The Theatre of Crime: Mark “Chopper” Read

He did not seem the sharpest sandwich at the picnic. But that did not matter. Australia’s notorious Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read, a half-comic, half-sinister crim who blazed his quixotic way into that country’s limited folklore, dead at 58, did not feel the need to be. He was mocking the very public who took him seriously, and evidently relished it. He mocked the journalists, and liked that even more. And most of all, he mocked himself.

How much of that notoriety was merely a celluloid blast remains the paradox of criminal obsessions. Cruelty indulges curiosity. People who tend to abide by the humdrum of life, living in ruts of suburban law abiding boredom nurse fantasies of violence. It is the voyeurism of the modern set, a form of Rippermania. Modern cable networks host channels of 24-hour coverage featuring the boys and girls in blue and their quarry. The more elusive the quarry, the better. Then come the murders, those horrific yet admired transgressions of the social order. Those without inner life have to find it elsewhere.

In 2000, Eric Bana affirmed Read’s fame by playing him. The image there is the image promoted by Herald Sun journalist Andrew Rule, the co-writer of Chopper’s biography. (The joke, Read would insist, was that he could barely write.) Prior to that commercial blast, it was standard ordinary fare: ward of the state by the time he was 14; a life of crime, mostly in Melbourne, assaulting and torturing fellow criminals, released from a Tasmanian prison in the 1990s after having spent half of his world incarcerated.

A few of his more colourful exploits tend to be repeated, notably his attempt to kidnap a County Court judge at gunpoint. It landed him a 13-year sentence. Then came the ear-chopping incident that was his theatrical baptism: getting a fellow prison inmate to slice off his ears in Pentridge Prison’s H Division. This was Read at his best and worst – the thespian behind the gun, the impersonator (for yes, he did also impersonate police officers), the crook of the not so grand stage.

A cardinal principle at work with Read: he did not have a sense of consequences, though this, again, is the myth at work, bricks being made of straw. “His main feature,” observed Rule, “was not that he was necessarily bigger or stronger or tougher or a better fighter than all the others, because others would transcend them in all those things, but he was fearless of consequences.”

But Rule is keen to fan the flames of the myth. Apparently, Read was a “wizard with words [and] he could rhyme words.” Not merely a wordsmith, he was also a rapper, a “good talker.” The logical parallel to draw, claimed Rule, was that with America’s boxing genius Mohammed Ali.

This is where the wheels come off the Read celebrity van. Ali was the true transgressor, his barbs aimed at a vicious state of affairs. He converted to Islam. He fought institutionalised prejudice. He attacked conscription and paid a price for it. He was that unusual figure: a revolutionary sports icon who made his city marble on finding it brick.

Read hardly pretended to be historically significant – he barely had a sense of what history was as a concept. He was no world historical individual, to use that fabled expression of the unreadable George Friedrich Hegel. Chopper found a city of brick and, after breaking it up, reassembled it in the manner of a clumsy bricklayer. His fans watched, not necessarily with adoration but voyeuristic amazement.

Not having a compass on that score, Read does not reek of the sweet smell of success – if one is assessing him by the standards of criminal genius. There was nothing of the Moriarty about him. He did what Moriarty did not – get caught. If he wasn’t caught, he boasted and fantasised.

Read had a role. He played it to perfection. He spoke of killing 19 men yet avoided conviction of murder. Then the numbers fell – to seven, then four. He could not be trusted. In H Division, he would seek conversation with apprehensive inmates – sometimes to no avail. Former prison chaplain Peter Norden had a taste of the Chopper effect. “No-one trusted him, he was unpredictable.” When he would emanate from his cell, “people gave him about a three-metre berth.”

Bullshit artist, stand-up figure of the crim celebrity scene, a man whose “work” is some of the most read in the pulp set – to date his books have sold half a million copies. His other contribution is a children’s book for adults, Hooky the Cripple, that “grim tale of a hunchback who triumphs.” That was Chopper, and, no doubt in his restless and permanent sleep, he will muse at the system that trod on yet elevated him.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.