The news that one of Australia’s most notorious underworld figures, Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read, 58, died of liver cancer today, has prompted me to reflect on a series of interviews I did with him 10 years ago.
At the time, and then known as Caron James, I was Melbourne Editor of Woman’s Day magazine. The story was to be about his wedding to childhood sweetheart Margaret.
At first, I was reluctant to do the interview. My editor asked me if I would like a body guard! I declined, saying it wasn’t that I was in any way scared, just that I had problems with the ethics of doing such a story.
Anyway, I did do it. I met Read and Margaret at his favourite pub in the Melbourne suburb of Collingwood. He was personable and insisted on buying me a gin and tonic. Carefully, I called him “Mark”.
“Aww, call me Chopper,” he said, “Everyone else does.”
I turned to his wife and said, “Margaret, do you call him Chopper?”
“Of course not,” she replied. “I call him Mark.” So Mark it was.
This was a true love story. Margaret had met Mark in a fish and chip shop when they were teenagers, before he turned to crime. They went out for a while, but separated. But she always loved him. She waited for him for decades, never marrying anyone else or having children. Margaret lived a blameless life, working hard and buying a little house for herself. But she never forgot her first love.
Finally, in her 40s, they got back together again, after he had married (then divorced) another woman in Tasmania and had a child, Charlie. Mark and Margaret had their own baby, Roy, in 2003 when she was 43.
After the Collingwood pub interview, I met them several more times, attending the launch of one of his books and even going to their house to see their baby. I witnessed Mark as a tender father and loving husband, and it was hard to reconcile that image with the more commonly known one, the violent criminal who spent 23 years in jail, during which he cut off his own ears.
His life of crime was covered in the 2000 movie Chopper, starring the excellent Eric Bana, which in turn helped take Bana from Australian comedian to big-ticket Hollywood movie star.
I guess, at the end of the day, you have to give Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read credit for being rehabilitated, for joining society as a writer, artist, performer. Cynics would have a lot of criticisms.
Tonight, though, I feel sorry for Margaret, who has lost a man, a husband, the father of her only child, rather than the mediatised “former hitman” and later “colourful character” as the media depicts him.