A visitor to the presbytery of St Peter’s Morningside in Edinburgh during the 1920s would have realised at once that the occupant was no ordinary, run-of-the-mill Roman Catholic priest. There were fitted carpets (a most unusual luxury at this period) of a soft velvety quality. The leaded casements in the windows shut out the Edinburgh light and made the house mysteriously dim. Lithographs looked down from the walls, faces that might have been recognised by a small band of London literati, but which would have meant nothing to the majority of Catholic parishioners in Morningside: figures such as Charles Ricketts and C H Shannon, and Theodore Wratislaw, who had said of the canon that he was ‘a young man with a promising career behind him’. On the chimney-piece in the canon’s study there was a small statue by Eric Gill of a man, weeping for his sins. Upstairs, on the canon’s bed, the sheets were of black linen. Here, doubtless, were enacted the sleepless torments of his poem ‘Compunction’:
Strew with fear my late-sought bed;
Sleep no better bring;
twist and wreck the wretched thing
till the pillow loathe my head,
which is as good a description of the physical discomforts of insomnia as I have read.
Who was Father John Gray, and what were the reasons for his tears? The answer is given in the title of Brocard Sewell’s brilliant biography, In the Dorian Mode. Although John Gray persistently denied being the ‘original’ of Oscar Wilde’s