John Gater walked by the working men’s club in Humberstone Gate one morning a few weeks ago, writes Lee Marlow.
He didn’t go in. “I wouldn’t ever go in,” he says. He hasn’t set foot in a working men’s club for nearly 40 years.
But the doors were open, and he could smell it. That signature bouquet of beer and polish.
The smell stopped him in his stride. It took him back, to a place in his memory he doesn’t like to see – the lounge at Gypsy Lane Working Men’s Club.
It was a splendid hideaway for an eight-year-old, the lounge at Gypsy Lane Working Men’s Club. There was velour everywhere, he remembers. Hoyes pop and Golden Wonder crisps.
And The Good Man who was kind to him, The Important Man who asked about his schooling and plied him with more pop, more crisps.
The Caring Man who would drape his arm around John’s young shoulder and stroke his hair and make him feel – this kid, this eight-year-old kid from Northfields who didn’t have a father – that he mattered.
That’s how it began, says John. Him and The Kind, Caring, Important Man who looked after him.
It ended, he says, in the worst kind of violation; a sordid sexual assault that would play out in the velour lounge of Gypsy Lane WMC every month over three years.
The Man who was the respected Labour MP for Labour West. The Man who died last month, escaping the justice that John and a small band of other unsuspecting boys, now middle-aged men, their lives all scarred by what happened to them, had hoped he would receive.
The Man who was Greville Janner.
Finally, John, 50, of Leicester, can tell his story.
It’s not as if he hasn’t tried to tell his story before. He approached Leicestershire Police nearly 10 years ago, but they didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for him.
“They didn’t want to know,” he says. They told him, instead, to “go to see his doctor”.
And then, last year, he saw an advert in the Leicester Mercury. A big ad, over two pages, a new message from the Police and Crime Commissioner, Sir Clive Loader.
“If you are a victim of historic sexual abuse, come forward,” he said. “We’re better at dealing with this now. We will listen to you.”
John felt as though the police commissioner was speaking directly to him. It was March 2015. He went back to the police. This time, they took John’s story seriously.
It turned out John wasn’t alone. There were more boys, just like him.
John Gater was the youngest of three children. His parents moved to Leicester in 1966 when John’s mum was pregnant with him. They settled in Northfields.
When John was three, his father left home. His mum worked all day and most evenings to keep a roof over their heads and food on their table. John was a latch-key kid. “I had to grow up quickly,” he says.
He was a contradictory mix of things as a kid; independent, confident and yet emotionally fragile. “My mum was always busy, and I didn’t have a dad,” he says. He didn’t realise it back then, but he missed that father figure in his life.
He didn’t realise, either; he was easy prey for The Important Man who used the lounge at Gypsy Lane Working Men’s Club.
Mrs Gater skipped from one-day job to another – cleaning, factory work, anything, really – to pay the bills. The one constant was her part-time evening job as a pot-washer at Gypsy Lane Working Men’s Club.
She was there most nights, remembers John. He was either shunted off to a friend or a neighbour for the night or he would go along with Mum. “I didn’t mind that, I loved going to the club.”
He remembers the place vividly; the upstairs concert hall, the adjacent dressing rooms, bingo sessions, the pop and the bags of crisps.
Gypsy Lane WMC was his playground; free to roam where he chose. “I had the run of the place,” he says
Except the lounge. The lounge, with its plush velour and wallpaper, was out of bounds. No-one seemed to use the lounge, which was a bit odd, he always thought. It always seemed too grand a room to remain empty.
And then, one day, there was a man in there. A man and a table full of papers. A very important man, everyone said, in hushed tones as if they were almost afraid of him.
John Gater wondered why.
His constituency did not cover Gypsy Lane WMC – that was Leicester East – but he would turn up, a couple of times a month, with his papers and his folders, pressing the flesh of the stewards and the union men. He based himself in the club lounge.
John doesn’t remember the first time they met. He just remembers The Nice Man buying him pop and crisps and asking how he was getting on at school.
“Nobody asked me how I was doing at school,” he remembers. John liked that.
He liked it when The Important Man put his arm around his shoulder and stroked his hair as they sat in the velour lounge. It seemed like he cared, John says. He started looking forward to seeing The Velour Lounge Man, which, presumably is just what The Velour Lounge Man wanted.
THE abuse, when it started, was insidious. “It just… I don’t know…. it’s hard to explain… I thought maybe this was the way things happened.
“He bought me pop. He was kind to me. It seemed like this was what was expected of me, almost.”
What John didn’t realise – he was eight-years-old, after all – was that he was being groomed.
And this was the story he has wanted the police to hear: Every month, sometimes twice a month, for the next three years, he was sexually assaulted by the Labour MP for Leicester West in the velour lounge at Gypsy Lane Working Men’s Club.
“All I remember, really,” he says, “is that it hurt.”
At 11, John switched schools. He went to Soar Valley. He had new a timetable, a new routine, new friends. His regular trips to Gypsy Lane became less frequent.
He didn’t know who Janner was until a decade later. “I started to take more of an interest in politics,” he says.
“I read the Mercury, I watched political debates – and he was there. It was him.” He became a Conservative, he says.
There may have been other children he groomed at that club, he thinks. And there may have been people who knew that, or at least suspected, that this is what the MP for Leicester West was doing.
“If he was there, and I was in the club and I hadn’t seen him, he would send for me.
‘Where’s the little ginger kid without a dad – Mr Janner wants him…'”
He doesn’t blame people for not knowing. It was a different time, a different era. We didn’t think, back then, like we do today, he says.
For John, though, even at the age of 11, the damage was done. The die was cast.
He was a quiet, reclusive teenager, wary of authority. He struggled to form relationships. He didn’t realise why that was for a long, long time, he says.
John struggles to explain why he kept the abuse quiet for so long. There were all sorts of reasons, each of them, in isolation, not good enough to justify nearly 40 years of silence.
He had tried to block it out. He felt ashamed. He felt guilty. He felt no-one would believe him.
In January 2007, as his marriage crumbled, he decided to do something. “I would see him [Janner] in the Mercury and on TV and I would think: ‘You know, that’s not right. He shouldn’t be doing that…'”
He contacted Leicestershire Police. They told him to go and see his doctor.
The real tragedy here is not just John’s story – it’s that there were others, boys just like John, who had suffered a similar fate.
Greville Janner was investigated three times – in 1991, 2002 and 2006. He was never charged.
When he was finally charged in 2015, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, decided he would not stand trial as he was too ill. Janner died on December 19 last year, aged 87.
A trial of the facts, which was due to take place this April, will now not take place. The politician’s family insist he is entirely innocent.
“I understand that,” says John. “I feel sorry for them, really.”
But he also remembers the dying words of his own mother: “Nail the bastard, John.” The message stays with him.
Allegations of his child abuse will now be heard by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, led by the Honourable Lowell Goddard QC.
John is not hopeful. Not now. “You know how these inquiries work, they take years,” he says. “I don’t expect we will get to the bottom of this in my lifetime.”
What annoys him, looking back, is how Janner was protected each time the police came close to arresting him.
“You look back at the case and you can see the Establishment – the rich, the powerful, the privileged – close in around him.”
Leicester East MP Keith Vaz spoke publicly in the House of Commons in 1991 in defence of his colleague and how “delighted” he was to give him his “full support”.
Allegations that Janner was involved in any kind of child abuse were cowardly, said Mr Vaz, who called his political colleague the “victim of a wicked attack by people who simply did not care what damage they did to him”.
Twenty-five years on, Mr Vaz’s words still rankle with John.
“I accept he was defending a fellow Labour MP and colleague. But he knows different now, surely. He should apologise for what he said. He never has.”
John has written to Mr Vaz. The Mercury e-mailed Mr Vaz so he could respond to John’s comments. He didn’t respond.
There is a full meeting of Leicester City Council tomorrow night. John will be there. He wants to ask some questions.
Does the council agree a full inquiry should be held to determine the scope of Janner’s alleged abuse?
Should Barnett Janner House – a council-owned sheltered accommodation unit in Beaumont Leys – be renamed?
And can the council ensure no other innocent child – in light of the recent crisis and damning Ofsted report on the council’s children’s and young persons services – will ever be placed in a vulnerable situation?
Because that’s what it’s all about, says John.
All this is meaningless if it happens again.
Another innocent child, another life ruined.