Published in The Monthly, November 2013
Not long before Mark “Chopper” Read died on 9 October, it was suggested that an audience would pay good money to witness his final confession: to learn once and for all how many people the notorious standover man had killed, and hear the grisly details. Read chuckled at the idea. “Naturally,” he said, “I’ve saved the best stories for last.” Stories were all you got with Read. Endlessly repeated but never consistent, vivid but lacking in credible detail, possible but implausible, or plausible but impossible. At the height of his infamy, Read claimed that he had killed or contributed to the deaths of 19 people. By the end of his life, he had revised that number down to four. When he wanted someone to think well of him, he said it was two. During his final public appearance, at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre in late September, Read was asked about his professed love of toe-cutting. He squirmed in his seat. “Look,” he sighed, “you cut one man’s toe off and you never hear the end of it.”
There was no way to pry truth from fiction in Read’s stories, because life and legend were inextricably entwined. When John Silvester interviewed Read in Pentridge Prison’s H Division, circa 1990, the journalist was no doubt impressed by the hulking mass of man before him, covered neck to ankle in scars and tattoos. Read had recently been acquitted of the murder of Siam “Sammy the Turk” Ozerkam on the grounds of self-defence, but anyone who had seen the forensic images would have been chilled by the bloody cavity that Read had left in place of Sammy’s eye. When Read began to spin tales of rampant misdeeds, murder and mayhem, they probably seemed quite convincing, and, writing for Melbourne’s Herald-Sun, Silvester declared Read to be one of the most dangerous men in Australia:
He has turned himself into an out-of-control bounty hunter. A man who calmly stalks criminals, killing, stalking and bashing as he sees fit … “Chopper” Read is disliked by the police and hated by most of the underworld. He is a loose cannon who routinely betrays anyone if he can find an advantage for himself.”
Read appeared to be the primary source of information for the article, and it is difficult to understand how Silvester might have substantiated Read’s claims. Though Read’s rap sheet was formidable, it hardly made him a bounty hunter. At 17, Read went to Pentridge’s youth division for an attempted storeroom break-and-enter. He returned to jail on burglary and assault charges in his early 20s. In his mid 20s, he got a 14-year jail sentence for a ham-fisted attempt at kidnapping a County Court judge. When he met Silvester, Read was serving a sentence for criminal damage (arson) and possessing a gun. It is easy to believe that a man with these convictions was capable of more heinous crimes. But as Read himself would later comment, when did he have the time to do the crime? From the age of 17 until Silvester met him, Read had spent just a handful of months out of prison. By all accounts, he was a very violent prisoner, but he came to be seen as one of Australia’s most dangerous men because he willed it and Silvester obliged.
Not long after his exposé of this “brutal criminal”, Silvester became Read’s business partner, ghostwriting a book based on black-humoured letters Read sent him from prison. Read’s stories, supposedly confessed from life, were informed as much by his taste for penny dreadfuls, Bond films, colonial poetry and Shakespeare. With his associate Andrew Rule, Silvester published Read’s first “autobiography”, Chopper: From the Inside, in 1991 and, wittingly or unwittingly, led Read away from a life of crime. The book became a bestseller and was adapted for the screen by Andrew Dominik in 2000 as Chopper. With that seminal gangster flick, Read transcended his earthly form and became a two-dimensional anti-hero. Silvester and Rule released a further ten Chopper books. (By the fifth, they were openly acknowledged to be fiction.) Lately, Silvester has offered a chuckling mea culpa for his role in promulgating Read’s infamy, claiming that the books “are rightly considered to be the greatest crime committed against literature in the history of the written word”.
Read enjoyed being Chopper. As a born raconteur, he loved the attention, loved the image of himself as an outlaw and a hard man. But towards the end of his life, the mantle grew heavy. When he was diagnosed with liver cancer, he began to reflect on the legacy he would leave for his two young boys, Charlie and Roy. A tug of war emerged between Read’s ego and his will to honesty. If he didn’t set the record straight, his sons might remember their father as a mass murderer and psychopath. But if Read did change his story, it would undo the most productive work of his life: the making of a legend. Ultimately, he opted for the middle ground. He copped to four murders and laughed with his last live audience about blowtorches and bungled uxoricide, then invited Roy and his wife, Margaret, on stage for a group hug and a bow. It was a nice moment for his family, but left the rest of us wondering: how had he managed to fool us into believing him at all?