Torn by Chopper's inner torment

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From the Inside: Chopper 1 and Hits & Memories: Chopper 2. Mark Brandon Read, Pan Macmillan, 2012. Website

Artistic depiction of Mark Brandon 'Chopper' Read with pistols crossedBarry:

Mark Brandon 'Chopper' Read: latter-day Ned Kelly, self-perceived Robin Hood, scourge of drug dealers. His re-released literary efforts reveal a paradox. Chopper's a racist, self-billed sociopath with acknowledged mental and physical health issues and a highly evolved if bizarre set of moral principles. A raconteur ever-ready to discuss the robbing, bashing, torture, murder and disappearance of various peers and colleagues.

Yet Chopper is also a man who recognises the damage done by the spiritual, emotional and physical abuse he took as a child. The enemy of Chopper's enemy is his friend; unless he's his enemy, too, or a 'Walter Mitty' — the author's pet term for a dreamer, or someone unbearably rude, unintelligent, amateurish in his criminality, or carrying some owed or useful cash.

Actually, that unintended association with the quixotic comic Danny Kaye, who played Mitty in the 1947 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, is apt. In a grimly self-deprecating manner that is greatly disconnected from the world of we mug citizens (non-denizens of the underworld), Chopper is outlandishly funny and, um, arresting.

Read owns up to his essential brokenness and self-declared waste of a life and, Jen, I'm coming clean: I'm torn. Saddened by the grubbiness, cruelty and loneliness, the betrayal and the betraying, yet equally fascinated by the guy's life and, moreover, actually impressed and lured by the power of the voice coming out of Read's writing.

I don't know if this is just Underbelly rubbernecking at moral roads untaken, or if tomes such as From the Inside and Hits & Memories transcend Read's dogged poetry and pub parlance the better to scratch some Dickensian itch in all of us. (Doubtless his accomplishments as a teller of partial tales is aided and abetted by the editing of Melbourne's crime reportage princes John Silvester and Andrew Rule.)

While 'Chopper' will always be a disturbed, cinematic standover merchant, immortalised by Eric Bana's breakout turn as the earless enforcer, there's more to him, Jen. His writing has a certain quality I just didn't expect. It's not pretty enough to be 'beauty', although you can appreciate the labours taken to craft his rambling tango through life. And it's too scarred, warped and dipped in pains inflicted and endured to be 'goodness'.

Yet despite the bulldust and bluster, Read touches sporadically on 'truth'. Who'd have thunk it?

Having written largely behind bars, Chopper re-lives battles and schemes, namedropping old school coppers like 'Rocket' Rod Porter and Allan 'Diamond Jim' Taylor, and numerous crims in a revolting, revolving door of oddbods, sadsacks, 'game players' and 'deal makers' who operate 'in a world of shadows, police spies and double agents'.

And when he's not quoting the likes of Oscar Wilde or citing Raymond Chandler, while lamenting the poor quality of modern crims and cop, Read surprises by resonating with the squat, angry Neanderthal that lurks within us all.

Jen:

Gun for hire, raconteur, artist and (I kid you not) rapper; Mark Brandon 'Chopper' Read is a man of many ... um ... talents. But he is also a man living on borrowed time. Having survived numerous attempts on his life (including a sorry episode where he was forced to dig his own grave), Read contracted Hepatitis C during his time in prison, and has since been diagnosed with both cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer. How he not only walks among us today, but has managed to record his first blues album, remains one of life's minor mysteries.

From the Inside, collected from letters he sent to journalists John Silvester and Andrew Rule in 1991 while in Melbourne's Pentridge Prison, is the first volume of the reissued series, and, yes, the 'inspiration' for the iconic 2000 Eric Bana vehicle Chopper.

'Larger than life' is a term that could have been written for Read; but so, too, is 'doomed from the start'. Like many career criminals, Read's early years read like a 101 manual in neglect, violence and indifference.

Born to an ex-army father and a devout (read: detached) Seventh-day Adventist mother, Read spent most of his formative years in a children's home. At 14, he became a ward of the state and soon got caught in the revolving door of psychiatric institutions. Between the ages of 20 and 38, Read spent only 13 months outside prison, having been convicted of a veritable smorgasbord of crimes, ranging from armed robbery, firearm offences, assault and arson, to impersonating a police officer.

Of course, Chopper is no boy scout, yet I feel compelled to defend his honour, Barry. Contrary to the evidence (a KKK membership notwithstanding), he's no racist. As he writes, joining the 'brotherhood' was a 'bit of a joke' and just another way of staving off boredom in jail.

This isn't about splitting hairs, but rather looking for clues to the real Mark Read. After all, he's a 'criminal legend' who says he's never hurt an innocent; a champion of children who never had a childhood; anti-drugs yet happy to appropriate the spoils of trafficking; a miscreant speaking out against domestic violence; a non-believer who walks with God. And a clown who somehow avoided becoming the punchline.

In short, a contradiction in Ray Bans. Reading this cautionary tale I'm not sure whether we're tapping into our inner-Neanderthal or our inner-disenchantment. In his unaffected charm — and, perhaps, refusal to die — is human nature stripped bare. A day in Read's underworld reads like an episode of Survivor, only behind bars.

Sure From the Inside is a search for fame and glory, but look closer and you'll see a clear need for validation. Coming across as vulnerable in his main line of work is either intensely brave or completely stupid, but it's also undeniably, unapologetically frank.


Jen Vuk and Barry GittinsJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Herald Sun, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age and The Good Weekend. Barry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for the Salvation Army who has written for Inside History, Crosslight, The Transit Lounge, Changing Attitude Australia and The Rubicon.

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Jen Vuk, Book Chat, Chopper Read, Ned Kelly, Walter Mitty

 

 

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Existing comments

My bookseller and I usually have a good discussion about the books I order (don't tell him about Amazon though). The cover of this book alone would generate some discussion. I'm convinced that Chopper, like the rest of us, lives in the eye of God, and not at the periphery but at the centre of His vision, His concern. And I do like his Ray Bans, can't wear them myself - I need prescription lenses.
Pam | 23 August 2013


Australian journalists continue to promote this fascination for underworld figures and violent crime. Mark Read, convicted felon, now enjoys celebrity status because people like Jen Vuk and Barry Gittins feed the egos of Australian "heroes" like "Chopper". Why not write a story or record an interview with any victim of a violent crime committed by Read. I can guarantee you'll then get closer to the real Mark Read.

andrew | 24 August 2013


Mark Read didn't do half the things that he claimed to have. He was serving up what people wanted, including the chance to moralise and condemn. He's laughing all the way to etermity now.
Adam Shand | 11 October 2013


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