Farewell Chopper

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ON Monday there had been a private funeral for ex-criminal Mark Brandon Read but a memorial at the old Fitzroy footy ground yesterday in Melbourne was all about farewelling his alter ego “Chopper.”

It was a chance for the fans who had bought his books, his artwork, watched the “Chopper” movie and packed out his spoken word shows across the country to pay homage to an unlikely hero who died last week at the age of 58 from liver cancer.

In lieu of a coffin, a basket of Read’s dirty laundry took centre stage with a note: “Could someone please take care of this for me? Thanks very much Chop.”

About seventy mourners, including his widow Margaret, braved stormy conditions in Melbourne to hear the eulogies to a wasted life, nearly 23 years spent in jails in Victoria and Tasmania for a range of offences, mostly inspired by mental illness.

At his family funeral, I caught up with Dr Bill Orchard, who had treated Read for adult Attention Deficit Disorder since 2009. At that time, Read was struggling with the reality of his post-prison life. People were ripping him off left, right and centre. Those decades in jail may have made him the ultimate survivor but he was an easy mark for smooth-talking squareheads or anyone with a convincing sob story. Read wrote in his book One Thing Led to Another that finding Dr Orchard saved his life after he suffered what he described as a nervous breakdown.

“Mark was a classic example of an untreated ADD sufferer in jail,” Dr Orchard said.

“He cut his ears off so he could get out of maximum security into a psychiatric unit where his mate was so they could escape together. Another time he kidnapped a County Court judge to get a friend out of the psych unit. This is not someone thinking about the consequences of his actions,” Dr Orchard said.

Lack of impulse control and consequential thinking are hallmarks of ADD which affects 7-9 per cent of adults.

When Orchard put him on dexamphetamine and a mood stabiliser, Read’s mental health improved dramatically which allowed him to become productive, focussed and to avoid a return to crime.  Dr Orchard reckons there should be compulsory adult ADD screening of people coming into jail which might save the community a substantial amount of grief and money.

The memorial was a curious affair, attracting a wide range of fans from elderly ex-prison types through to twenty-something hipsters.

Read once said he would be suspicious of anyone who came to his funeral but they came to praise, not condemn him.

Craig, who described himself as an older crook, said that many in the criminal fraternity had bagged Chopper “but I give the bloke something, he never robbed old people and he never touched kids.”

(Read was derided by criminals as a police informer, which may or may not be true. Certainly no-one has come forward since his demise claiming that Read had ratted on them.)

Cameron, a casual acquaintance, said Read had once urged his son to stand up to a school bully. The “five foot nothing” kid had decked his much larger tormentor the next day. Sadly, the boy had died last year and now the pair would be having fun in heaven, said Cameron.

Maria Frendo, a former gallery owner, said she had some misgivings about holding a show of Read’s art. Read had consulted a number of books and studiously copied what he saw, but with a twist. Here was Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly transformed into “Mrs Kelly” with “massive great breasts,” she said. All the works had sold within 20 minutes at prices above $4000 each. Read’s show had cost the gallery numerous customers, but it had been worth it, she said.

Former Prison Fellowship International worker Bill Sutcliffe recalled Read as a “great survivor, an entrepreneur and a great character”.

“He wasn’t a great criminal,” according to Mr Sutcliffe said.

In a written statement, Read’s manager Andrew Parisi said that the Chopper character was far from the reality of Read’s life since his release from jail in 1998.

“Chopper continued to play the hard man in the media, in books and on stage. He continued to spin yarns, some funny and some gruesome, because he knew that’s what people wanted. He was very accommodating in that way.”

“Today, as we lay him to rest, we ask you to remember one thing. If the circumstances are right, if they really want it, everyone has a shot at redemption.”

And that’s really the moral of his story.

While many find the glorification of a violent criminal distasteful, Read’s legend will only grow in death.  His 13 true crime books continue to sell briskly, and the Chopper movie has garnered DVD sales of 240 000 units to date. Read’s version of the folk song “Plastic Jesus”, made famous by Paul Newman in the 1967 film “Cool Hand Luke”, was released as a single on iTunes this week. Heath Franklin will probably continue to tour his parody of “Chopper Read” which he credits as the reason that he was able to work in comedy full-time. I find his Chopper a little cringeworthy, but imitation is the most sincere form of flattery

Meanwhile, Channel Nine’s Sixty Minutes program has been promoting a final interview with Read this Sunday in which he claims to have committed four murders, a significant discount on earlier claims of up to 19 killings.

There are other stories that may never be told.

A lady wrote to me with one at the weekend. Mark had helped her through the toughest time in her life. She was the driver of a car that hit and killed a man. Facing 5 years jail, she wrote to Mark.

“He was in prison at time I had just read his 1st book. The book had his prison address on it so I wrote to him and got such a surprise when he wrote back. Chopper helped me through my court case. He just told me to stay strong always, to believe in your innocence no matter what court says. If I was to go to prison I should walk in with my head up and keep it that way. I did go to jail for 4 months and I did as he said. I walked out stronger than I was before I went in.

He sent me a Xmas card few years back. He said it was left over so he thought he would send it to me, his way of checking to see how I was going. I love the man and I’m gunna miss him.

I’ll miss him too. He was extremely generous and helpful to me as I started my career as a crime writer in 2003. In fact he was about the only criminal type who would speak to me at the beginning.

I quickly realized that Mark Brandon Read was far more than the “Chopper” caricature he allowed himself to become. He was a doting father to Charlie and Roy and a loving husband to Margaret. These were the people who had turned him into a human being, he said.

People did not want to let Chopper go, they wanted to revel in his toecutting, blow-torching badness. So he served it up in great gory slabs in his books. Then Eric Bana in Chopper (2000) took his image around the world. He deserves a place in Australian artistic history but I wouldn’t know which category to put Mark Read in. He was a cultural phenomenon.
Even when he told people he was making stuff up, they didn’t want to believe it. He earned his living from playing a character created in prison but, the truth be told, Mark Brandon Read had buried Chopper a long time ago.

Courtesy of Mark "The Hammer" Dixon

Courtesy of Mark “The Hammer” Dixon

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