An Ode To Mark 'Chopper' Read

He's the biggest celebrity the Australian criminal underworld ever produced. Here's a tribute to the man they called Chopper.
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He's the biggest celebrity the Australian criminal underworld ever produced. Here's a tribute to the man they called Chopper.
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I'm just a bloody normal bloke; a normal bloke who likes a bit of torture.' 

Ordinarily, the phrase 'chopper is dead' is one you hear drifting from a stale couple’s bedroom late at night, couched in the resigned, mournful tones of a doctor who, snapping off his rubber gloves, has ceased CPR on someone. This sentence took on another use today as it broadcast the demise of a countercultural icon: Mark Brandon ‘Chopper’ Read.

Read, despite his subsequent efforts, was no writer - not preternaturally, anyway. Nor was he a campaigner, musician or painter.  No, Chopper - whose nickname came from a cartoon character and not one of his many tools of the trade – earned his fame as a criminal, his main line of work being a standover man. A standover man is Aussie slang for an extortionist, but Chopper refined this, taxing other criminals using a gun, blowtorch, bolt cutters or whatever else came to hand.

When you think about it, it's a stroke of genius - drug dealers and armed robbers are hardly likely to go crying to their local cop shop to shop Chop, are they? This work requires a nerveless nature or a sense of reckless abandon - both of which he seemed to possess - and a lack of compunction regarding severe violence, which he definitely had.

Reading the above, you might well be wondering how someone who could melt people's toes with all the insouciance of a chef toasting the top of a crème brûlée could become an object of such intense affection. But he was.

Forming Chopper’s biography is quite difficult, because Read was an inveterate mythmaker; i.e. a liar. This makes it hard to discern between the factual tale and the anecdote; both commingle in an intoxicating if misleading brew.

Born in Melbourne in 1954 to an ex-military father and avowedly religious mother, Read’s childhood was rough by any measure. He spent time in children’s homes and was bullied at school. He was a made ward of the state at 14 and claimed to have undergone EST in a clutch of mental hospitals. In latter adolescence he grew into a fearlessly adept street fighter, whether it was with his hands or weapons. He began his career by robbing drug dealers and soon graduated to kidnapping underworld figures for ransom, in addition to dabbling in armed robbery and arson. Y’know, the usual.

These exploits led to a number of lengthy incarcerations, where he wiled away his time leading the ‘Overcoat gang’. This group took part in violent wars in Pentridge Prison, Victoria. While inside, Read entered legend when he got a fellow prisoner to hack his ears off. Distinctive already due to being plastered in Biro-line prison tattoos, Read’s amputated ears made him unmissable.

When he left prison for the final time in 1998, aged 43, he’d seen 23 of those years pass through bars. He wanted a change, and began to write stories about his life to a journalist. Read came to wider attention - including mine - through his eponymous autobiography, which featured the requisite levels of blood n guts lore blended with his crooked humour; you could practically hear his Aussie sneer pealing off the page. Director Andrew Dominik then adapted the book as the basis for the feted 2000 film Chopper, which featured Eric Bana in a blindingly convincing leading performance. Read subsequently published a number of best-sellers, including a children’s book, and became a household name in Australia - after all, you can't be parodied this adroitly without everyone knowing who you are.

Read was diagnosed with liver cancer in April 2012, a condition compounded by cirrhosis. The man himself said all this stemmed from contracting hepatitis C while in prison, though who knows how an unassuming, timorous figure like Read ever came into contact with blood in there…

Read passed away at the Royal Melbourne Hospital on 9 October 2013, where he no doubt kept the staff busy over the years. He was survived by his third wife, Margaret, and his two sons, Charlie and Roy.

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So then, how to reconcile Read the Maniac with Read the Mensch? Well, I believe he was beloved because he was  - in part at least - a living, breathing exemplification of positive qualities ingrained in Australia’s collective national psyche.

One of these things is a healthy distrust of authority. Chopper paid little heed to rules or regulations that weren’t his own, and in one of the most contumacious nations on earth, this was bound to go down well. He was an outsider, and revelled in that status.

Our Aussie brethren are also famed for their exuberance and irreverence. Read, a burly, rough and tumble boozer and natural raconteur, fitted this image perfectly. He was amusing and gregarious, as long as you weren't someone holding out on him. This air of larrikin mischief dissipated the cloud of the terrible things he’d done, and clearly endeared him to people.

Lastly comes the quintessential Australian virtue of mateship. Whether it is the result of having to deal with the harsh environment that greeted those emigrants (and deportees) years ago or some other social evolution, the concept of helping your fellow humans out and giving people a ‘fair go’ is endemic.

Read didn’t just pay this lip service, not least when he quixotically attempted to kidnap a judge from a courtroom in order to force his friend Jimmy Loughnan’s release from prison. I suppose you could wonder if what Churchill said about appeasers could have fit Chopper’s friends – ‘An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last’ - but his loyalty and humour clearly engendered true affection. To the rest of us not in the Antipodes, he is simply one of those charismatic, criminal folk heroes, who seem to simultaneously fascinate and appal.

For me, his own subjective morality is also what made him appealing. He seemed to be like an Aussie Omar Little, from The Wire.  Aside from sharing a profession, the fictitious Little – like the all too real Read - maintained that a man had to have a code. Theirs was similar, in that they insisted they never committed violence against anyone who wasn't 'in the game', i.e. a criminal themselves. Maybe this is why we find it so easy to overlook the more – ahem – negative aspects of Read’s life.

In any case, I don't pity the devil this evening, as he lies, handcuffed, his bound feet stuck nakedly into the air, listening fearfully to the clicking of a blowtorch igniting somewhere in the gloom...