Report — From the February 2014 issue

A God More Powerful Than I

Understanding a stalker’s love

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Jude and school never got on. He was diagnosed with dyslexia at an early age. But there was something else as well. Jude decided that the world was divided into people who obeyed teachers and people — his people, the lively ones, the characters — who did not. Being diligent in lessons meant that you didn’t have any other ideas.

After Jude dropped out, at the age of fifteen, Jeremy and Lyn asked a local woodsman, Peter Perry, to take him on as an apprentice. Cornwall is not naturally blessed with forests. The soil is often too thin, the winds too severe. But Perry managed an old woodland in a valley, called Trelowarren, on Cornwall’s southern heel, whose oaks, ashes, sweet chestnuts, and Douglas firs were of sufficient scale to impress the young man. After the oppression and confusion of academic study, Jude exulted in the dignity of working on the land. He fell into the life of a tree worker.

Trelowarren was owned by another old family of Cornish gentry, friends of Jude’s parents. He was awed by his eighteenth-century ancestors and what he perceived as a lost confidence to mold landscapes — something that impressed him all the more as he cleared fallen trees from several estates after a series of storms in the late 1980s. “Smashing your way through,” he recalled, “and suddenly dawning on you what these places were.” He was aware of the fundamental tension in the identity he was forming for himself — an artist’s son, a Le Grice, working as a laborer. He joined the miners and farmers on the local rugby team at St Just, rowed in pilot gigs (a form of brutal open-sea rowing in Cornwall), cultivated a more rural accent, and he sang.

And when he sang, the contradictions in his life seemed to dissolve: simple songs to begin with — songs from the tin mine in St Just, sea chanteys, hymns — sung with other men and lots to drink. Jude would join crowds in pubs, singing round a piano, and in the combination of their voices with his, he found an intense sense of belonging. In the mid-1990s, he spent months in Rhosllannerchrugog, a Welsh mining village with a rich musical tradition (there are four male choirs in a town of 9,500 people). He was handed a sheet of Latin for the first time. It was Cherubini’s Requiem in C minor. Jude picked up the music by ear, and suddenly the feeling was like wading into those storm-damaged gardens. “This felt like something I was more natural to. This was my father’s music.”

Jude’s friends and family noticed that, in contrast to his frequently scattered and elliptical thinking, his singing voice was precise and gentle. “It is creativity,” Jeremy told me. “Raw creativity.” In 1996, when Jude was twenty-five, his parents arranged for him to meet Ben Luxon, an internationally known opera singer from Cornwall.

“It was the strangest experience for me,” Luxon told me. A baritone and former member of Benjamin Britten’s English Opera Group, Luxon had seen his career end prematurely after he contracted a rare form of cancer that wrecked his hearing. Following chemotherapy and a few failed comebacks, Luxon had returned to Cornwall for good.

When Jude visited him for the first time, Luxon could not make him sing. Instead, the young man wanted to talk — about his experience of music, about pubs, trees, and a new notion of going to study in Italy. But the conversation was tortuous. “Jude would speak for a while,” said Luxon. “I would ask him a question and then everything would stop.” Jude’s mind seemed to run wildly but rigidly, on rails that were discernible only to him.

Finally, though, Luxon got Jude to sing a hymn, and it was true, the voice was wonderful. He agreed to teach Jude, but the lessons proved frustrating for both: Jude would take weeks to learn what other singers picked up in an hour. “I very quickly realized that if there is a God, he is very cruel,” Luxon told me. “Because this is a beautiful voice, okay? He has quite an exceptional, beautiful, young bass voice. But he cannot learn.”

In the end, Luxon decided that Jude’s learning disabilities were so severe that he would never have a professional career. To help him understand the rigors of training as a singer, Luxon brought Jude to a weeklong opera master class run by his former wife, Sheila Amit, at Canterbury Christ Church University, in July of 1998. “I assumed — this is the real mistake I made — I assumed he would realize this was all beyond him,” said Luxon. “But I totally misjudged his way of thinking and his mind. And that, of course, is where he met Rebecca.”

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is a journalist living in London. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Inside the Snow Globe,” appeared in the July 2011 issue

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