Q&A: Ian Caren, Launchpad

Ian Caren was born in Everton and despite being told at school that he wasn’t clever enough to go to university he trained as a teacher, is a qualified social worker and has three degrees. He’s been working in social services, charity and probation since he was 21 and has been CEO of Launchpad, Reading’s leading homelessness prevention charity for over 14 years. He is a fanatical Everton supporter and season ticket holder and eats to live, so is held in great disregard by the gastronomic part of his family. He is married with three children (one of them, to his shame, a Manchester United fan) and lives in Fleet.

In this crisis, Launchpad’s work is more vital than ever. Click here to donate to its COVID-19 appeal.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
I miss talking to people, visiting the Oxfam book shop, hugging my grandkids and going to watch Everton.

You’ve run the organisation you lead for nearly fifteen years. What, for you, defines leadership?
I think having a passion to do the right thing for the vulnerable of Reading is important in my role, and good leadership is never asking your staff to do something that you won’t do. Having a good team around you is also key to good leadership; not thinking you can do everything yourself.  I’m sometimes like Don Quixote – tilting at giants when they are in fact windmills – and, like everyone else, I get things wrong. But I have talented people around me to put me on the right track.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Growing up in a tenement in Liverpool in the late 50s and early 60s was bleak. My earliest and happiest memories of food were having chips in the rain at the park and a meat pie for tea. The worst was being offered bread and dripping if I was hungry.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The people. Reading is a fantastic community and full of life. It has a vibrancy unlike elsewhere in Berkshire. If it was to be a shop it would be the Oxfam book shop!

What is the worst job you’ve done?
Working in an abattoir – the smell of the vats of blood was appalling.

You are an avid reader and recommend a book every month on your CEO blog. What writers, living or dead, do you most admire?
I read for knowledge and enjoyment. Fiction would be John le Carré and his early novels; I loved Cold War spy stories. A sci-fi writer would be Iain M. Banks and his Culture series of novels.  I read masses of history books and the most impressive writer is Jonathan Fennell who rewrote the history of the British Army in World War 2.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
My wife is Italian and it was at a family’s in Galatone, Apulia in Italy. There were thirteen courses which finished with banana liqueur cake – it tasted unbelievable. There’s also one meal that almost beats it: fresh grilled swordfish and chips on the harbour side of Calabernardo in Sicily.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“It’s what we do”!

Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
My eldest son Daniel is a food guru and he has plans for a party at one of the restaurants he loves, Yauatcha in Soho.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen during your time at Launchpad?
The biggest change in my period at Launchpad has been the increasing levels of poverty, which is heartbreaking. I also find the betrayal of people under 40 a disgrace, perpetually stuck in rented accommodation and regularly forced to move. I have staff members in their 40s who have never lived in their own flat, they’ve always had to live in shared accommodation. I find that unacceptable: the way a significant proportion of people are effectively forced to live the rest of their life like students is appalling.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
Casablanca – the La Marseillaise scene is so emotional. The Godfather: “Tattaglia’s a pimp. He never could have outfought Santino. But I didn’t know until this day that it was Barzini all along.” Brilliant! And The Cruel Sea, to remember my Uncle Tommy who died out in the Atlantic in June 1942.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Peter Kay, John Cleese, Tina Fey, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I would spend the evening in hysterics.

What was your most embarrassing moment?
My children have a long list of my embarrassing moments. The most recent episode was recently falling off my bike in the pouring rain, rolling down the canal embankment and straight into the canal. I was standing in the canal thinking, how do I get out? I eventually pulled myself out and cycled six miles home covered in mud!

Where is your happy place?
Northumberland and Cisternino in Italy – they’re both beautiful, haunting places full of history and silence.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
Walkers Prawn Cocktail.

How do you relax?
This week I watched the satellites pass in the night sky and downloaded an app which told me the bright star was the planet Venus. I love to learn and find it relaxing: I’m contemplating a PhD in history.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
That we cannot stand alone.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Dessert wines.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I wrote a couple of history sections on Wikipedia.

Describe yourself in three words.
Compassionate, committed, (occasionally) unforgiving.

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