Before I go on about Mark “Chopper” Read (I will be brief!), I suggest you read this profile on Chopper by John Sylvester, the crime reporter for The Age who knew the guy and who, along with Andrew Rule, helped Chopper’s forays into the literary world. Of course I hadn’t read his books myself, so as to how the oeuvre of Mark Read compares with that of, say, Peter Corris, I must claim ignorance.
I can still appreciate the scam, a self-mutilating antihero from deepest, darkest Collingwood who found himself elevated to a cultural icon by writing all the bad things he did. It gave him a way to get out of the game and rehabilitate after a fashion. Upon going legit, he kept writing books, and settled back into the Caringbush. Sure, he got to do a few roadshows with Jacko (another Mark better known by his sobriquet) and various other ratbags, had his own beer before bespoke craft beer became a thing, and had a knack of annoying people by getting on TV and just being himself, all the while wondering why the big fuss.
No doubt the Chopper books helped popularise the crime genre in this country. While Aussie crime noir has had, of course Peter Corris, as far as the visual medium goes, shows like Scales of Justice and Phoenix may come across as a bit anaemic these days. The Chopper books tapped into a brasher yet worldlier vein, recognising that most criminals are pretty stupid, but the sharp ones can be lethal. It’s the reason there are endless Underbelly series. Consider: some of the most influential Australian cinema of the last few decades has crime and criminality at its centre, and they usually make a bit of a ripple overseas too. Romper Stomper. Two Hands. Animal Kingdom. Wolf Creek.
And of course the Chopper film slots right into that list. Eric Bana copped Chopper’s mannerisms and put in a performance that kickstarted a formidable Hollywood career for Bana, getting him out of the ghetto of TV sketch comedy and bucolic ABC tea-time drama. The movie also made a larger-than-life image out of Chopper that he could do little to quell but from what I hear he could see the funny side of it.
A few years later, another TV sketch comedy show, The Ronnie Johns Half Hour saw Heath Franklin debut a new character, a spoof based more on Bana’s movie portrayal than Read himself, who we might call Uncle Chop-Chop. The definitive Uncle Chop-Chop skit was the “Harden The Fuck Up” segment, where Franklin, playing Bana, playing Read, dispensed nuggets of advice to various people suffering from First World Problems such as being named “Stefan”. The prescription for their ailments was typically a dose of cement mix to be taken orally twice a day.
(The HTFU phrase itself took on a life of its own, featuring on black wristbands that were partly popularised by the pro cyclist Stuart O’Grady who gave them to his teammates as a bit of a gee-up. At the time it seemed like a pretty funny riposte to those ubiquitous yellow Livestrong bands, but with O’Grady’s recent confessions about using EPO early in his career, perhaps professional cyclists just shouldn’t get involved in spruiking inspirational wristbands.)
Closer to the source, William Gibson cited “Chopper From The Inside” as a reference source for his novel Idoru: “Anything I know of the toecutting business, I owe to the criminal memoirs of Mark Brandon ‘Chopper’ Read. Chopper is a great deal scarier than Blackwell (a character in Idoru – Ed.) and has even less ears’. I suspect there may have even a bit of Chopper in the characterisation of Omar Little in The Wire, who like Chopper in his early days, held up drug dealers because that’s where the money was.
When Chopper revealed he had liver cancer but would not take a liver transplant because he didn’t deserve it, he may or may not have accounted that he had already lived longer that he had counted on. The inevitable lionisation will put the wind up certain quarters (because people can’t shut up about Ned Kelly and Breaker Morant either) but in the wash-up, Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read will have been responsible for less deaths of innocents than Scott Morrison.