Comment: A reflection on the criminally inclined

"Chopper" Read regarded himself as a national icon, a modern-day Ned Kelly who only harmed other criminals (AAP)

Don't dismiss Mark Brandon "Chopper" Read as a no-good criminal. The underworld figure turned raconteur has earned his place in Australian history, writes Renée Brack.

When I flew to Launceston with the Hard Copy crew in May 1992, Chopper met me at the airport in a big, old tan car from the 70s and a pump action shotgun resting on the rear dashboard.

He insisted I ride in the front passenger seat of his car - separate to my crew - while he chatted behind me.

He offered me a ‘lady’s gun’ - a 1938 Berretta pistol to fire off a few shots out the window.  I did.  It seemed like the polite thing to do. An ice-breaker if you will.  He laughed and added ‘it’s always handy to have a second set of prints on a gun.’

Then he asked me what I wanted to shoot [on tape] first.  I said, ‘your daily life.  What do you do at 10am on a week day?’

Chopper said, ‘I go to the Evandale Pub and drink Dirty Fathers.’ *

So off we went.

It was Chopper’s first big media interview for a national show.  After three days of shooting, I returned to Sydney.  Then five days later, the story was suddenly international. Chopper was accused of shooting a man, police linked him to the gun, they subpoenaed my tapes as evidence for the prosecution and Chopper went back to jail with a sentence of the Governor’s Pleasure normally applied to the criminally insane.

Chopper made a living mostly by preying on other criminals.  He’d stand over people who’d robbed a bank and take the money.  So he wasn’t well-liked in the criminal community. A Sydney underworld identity said, ‘the worst thing about Chopper is – he doesn’t mind jail.’

He was a sensational storyteller.  Some called him a liar. I say he had a ‘gift for fiction’.  Having a drink with him was a fascinating visit into a world I only experienced at the movies.  As Chopper said, ‘posh people love gangsters’. I was a middle-class journo who knew this was going to be compelling viewing.

Chopper was a charming, engaging person to interview.  His intelligence was expressed through his rat cunning and comic timing.  In 1992 he said he wouldn’t have kids because they could be used against him.  But he did have kids and I hope the media and the public will remember they just lost their dad.

Judgmental people can be quick to dismiss Chopper as a no-good crim. A pest and menace to society.

But think about this: he did the crime and he did his time.  Then he turned from crime to delivering what the posh and middle-class people wanted. A show. He wrote books and toured to make a legitimate income.  A just society does not begrudge a person making a go of his life after paying his debts.

And he did what most career criminals don’t do – live to a relatively ripe old age.

Let’s not be hypocrites.  Chopper inspired an award winning movie that kicked off the careers of Eric Bana and director Andrew Dominik.  He has a place in Australian criminal history sitting on the timeline alongside cop-killer Ned Kelly and that sheep-stealing jolly swagman Australia made the star of the unofficial national anthem Waltzing Matilda.

I’ll remember him as the guy who showed me how to play Russian Roulette with a .357 Magnum – the gun used and recommended by Dirty Harry.

In his second book Hits & Memories, Chopper noted that if the gun did go off in my face, it wouldn’t have been such a great career move for me but it would have made great TV.

I won’t forget that.

Renée Brack is a journalist, media producer and adventurer.

*A Dirty Father is 5 white spirits in a 7 ounce glass with milk.

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