30 May 2001

Chopper for children

Mark “Chopper” Read has written a children’s book. Yes, the Mark “Chopper” Read, notorious self-confessed murderer and former stand-over man, now best selling author and media cause célèbre.
The 3000 word fable, to be illustrated by Sydney artist and 2000 Archibald Prize winner, Adam Cullen, is a far cry from Read’s previous titles such as “How to Shoot Friends and Influence People”, “No Tears for a Tough Guy”, or “Hits and Memories”.
“It’s called ‘Hookie the Cripple’ and I invented this story when I was 18 or 19,” Read told The Bulletin from his Tasmanian rural home, where, after spending 23 of his 46 years in jail, he now lives with wife Mary-Ann and two year old son, Charlie.
“It’s about a hunchback in 16th century Italy,” recounts Read, “who every day for 21 years is tormented by the local butcher to the point where he stabs him 21 times. When he goes to court, no one will defend him then just as all is lost the greatest lawyer in all of Italy steps forward…”
Read and Cullen are “in negotiations with several publishers” but, can a book by Mark Read about child abuse, fatal stabbings, and a criminal trial be a book for children?
“It’s less violent than an Aesop’s fable but I’m not talking about toddlers here,” Read retorts. “It’s for teenagers. It’s like an adult children’s story…adults would enjoy telling it to kids. I told the story to Andrew Dominik and he was gonna put it in the Chopper movie. But unfortunately Eric Bana couldn’t pull it off.”
“It’s true,” confirms Dominik, who wrote and directed multi-award winning feature. “We shot it twice with Eric, but it didn’t quite work, so we cut it. We are going to release that footage as an extra on the DVD.
“I always found the story of Hookie the Cripple completely fascinating in what it says about Mark. I think it’s very much a disguised version of Mark’s own story.”
Read’s own childhood was dominated by a religious zealot mother who, when Read renounced her faith, had him committed where he underwent electric shock therapy. After showing a “kindler, gentler” Chopper to the world in last months’ ABCTV documentary, Australian Story, is ‘Hookie’ Mark Read’s plea for understanding?
“No, I think that’s a very feeble excuse to blame childhood on how your life’s turned out. There are people who had childhoods as bad as mine that end up High Court judges. The story is what it is, and people can draw their own conclusions.”
In recent months Read has struck up a close friendship with Cullen, and the two talk several times a week by phone and correspond via hand written letters. Apart from ‘Hookie’, they are working on several other collaborations, and Cullen is planning a portrait of the man he calls “Chop Chop”.
“I’m interested in Australia’s criminal history and I’d read almost all of his books,” says Cullen, “so I contacted him with a view to doing an artwork and we hit it off straight away.
“Chopper almost personifies the kind of work that I’m doing which is really about the underbelly of the Australian experience.”
Says Read: “They reckon we’re the perfect combination. I’m the bad boy of the literary world – I don’t think anyone would confuse me with Bryce Courtney – and they call Adam the bad boy of the art world, the mentor of the mentally ill. In his case I think they probably just mean ‘artistic renegade’ ¬because Adam’s a pretty nice person really, a decent chap.”
Since writing his first book “Chopper: From the Inside” in 1991, Read has become a one man media event, publishing nine books, releasing music and spoken word cd’s, becoming the subject of an internationally acclaimed feature film, and making legendary appearances on live television, as Lisbeth Gore, Kerry Ann Kennerly and Alan Jones can all testify. In recent months Read has also been the subject of controversy over his appearance in several advertisements – one for a pair of sunglasses and another advocating road safety. But Read claims he’s profiting from his talent not his notoriety.
“No one has that much notoriety that they can go out and sell 500000 books. It’s not as if people are rushing out saying ‘oh, he’s notorious, we’ll immediately run out and buy his book, we won’t read it because we don’t like him, but we can put it on the mantle piece.’
“It’s quite obvious that people like what I’m writing.”
Critics are quick to point out that the victims of Read’s crimes or their families will never have the luxury of building a media profile out of their pain and anguish. Read, about to publish his tenth “true crime” book, fully expects more controversy over ‘Hookie’.
“There will always be the inevitable reaction whenever my name is mentioned,” he says. “My critics are blinded by their personal disgust that a person like me should dare to write a book in the first place. I’ve got to live with what my critics say about me, but I know when I’m dead other people will come along and have something else to say.
“I will probably never live down my past and I will just have to wear it. I’ve run out of answers trying, I simply have nothing to say.
“There is nothing I can say.”
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First published in The Bulletin

1 May 2001

Regional Leap

A renewed engagement with Asia was the pitch when the heavy hitters of art and capital congregated at the Art Gallery of New South Wales today (Wednesday). They were there to hear former PM, Paul Keating, officially launch the Institute of Asian Culture and Visual Arts, or VisAsia,.
With its headquarters in Sydney, and corporate backers like IBM and Malaysian construction giant IPOH Garden, the peak body is promising a ‘great leap forward’ in cultural co-operation throughout the region.
In a quest to develop new audiences for art and new sources of corporate funding, VisAsia will pool the resources of the AGNSW’s own Asian Art Department with those of other major public galleries in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, China, South Korea, and Vietnam.
The unique model is the initiative of AGNSW director, Edmund Capon, and prominent trustee and 1996 Australian of the Year, Dr John Yu, who will serve as VisAsia’s first chairman.
Capon said VisAsia will provide the new Asian Art Gallery (opening early 2003, part of a $13 million re-development) with a steady stream of quality exhibitions from partners like the Hong Kong Museum of Art, and the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore.
Capon said he had personally invited Keating to appear because of the latter's ability to "send a message”.
“Our political body language toward the region in recent times has not been what you would call warm,” he said.

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First published in The Bulletin