Fiction Review: Bent Twigs

Bent Twigs
Wally Harbert, Blackie and Co
ISBN: 1904986153,


Only three social services directors who clearly loved writing emerged from the 1980s and 1990s: David Townsend, ex-Croydon, and Jef Smith, formerly City of London, both developed the short vignette into almost an art form, although in very different ways, writes Drew Clode.

Only Wally Harbert, who taught our new director general at the Department of Health, David Behan, a thing or two about management as director in Avon, has consistently aimed at more substantial works.

In some ways his latest book is disappointing. Often the writing is unusually clumsy; there’s scant ear for dialogue; and the language of the social services committee report too often squashes the emotional content Harbert is pursuing. Although he passionately explores the fate of two girls caught in the bleak abusiveness of a large community home 20 years ago, he runs the risk of focusing his anger too closely on dissolute councillors, a weak and ineffectual chief executive, greedy and self-seeking chief officers and staff who are, with few exceptions, clapped out or abusive.

Indeed, the director of social services and one of his social workers seem, at times, to be the only characters to act with any sense of principle and responsibility towards the girls in their care. The consequent persistent undermining of the social services department leads to tragedy for some of the girls, a life of abuse by two staff and, ultimately, the resignation of the director himself.

Despite imperfections as a novel, it remains one of the few attempts to tackle the daunting task of describing the political and emotional complexities of social care management within the 1980s residential settings, the intricacies of the social work task and the impact of the care setting on the personalities of those involved.

The author shows the affection and concern for young teenagers that Tory leader David Cameron and England’s children’s commissioner Al Aynsley-Green would find totally acceptable. Not least, he doesn’t flinch from tackling the serious breakdowns in relationships between local politicians (whom Harbert clearly loathes) and chief officers who threatened a few local authorities during that turbulent decade.

Drew Clode is press adviser to the Association of Directors of Social Services

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