Of ships and shoes and sealing-wax (and cabbages, and some kings).

At the weekend I came back from a brief three-day visit to St Petersburg. As with the best travel though, I feel I filled those days with many things, sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, and also three months’ worth of vodka drunk. I never want to hear the phrase ‘complimentary vodka’ again.

My friends left on an earlier flight to me, after much laughing and walking and beauty and drinks and ballet. As fun as it was, part of me has always really liked being alone in a strange place, so I was glad of the few hours to wander about. It’s as if the membrane of the everyday is all removed, and I’m totally alive to every sound and sight, floating on the mild terror of being lost in a big unknown city.

I had a few hours to kill, so I decided to visit a museum about the Blockade – when the city was shut off by the Nazis between September 8 1941 and January 27 1944.

The museum is housed in a stupidly beautiful palace (because pretty much every building is thus, in St Petersburg), on the banks of the ink-black river. It was a chill bright day, quiet as the city always is, a sort of pervading silence from the water and sky and stone. I was the only person in the museum, along with twelve staff that I counted. First there was the ticket woman, who shouted at me because I didn’t have a smaller note than 1,000 roubles. Then there was the cloakroom man, who shouted at me because I didn’t put my coat in. He then ran round to the entrance to check the ticket I’d just bought, right before his eyes (did I mention I was the only visitor there?) Then there were the multiple old ladies in every room, glowering at me if I breathed too close to an exhibit or stood more than the regulation 1 metre away, or whatever it was I’d done (This is a theme in Russia. I got told off about twenty times a day by old ladies. Chiding is like a national sport).

The museum itself, though devoid of any English labels, was fascinating, and being alone (chiding old ladies excepted) made it more special, as I wandered through silent palatial rooms. Much of St Petersburg harks back to an older, more elegant world, where priceless works of art are stored in cupboards, no one rises till 10am, and cream comes with every meal. This was an insight into the other past. The one no one likes to remember.

Read what it says.

For 900 days, the city held out against the Nazis. To begin with, they had only enough food for two months. As time went on they ate their pets. They grew cabbages in the cathedral (see picture). They boiled up books to make soup. They developed bread that was only 9% flour, the rest non-organic. They didn’t give in. They died, hundreds of thousands. They had no strength to bury their dead. There were dark rumours – human flesh consumed, children sold, women lured and murdered to make a meal. But they didn’t give in.

Cabbages and cathedrals.

In the museum you can see pictures. The stoicism was what got me. You see a figure dragging something behind them on a sled, in the snow. A small bundle, wrapped in white. You wonder what it is. You realise it’s a dead child.

You can see the diary kept by an eleven-year-old girl, where she records the days each of her family died, one by one. You can see the fake bread they created in labs. You can see the trucks crossing the ice of a nearby lake, the one supply route occasionally open. You see people falling down in the street, too weak to carry on. But they don’t give up.

At this point I had to stop taking pictures because the old lady ran after me shouting ‘No Mobily! No Mobily!’

I went to the museum because last year I had written a novel with a Russian backstory – my heroine, in modern-day London, discovers her father had been a Soviet defector with a murky past. Now, this illustrates something of the charm and danger of research. I’m quite often asked about this, because people assume crime writers are mired in research up to their inky fingernails. I’m not though. Firstly, I tend to get too wrapped up in the research, spending days clicking from footnote to footnote, when I should be working on my story and character. People don’t read fiction to find out the history of biological warfare in Russia, though it is rather fascinating. Secondly, I am quite lazy. I can never seem to find out the exact niggling detail I want to check, amid an avalanche of information. Thirdly, I do genuinely believe too much research will kill your book. It’s fiction, you know? It’s an illusion, it’s spinning plates, it’s misdirection. Real life is mostly quite dull.

Child survivors of bombing.

Anyway, the book about Russia never quite took off, though I’m still fond of it; hence the research trip to the museum. I had decided my heroine’s father probably grew up in St Petersburg during the war. As a child, he’d have seen terrible things, probably lost both parents. When I found the picture of this little boy, I decided he could be the father. So, an interesting morning. I learned a lot. I became even more fascinated by Russia. But as to whether it makes my book any better, or helps with my already spiralling plot to add in loads more detail about the Blockade (‘Gregor nursed his book soup as the Nazis advanced’, that sort of thing), I don’t know. Research isn’t story. If you’re good you can do both, but if not, I say choose story. If people want fascinating facts they can go to non-fiction.

Children’s drawings from the Blockade.

Anyway, I left the museum wiser and more learned, with the old lady shouting in my wake and selling me more and more books on the Blockade (she saw me coming). In cities, there is always more history. There is always another story to find. You may find it in dusty rooms, in abandoned palaces, in old books, in a dream or a newspaper or out of the ether, but find it, and let that be your guide.

The door in the wall

Tomorrow I’m going to Russia. Saint Petersburg. The Arctic Circle, a frosted cake of a city, a dream risen out of a swamp. The last time I went I was going the other way, traipsing back the long way from a year in China. Saint Petersburg was my last stop before I entered Europe, and went back to my old self and old life and old dreams, folded stale into drawers.

I was 23. My hair was long and uncut, I wore cheap dresses, and my only shoes were made from tires and turned the soles of my feet black. I went there with my then-boyfriend, who’d grown a beard and carried a guitar across two continents. He’s married now. Got a kid. We email, sometimes.

I can only remember the city in scraps, torn off the end of a long roll of memories. Buildings painted pink and blue and yellow, a diluted quality to the light, every street crossed with water, and jewelled palaces waiting for people who’ll never come back, and going to some awful nightclub that throbbed with sweat and where no one smiled. We were broke, so we ate kebabs and slept in a dorm with ten other people and fifteen thousand mosquitoes. It rained one day and I sat in a park reading Dostoevsky (that’s the kind of pretentious 23 year old I was). That’s all I remember. The rest is all washed away.

I’ve been places since, of course, new and wonderful places filled with unfamiliar light and the smell of spice and rot, but I’m excited about this trip in a different way. It’s the first time I’ve been back to anywhere I went that year, and I feel the past is somehow very close. Like it’s in the next room, and I can hear it breathing through the walls. If I could only find the door maybe I could glimpse myself, very young and more than a little lost, flip-flopping down a side street. Sometimes I re-read the things I wrote that year, and I’m back there. That’s what writing does for you. Writing is the door in the wall.

I’m 30 now, and in seven years life has changed a lot. It’s filled with people I hadn’t imagined, and spent on a job I wouldn’t have dreamed I could do as I sat awake on swaying night-trains, scribbling in cheap notebooks with a torch gripped under my chain. A job I’d already given up on having, before I’d even tried. Tomorrow, I hope, I’ll go through that door. I wonder if the city will have changed, or if only I will.