REVIEW

In the Time of the Manaroans: An extraordinary memoir of life in a rural hippiedom in New Zealand

In the Time of the Manaroans by Miro Bilbrough. Ultimo Press. Buy it now

Aged 14, Miro Bilbrough embarks on an extraordinary adolescence as documented in this sublime memoir.

It's 1978 when Bilbrough's father is summoned to collect her. Bilbrough's communist grandmother Margaret has kicked the mouthy teen out of her Wellington apartment, and so her father takes her back to the Floodhouse, his ramshackle place outside Canvastown, South Island.

The Floodhouse is also a way station for the Manaroans, charismatic, oddball hippies who break their journeying around the country there. So begins young Bilbrough's entre into rural hippiedom, a society and a culture unlike anything else around her.

The book is a polished amalgam of anecdote, character sketches and family histories, elevated by Bilbrough's exquisite wordsmithing.

In the first handful of pages alone, she demonstrates a beautiful compression of family histories woven around that fateful expulsion from Margaret's apartment, and her introduction to life in the counterculture.

At the Floodhouse, and later at the Pines, the nearby commune of the Manaroans, Bilbrough, her father and their fellow travellers live in a sort of pre-industrial dreamscape: water is fetched from the river, there is no electricity and the most basic sanitation. Communal food supplies wax and wane, and hunger is commonplace.

Free from both the luxuries and the distractions of the modern world, there is a surfeit of time in which to daydream, think, sketch, read or do nothing. Her father makes little nests in his bed, where he sits sketching and writing in his journals, amidst boxes, books and scraps of paper. "He likes a house of neglect, my father." Indifference to housekeeping, or even to watertight rooves, will be a mark of both establishments.

While Bilbrough is frank about the rural poverty, and slum-like conditions she lived in as a young person, this is no misery memoir. She is remarkably unjudgmental about family members, the eccentrics who drift in and out of the scene and about various older men with whom she has joyless sex.

She is clear-eyed too about all the pros and cons of the "malnourished hippy trip".

A shy authorial voice is balanced with gutsiness here. Under her own steam, Bilbrough completes high school, becomes a freelance illustrator, leaves the commune when her relationship sours, finds work in Wellington and enrols as a design student at Wellington Polytechnic.

Her artist's sensibility - she is now a poet, writer and filmmaker - ultimately serves her better than others from the scene, helping her to craft a life and this fine memoir from the rich pickings and contradictions of Kiwi counterculture.

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This story Welcome to a New Zealand rural hippiedom first appeared on The Canberra Times.