The new edition of The Real Chopper is on sale now. It’s the smaller B format for those who like to carry their reading material around with them. Still one of my favourite works, showing how Chopper didn’t just lie outright but told a deeper story with another set of true characters that he sought to protect, even as he exploited them to build his own legend. Chopper’s story really speaks of the way myth is created in jail and the underworld. Another chance to thank Nathan Billings for his great researching work on this book and many others who helped unravel the mystery. Copies happily signed. Nice work on this photograph above by Jack Shand by the way.
Chapter 1 − Myth-Man
In the dreary morning light, Read’s face radiated a brownish-yellow hue. He had recently returned from a final holiday, on Daydream Island in Queensland with his wife Margaret and son Roy. The suntan had mixed with the jaundice to produce a startling burnished patina, almost like a bust moulded in clay. His face so drew the eye that it drained the colour from everything else around and the trees, the grass and the sky had all merged into an indistinct grey murkiness, like black and white television from the 1970s.
Stricken with liver cancer, Read’s condition had deteriorated quickly; the weight had fallen off him in recent weeks. The yellow eyes were weary and hollowed out, and his body seemed to swim in his now oversized down jacket. As I shook his hand, my left gripped his shoulder and drew him to me in the studied, manly half-embrace of the Melbourne crime set. The 18-inch biceps of his heyday were long gone, but the middle-aged padding was disappearing too. Under his clothes, the skin hung on his bones like a loose-fitting skivvy embroidered with a tapestry of prison tattoos and scars. Once a sign of his power and persona, the skin seemed no longer to belong to him, as if a frail and vulnerable Mark Read was wearing the pelt of another: the myth-man Chopper Read that he’d created.
‘So you’re going to write a book about me? Is that right? I’d better be nice to you then, hadn’t I?’ he said, arching an eyebrow in mock horror. Even that seemed to be an effort but he could still summon up the old repartee, delivered with a flash of the gleaming cobalt false teeth.
The idea amused him: talking to a biographer whose work he would never get to read.
There were many like me looking to get their last piece of Chopper Read, he said. Plans for documentaries, TV exposés, tell-all stories for the women’s magazines were all well underway. He had recently met with Frank Howson, the writer and producer of Chopper the Musical. He was somewhat disappointed to learn it would be staged in 2015, two years after his anticipated demise, if the doctors were right. He wasn’t expected to see Christmas.
He was nonetheless pleased to learn the piece would be highly authentic, only slightly embellished for dramatic effect. ‘It’s not a piss-take or a send-up,’ added Frank Howson in the Herald Sun. ‘If you look at Chopper Read’s life, it’s quite operatic − there’s drama, there’s violence, there’s wit and there’s redemption.’ Authenticity was important, or at least defending the legend.
In the latter regard, I was clearly a threat.
‘You could just go and do a bloody Chopper Read on me, couldn’t you?’ he said.
I nodded. We both knew what that meant. I could say anything I liked once he was gone.
‘You’ll be there writing, “Oh, there I was walking along the street and suddenly out of a gay massage parlour comes Chopper Read!”’
Mark Brandon Read was always the storyteller. Yes, there had been ghostwriters and collaborators, five at last count. There had been a legion of journalists, documentary makers, music producers, screenwriters and authors, all trying to interpret what his life had been and what it meant. But the voice was always his, no matter how unreliable the content.
In jail, he had created a legend, and on the outside he had moved into it. He inhabited and exploited it, like no other criminal in Australian history. He undermined Australia’s criminal elite, stole their stories and then laughed in their faces. Then outlived most of his generation.
But we never really knew Mark Brandon Read. Chopper sneered at the notion that anyone could have real insight into others. Everyone is a mystery to themselves, he said, so how could anyone presume to know somebody else? It was the height of arrogance to suggest such a thing. He did not become a writer to get people to understand him. In some sense, the creation of an alter ego afforded Read the luxury of avoiding scrutiny of himself. His writings were just a gimpse into hisheart and mind’.
Everyone looked for the meaning of life. But if God came down to earth and we could ask Him personally, we would be disappointed, according to Read. God would tell us to piss off, he’d be too busy looking for the truth himself.So why bother asking.