Prepare to be a gangster?

Recently, on Richard Feidler’s Conversations, I heard the story of John ‘Chow’ Hayes, a notorious Sydney gangster.

Chow was born in 1911, the illegitimate son of a prostitute. His upbringing was erratic; he did not attend school after his 8th birthday.

He grew up in poverty and a world traumatised by the effects of WW1. Australia was depleted of men, and many of those who returned were traumatised.

Not surprisingly, Chow discovered the best way to survive was through violence, in which he excelled. One article describes his occupation as ‘stand over criminal.’

In 1952 he was convicted of murder. When the judge announced the sentence of death, Chow lunged at Detective Kelly, who had brought the charge, spitting at him and yelling, ‘You lying bastard!’

Kelly was, in fact, corrupt, but Chow had committed the murder.

Chow had ninety criminal convictions against his name, many involving violence.

The death sentence was commuted to life, and after serving out that term, he committed and was convicted of further criminal offences. When he was finally released from gaol in 1977, a broken and washed up man, he went back to what he knew, attempting to extort money with standover tactics.

The only life-skill he had learnt was violence.

A nephew, Bob Scott, later wrote, ‘I met many of Chow’s friends, most of them were either murdered or jailed.’

Chow’s world prepared him for a life of violence. There was a sort of inevitability about it.

Advent is a season of preparation. This Advent, I’m thinking about the nature of preparation – what is it?

Is it a way we make sense of what has happened to us, looking back, seeking to identify critical moments that made us who we are, ‘Ah, that’s how I was prepared for what happened.’

Is there a sense of inevitability about it?

Is it a closed circle, i.e. we are prepared for what we become, and then when we look back we say, ‘I can see now how I became who I am.’

I don’t want to believe in closed circles, but then the figure of Chow Hayes makes me stop and wonder.

In Advent, as we prepare for the coming of Jesus, we meet up again with John the Baptist.

This year, thinking about John, I see something that resonates with the life of Chow Hayes: in AD30, people left behind their formative environments, at least for a while, to go and see John. They stepped outside the ordinary to meet the extraordinary.

They journeyed into the wilderness near the River Jordan, a site that had strong mythic associations; the Hebrew slaves had crossed into the Promised Land at this point many years previously. It spoke of the promise of new things, things that couldn’t be prepared for.

You can’t prepare for what is genuinely new. You can only predispose yourself to it, and get ready for a wild time.

If only someone had taken Chow Hayes to such a place.

Where is that place/ space in Australia?