Borders poet JO Morgan in running for £30,000 national award

JO Morgan.
JO Morgan.

A Borders poet is in the running for one of Britain’s leading literary honours for a book inspired by his father’s experience as an RAF officer involved in the airborne nuclear deterrent during the Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s.

JO Morgan’s long-form poem Assurances is one of five contenders for the Costa Book of the Year Award after winning the coffee chain’s poetry prize.

Morgan uses a mix of versed and unversed passages to describe moments of calm reflection and mounting tensions over the possible threat of the end of the world.

Assurances, published by Fife-based HappenStance, is the sixth book-length work to be published over the last decade by Morgan, based on a farm at Stow.

The judges of the poetry prize, recognising writers based in the UK and Ireland, said they were “gripped by this polyphonic book-length poem and dazzled by its originality and inventiveness”.

Morgan will be up against journalist Stuart Turton, whose murder mystery The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle won the Costa best first novel award; Irish novelist Sally Rooney, for her book Normal People; Oxford University professor Bart van Es for his book on a Jewish girl who hides from the Nazis in Holland during the Second World War, The Cut Out Girl; and children’s writer Hilary McKay, whose book The Skylark’s War follows the loves and losses of a family growing up against the background of the First World War.

Edinburgh-born Morgan, 40, said: “The really pleasing thing for me is that the book might now reach people that wouldn’t otherwise have heard about it.

“It’s also pretty humbling that it must have worked for the judges.

“All my books take the same form. I want the reader to have a singular experience and for them to live with that story.

“I was very much aware of the early years of the Cold War because my father was part of the airborne nuclear deterrent.

“I was always intrigued by the Cold War, but it was only ever really in the back of my mind and I didn’t really have a desire to write about it until a few years ago.

“I thought about it for a long time and made a lot of notes of ideas, but it wasn’t until a year and half ago that I actually started going through those notes, formulating them into a structure and getting the words down.”

Dominic Paul, managing director of Costa, said: “The Costa Book Awards are all about recognising and celebrating some of the hugely enjoyable books out there.

“This year’s stellar collection of award-winning books highlight the exceptional talent of authors writing in the UK and Ireland today.”

Morgan and the other four category-winning authors, picked from 641 entries, have been given £5,000 prize money and will now vie for the £30,000 main prize offered by the competition, formerly the Whitbread Literary Awards.

The winner, to be selected by a panel of judges chaired by BBC presenter and journalist Sophie Raworth and including Rachel Joyce, Sathnam Sanghera, Simon Williams, Kate Humble and Prue Leith, will be announced at an awards ceremony hosted by presenter and broadcaster Penny Smith in London on Tuesday, January 29.

Since the introduction of the book of the year award in 1985, it has been won 12 times by a novel, six times by a biography, eight times by a collection of poetry and twice by a children’s book.

The 2017 Costa book of the year was Inside the Wave, the final collection of poetry by Helen Dunmore, published shortly before her death.

Other previous winners include Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World, Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Blue and Andrea Levy’s Small Island.