Read all about it

Mark 'Chopper' Read.
Mark 'Chopper' Read.

FIRST a confession. Your columnist and the subject of this week's story successfully conspired together to commit one of the crimes of the century.

The offence of which we speak may not be specifically addressed by either common law or statute but is enough to turn left-wing academics, chicken-winged novelists and right-wing tub-thumpers orange with outrage.

It is a series of little books on the life of one Mark Brandon Read, rightly considered to be the greatest crime committed against literature in the history of the written word.

Contrary to popular opinion, Read is no underworld mastermind and his criminal history is littered with blunders. His police record shows that when he broke the law he was usually caught and convicted.

Between the ages of 20 and 38 he spent just 13 months outside prison - hardly the CV of a top crook.

It was while serving one of these long jail stints he learnt that writing sentences beat the hell out of serving them.

For it is as storyteller that Chopper Read will be remembered. This is no accident.

For years Read has been available to any reporter looking for a quick one-liner on matters of crime, which means the underworld headhunter is now hunted for a headline.

And that, at least initially, was Read's motivation. He always wanted to be remembered - and he has got his wish.

When we spoke to Mark the other day to wish him early birthday greetings (he turns 58 next Saturday) he was in Queensland, an area where his one-man shows have been particularly successful.

These days the tattoos have faded, the quick gangster gait replaced by a shuffle and bourbon with prescription medication. He has been diagnosed with terminal cancer but despite regular stories declaring him done and dusted, Chopper refutes any suggestion he has the undertaker's number on speed-dial.

He wonders aloud whether being hit on the head so often (prison batons, iron bars and an icepick, among the weapons of choice) has destroyed the part of the brain that generates stress.

''I know they have told me I am supposed to be dying, but I just don't worry about it,'' he says.

The fact he has made it this far is a miracle in itself. He had been stabbed, shot, bashed and lived for years with a contract on his battered head. Now he is delighted to tell anyone who will buy a ticket to one of his shows that he has outlasted his enemies.

Back in 1990 your columnist wrote a double-page article in the Herald Sun calling him all sorts of nasty names after he was acquitted of the 1987 murder of Sammy ''The Turk'' Ozerkam outside St Kilda's Bojangles nightclub.

Police said it was a cold-blooded murder when Read pulled out a baby .410 shotgun and blasted the drug dealer in the face. Read said it was ''a clear-cut case of self-defence''. In the end the jury sided with Read. It was one of his few court victories.

Some time after the article was published Read sent us a jolly Christmas card (which was surprising as it was nowhere near Christmas).

It said, in part, ''My idea of a perfect Christmas would be to own a thousand room hotel and find a member of the Herald Sun dead in every room. May the Yuletide log fall from your fireplace and burn your house down. Seasons greetings and jingle bells. Chopper Read.''

In those days reporters could actually visit inmates and, intrigued by the card, we went inside Pentridge's notorious H Division to interview him.

Unlike most crooks, he didn't make excuses, didn't claim he had been railroaded and didn't blame his childhood. In fact, he said the article just scratched the surface and spent the next 90 minutes bragging about the crimes he had committed.

This resulted in another major story that made Read happy, but the parole board cross because it showed the man they were about to release believed remorse was an electronic code used by the military.

The result? An extra six months in jail. It was then Read wrote again, suggesting his story was a natural blockbuster. With little enthusiasm we suggested he write down some thoughts, and he responded with 300 letters that were bleak, black and funny.

With colleague Andrew Rule, I cobbled them together into a little book called Chopper: From the Inside, which was self-published in 1991 because no publisher would touch it.

Peter Corris, the internationally respected crime fiction writer, accurately observed that Read's first book was ''badly written, cliched, chaotically organised and partly bogus''. It also became a bestseller.

Acclaimed US crime writer Elmore Leonard became a fan, describing Read as ''a living legend … he's vicious, he's a brute''.

There is no doubt some of Read's stories are embellished, polished or, in some cases, stolen, but there is also no doubt that through the 1970s and 1980s he was one of the most dangerous men in Australia.

Some of his fans saw him as a vigilante who handed out rough justice to opportunistic drug dealers - a sort of no-eared Dirty Harry.

Read himself was less romantic. When we asked him why he specialised in attacking gangsters, he answered the question with a question.

''How much money you got in your pocket?'' The answer was around $20. ''So I could steal your 20 bucks and your second-hand Commodore and you'd go to the cops - or I can torture a drug dealer and he'll hand over six grand and never say a word. You do the maths.''

So who was the real Chopper Read?

Dangerous gangsters feared Read because he was a local version of an underworld terrorist. For years he saw himself as a street soldier who didn't care if he lived or died.

His ability to inflict and absorb physical punishment was legendary. He allowed another inmate to cut off his ears, commenting that once detached they jumped around like ''Mexican jumping beans''.

Read has always been a strange combination of gangster cunning and Boy Scout loyalty.

In 1978 he tried to abduct County Court Judge Bill Martin in a doomed bid to free his mate Jimmy Loughnan from prison.

As the story goes, when Read jumped on the bench and put a shotgun to the judge's head the prosector slid under the table and the defendant stood in front of the jury to protect them.

The stunned silence was broken only when the judge inquired, ''Will someone get this bastard off me?''

Read was sentenced to 14 years. Loughnan later stabbed him in the guts - so much for loyalty.

Once, when given tickets to a Barry Michael boxing event, your columnist invited Chopper as a guest.

We sat together although he looked uncomfortable and rarely concentrated on the ring.

A few days later when we inquired why he seemed so distracted he said, ''You've never invited me anywhere, so I just thought you were in trouble and needed back-up.''

While many feared Read the standover man, they hated Read the author. For he did something they could never forgive: he laughed at them.

When Cherub Pictures bought the rights to his story he told producers that Eric Bana, then a little-known comedian, should play the lead.

Years later Bana tested for the role and proved a natural. The actor met the gangster in a Hobart pub and quickly picked up Read's mannerisms.

After the film was released Chopper commented, ''The trouble is, Bana does a better Chopper Read than I do.''

The truth is, Read had been playing Chopper for years. When the underworld war was in full running he was offered a couple of comeback murder contracts.

''I could have done it, but I would have been caught. I couldn't do jail time any more.''

One of his peers - an equally dangerous man - decided to jump back in and took three murder contracts. He is now inside, a broken man destined to die in jail.

In more serious moments Chopper says he can hardly remember the violent psychopath he once was.

Back then he was so dangerous because he had nothing to lose.

Now that has changed. Having married Margaret, whom he has known since they were teenagers, he craves a version of a normal life.

At his 50th birthday in a Collingwood pub he said he had one wish - ''To live long enough to see my sons grow up'' (Charlie, from his first marriage, and Roy, from his second).

But he could never really lose the old Chopper - his whole franchise is based on what he was, not what he is.

In his first book he wrote, ''I regret nothing.''

Yet he once confided away from the autograph hunters, the pretend tough guys and the backslappers, ''That's bullshit. Most of it was just a waste.''

This story Read all about it first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.