m just meeting someone in the pub for coffee to give me homework!

“Through that, I ended up doing some of the modules and that was how I got involved. I was as a student on the course part-time, so working at the uni and also a student.”

A long journey for These Windows

It has certainly been a less-than-straightforward journey for These Windows. Conceived before the pandemic, it evolved over the months of lockdown, harking back to a time when we could still socialise and create freely.

But it also came to reflect upon a new existence in isolation, as we stared from our windows on to a strange and unfamiliar world.

This project was student-led and Hannah was a contributor. She also took on the role of managing editor as part of her studies.

These Windows.

The artwork and writing in the book was produced by creative writing master’s students from the university’s school of humanities as well as illustration students from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design.

The initial idea began with creative writing lecturers Professor Kirsty Gunn and Dr Gail Low who had been speaking with Joanna Mawdsley, head of learning at V&A Dundee.

Hannah explains: “They had this idea of doing something interesting together so the project was very loose: we would start in the V&A and create writing and art and we would publish a book and an online collection.

“I wanted to do a project within the university because it was an area I knew well and one that I could contribute to.”

Outing to V&A Dundee

A visiting day was hosted by V&A Dundee for all the students in January 2020. There were guided tours of the Scottish Design Galleries, spaces to write and draw. The students even had an object handling session with the collections.

Little did they know, just a few months later, none of these things would be possible in a world shut down by a global pandemic.

These Windows visit day at V&A Dundee.

“It was wonderful,” Hannah recalls. “The object handling was quite a unique experience. You grow up thinking ‘don’t touch’ in a museum but they were handing you items. We were talking about them. Sometimes we didn’t know what they were, others were bringing back memories. Some were surprisingly heavy, others felt odd.

“Then people started writing about what resonated with them. Start with an object and see where that takes you.”

Afterwards, the students were able to attend two further creative sessions before submitting their work.

Online collection

The initial plan had been to bring the publication together within six months, but this was no longer possible. The fact raw content for the book was completed before lockdown meant that editing could continue.

Due to the pandemic, priority quickly switched from creating a printed version to publishing an online collection in summer 2020.

Work appeared via Dundee University Review of the Arts (DURA) an online literary and culture magazine founded by Gail Low.

Image of V&A Dundee created by artist Graham Johnston for These Windows.

The remainder of the year meant plans for a launch at V&A Dundee had to be placed on hold. Editors Hannah, Kirsty and Gail did an online event with Joanna Mawdsley to discuss how These Windows came together.

The book finally came to life, wearing its crisp, white, hardback cover in the spring of 2021. It was published by The Voyage Out Press, an independent press run by Kirsty Gunn and Gail Low.

“We had the book sent to the V&A shop ready for reopening. So since May it’s been on sale. It’s really exciting – and hard to put into words,” Hannah goes on.

“A lot of us watched the V&A being built. It’s a big part of the city and its cultural identity and now we have a book that is in this design museum.

“We’re very proud – it’s a lovely mixture of poetry and prose and artwork.”

A dedication to Eddie in These Windows

In the opening pages of These Windows are the words: “In memory of Eddie Small (1951-2020) who brought so much joy to others”. His enthusiasm for a project such as this would have been unbounded.

“Eddie would have been telling everybody,” Hannah smiles. “We managed to get a dedication at the front of the book which was quite meaningful, for myself particularly. I felt he was the one who pointed me in this direction.

“He helped you find your place. I always felt like that with Eddie. You’d just be wandering along and he would turn you and say: ‘nope, this direction, go this way’. He’d make sure you were on that path, because it’s a good one.”

These Windows can be purchased from the museum shop at V&A Dundee.

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