A Borders poet in the running for a £30,000 national award has debunked his reputation as a recluse despite living alone in a remote cottage.
The media spotlight is not something that JO Morgan seeks out, but it’s something he’s having to get used to after his long-form poem Assurances was nominated as one of five contenders for the 2018 Costa Book of the Year Award.
The 40-year-old Edinburgh-born poet is something of an enigma.
For the last decade, he has rented a cottage on a farm in Stow, where he works on his craft and, when the farmer needs his help, feeds and looks after the animals.
Adding to an air of mystery is his polite but continued refusal to confirm his first name, preferring to be known instead by the initials JO.
“Putting the initials on my books distances me a little from my work”, he explains.
Morgan’s profile has grown significantly due to the critical success of Assurances, published by Jonathan Cape, 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.
He has already received £5,000 for his poetry category win and main prize nomination and is in line to pocket a further £30,000 if his book emerges triumphant at an awards ceremony in London in a fortnight’s time.
After years living on a tight budget, Morgan admits such a windfall would be gratefully received.
He said: “I was asked recently how I was going to spend the prize money, and it really comes down to just needing to live.
“I would love to go ‘hurrah, £5,000, great, I can buy a piano’ or something else extravagant, but I can’t.
“It just means that I have a little more time to write.
“I live on the farm, and next week when the farmer is away, he leaves it in my hands, and I really just look after the animals and do the feeding.
“He knows I am on hand and I have worked on many farms in the past.
“It is not my job here, but it’s a really nice relationship I have with landlord and farmer.
“Before I was here, I was in the Highlands and I was looking for somewhere I could rent.
“It had to be somewhere I could afford and it had to be fairly open because the dog I had at the time was a bit nuts and noise-phobic.
“I have to say that when I used to drive up through the Borders I would think what a lovely place to live, but I always thought it would be really expensive because it’s so close to Edinburgh, so I was surprised when I saw a property I could afford and I went for it, and then I had this horrible feeling when I got here that it was so lovely, so perfect, that I’m not going to get it.”
The Borders’ rural lifestyle is important to Morgan, but he’s not sure it directly inspires his writing.
He added: “It’s not like the Highlands, with the mountains, but it’s just so open and beautiful, and I love going on my walks.
“It’s quite a hilly farm and just looking down the valley is something I absolutely love.
“I don’t I think ‘I’m going to write a book about this’, but living in a rural part of the world is very important to me and I have found a place where I feel very content and happy.
“Whether I can stay here enough for long into the future will depend on how much I can afford. The 30-grand would give me a few years.”
Morgan, who often writes “when everyone else is asleep”, says his reclusive reputation is mostly a myth.
He explained: “I sometimes get branded as being reclusive.
“It stems from an interview I did, but a good friend of mine said ‘you’re not reclusive at all, you love company – it’s just that you live way out here.”