Fitzroy: The Biography

In 1974, at the launch of Robert Ashton’s photographic profile of Fitzroy, a young local poet known as .O. (pronounced Pi-O), grabbed a bunch of the books and ran out into the streets screaming that he was liberating them for the real people of Fitzroy. Forty-one years later, .O. has written his own profile of Melbourne’s oldest suburb – Fitzroy: The Biography. It is a 700-page collage of portraits of those who have inhabited or passed through the suburb, from Robert Hoddle in the mid-19th century to Muhammad Ali in 1979, written from the perspective of a true insider.

Like .O.’s other works – for instance, his number poems, which are constructed entirely of numerals – Fitzroy expands the notion of what the poetic language can do. He experiments with the boundaries between prose and poetry, utilising old newspapers and local folklore. It is an anti-Wikipedia history. Radically local and personal, it is also a database of love and sorrow.

Like the architecture of Fitzroy, the chronology  jumps decades, even centuries. This means it doesn’t have to be read straight through. You can pick out names and places from the contents page – Allen Ginsberg, Mary MacKillop, Squizzy Taylor, The Grace Darling.

.O. has lived in and around Fitzroy since emigrating from Greece with his family in 1954. Fitzroy is in parts explicitly autobiographical, tracing his family’s life from Bonegilla Migrant Reception Centre to their high-risk existence working their father’s sly grog and gambling joints. It is a volatile environment in which fear often expresses itself as violence. But emerging from this is a unique humour and vitality. The image of .O.’s family working together – feeding the gamblers, prostitutes, drunks, punks, bikies – explodes with energy.

The book ends in the late 1970s, with .O. working full time as a draughtsman to support his family. His artist/anarchist friends accuse him of being “middle class”, though they themselves are interlopers, displacing people by causing rent rises. Their shallow hypocrisy  foreshadows the logic of gentrification. “They talked about how they belong here in Fitzroy, and how they fit in,” .O. writes. “I felt trespassed on… I didn’t have anywhere else to go; i  didn’t come from ‘outside’.” Fitzroy writes against this gentrification by uncovering the life and language of those who have been built over: “ ‘the people are the city’ Shakespeare said, and I guess i’d agree with that.”  WB

Collective Effort, 700pp, $55

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2015 as "∏.O., Fitzroy: The Biography". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: WB