Today’s Art ( 9th April 2018)

Well, once again, I was feeling uninspired. So, today’s digitally-edited painting is a remake of this old painting of mine from late 2014/ early 2015 that I’ve been meaning to remake for quite a while, since I was curious about what it would look like in my current style.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Trendy 90s Cafe (II)” By C. A. Brown

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Today’s Art (8th April 2018)

Well, this (heavily) digitally-edited painting was a bit rushed. Originally, I’d planned to make a “realistic” still life painting of an audio cassette, but since I was running late with everything, the only way I could salvage the painting was to use bolder and slightly more surreal colours and to use a less realistic background. Still, it gave the final painting a cool 1980s/90s-style look though 🙂

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Audio Cassette” By C. A. Brown

Review: “SiN: Wages Of Sin” (Expansion Pack For “SiN”)

As regular readers of this site know, I reviewed a very nostalgic cyberpunk-influenced FPS game from the late 1990s called “SiN” recently. And, because I bought a direct download of the “SiN Gold” collection (when it was on special offer on GOG last summer), it also came with an expansion pack from 1999 called “Wages Of Sin” too.

If you’re too young to remember expansion packs, they’re kind of like modern “DLC” but larger and more impressive. Often, they would be anything from one to two thirds the length of a full game (but, there are exceptions) and they would originally be sold as boxed CDs. So, yes, “Wages Of Sin” is pretty much almost a full-length game (with 15-20 levels or so). In fact, I’d even go so far to call it a sequel to the original game.

Still, you might possibly need a copy of the original “SiN” to play “Wages Of Sin” (although the in-game menu gives you the option to play the original game) but if you get the “SiN Gold” collection on GOG, then this is included anyway.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Wages Of Sin”:

Taking place a while after the events of the original game, John Blade is still hunting for Elexis. However, he has other things on his mind.

And not just dramatic car chases!

There have been reports of strange creatures killing people on a construction site, not to mention that it seems like the local Mafia boss – Manero – seems to be up to something too…..

One of the very first things that I will say about “Wages Of Sin” is that it is way better than the original game in so many ways! The difficulty curve is fairer, the combat is more enjoyable, there’s a greater degree of visual variety between levels, there’s even more humour, there’s better level design, there’s a much greater variety of enemy types and it’s just, well, cooler.

Even some of the loading screens look more badass too!

You also get some cool night vision goggles in one level too!

To give you an example, the first level or two of the expansion are genuinely creepy horror-themed levels that take mostly place in gloomy, claustrophobic subterranean tunnels (but, unlike the gloomy areas in the original game, you actually have a torch this time!).

Seriously, this one little change improves the game so much! No more stumbling around aimlessly in the dark! Plus, although the torch has a limited battery, it’s so large that you’re unlikely to run out.

Not only are there monsters that are reminiscent of the “Licker” monsters from Resident Evil 2 but, when you shoot some of the bloated “zombie” enemies that you encounter, a mutant spider crab creature will sometimes burst out of their chests in a very “Alien“-like fashion. Seriously, this expansion starts out really well. These early levels even reminded me a little bit of “Doom 3” in some parts.

And “Resident Evil 2” too 🙂

And those are just the first few levels- there’s also an art gallery, a laboratory, a nightclub, an opulent casino, a swanky penthouse, a shipping terminal that is split into three segments etc…

Seriously, the variety of locations here is so much better than in the original “SiN”. Yes, I’d have liked to have seen more neon-filled cyberpunk locations, but the focus on more opulent locations helps to give the expansion a slightly “Duke Nukem“-style atmosphere too.

Always bet on Duk… I mean, Blade.

Unfortunately, this cool-looking nightclub really doesn’t appear for anywhere near as long as it should!

Amusingly, there’s actually a silly cutscene if you jump out of any of the windows in this room.

There’s even possibly a slight nod to the “Blood” games here too, with a level where Blade witnesses an ominous robed man giving a dramatic speech to a horde of mutants. The level that precedes this cutscene is fairly short, slightly repetitive (since you sort of revisit an earlier area) and kind of random – but it features some astonishgly epic music that reminded me a little bit of the original “Blood“.

He doesn’t appear anywhere else in the game and seems to be part of the set up for a sequel that never really came to fruition, but this part of the game is still really cool 🙂

Plus, true to the original game (and 90s FPS games in general), there’s a good dose of humour here too.

Not only does Blade get a few new lines of dialogue when he defeats his adversaries (eg: “Barney Miller is back!”, “Cleanin’ up the gene pool” etc..), but the hilariously sarcastic radio conversations between Blade and his assistant JC also return in abundance too 🙂 One stand out comedic part of the game is probably the art gallery level, where Blade and/or JC will make comments when you stand near many of the paintings:

And I’m guessing that this is probably a cameo from the developers. JC seems to think that they’re rock musicians though.

Not only that, the levels also seem to be far more well-designed too, with most of them being non-linear enough to require exploration but linear enough to prevent you from getting lost or stuck too often. Yes, I got stuck once or twice – but it didn’t happen nearly as often as it did in the original game, not to mention that it wasn’t that hard to work out what to do (which is just as well, given the near-total lack of walkthroughs for the expansion on the internet at the time of writing).

Likewise, the enemy placement in “Wages Of Sin” is much fairer than in the original game. Yes, there are a couple of “trial and error” segments but this expansion avoids many of the cheap tricks used in the original game (eg: placing snipers behind the beginning of a level etc…) and the combat just feels fairer. Yes, it’s still thrillingly challenging – but it rarely becomes frustrating. Likewise, the couple of levels that could be *ugh* stealth levels actually make the stealth parts totally optional too 🙂

For example, if you get spotted by a camera in this level, Blade will just shout some (bleeped) dialogue and you’ll have to fight a few more henchmen, but you DON’T automatically fail the level.

The combat in this game is also improved by the fact that “Wages Of Sin” is a bit more generous with both health and ammo placement too, which also helps the game to feel a little fairer (without reducing the challenge too much either).

Not only that, the larger variety of enemies (various mutants, Mafia members and a few enemies from the original game) helps to add some much-needed variety to the combat.

Yes, THESE guys return – but there are only a few of them and plenty of other types of mutants, robots and henchmen too.

However, there is one “cheap” new enemy here – in the later parts of the expansion, you’ll encounter tiny flying robot drones. They blend into the shadows slightly and have a powerful laser attack (which you only have about a second to dodge at most). Given that your health will probably be below fifty for large parts of the game, trying to shoot small, rapidly-moving flying robots whilst also dodging their powerful attacks can be frustrating to say the least.

And, if they’re difficult to see in this screenshot, then imagine what it’s like in game!

The boss battles in “Wages Of Sin” also follow a much better difficulty curve than in the original “SiN” too. In the first one, you have a large monster and a medium-large arena. In the second one, you have to fight two waves of large monsters in a medium-sized arena.

Although I don’t know whether this really counts as a “boss battle” or not. Still, given that you don’t encounter these monsters anywhere else in the game, I’d say that it does.

The final boss battle, against Manero, is the most challenging boss battle in the game – as it should be. Not only do you have to shoot down his helicopter, you also have to fight him when he’s wearing a “photonic shield”, when he is using a cloaking device and when he isn’t.

And yes, the “Photonic Shield” just happens to make him look like the T2 from the second “Terminator” film…

Still, even this fiendishly difficult boss battle is beatable if you use the right strategy (hide under the platform at the beginning of the level, crouch and shoot at his helicopter with rockets. Once he’s left the helicopter, jump off the platform when he gets near you, wait for him to jump off, then run up the ramp and wait for him to run up the ramp – whilst he’s doing this, shoot at him. Rinse and repeat.)

This strategy even works when he’s using the cloaking device. Although JC annoyingly tells you to use the night-vision goggles you found earlier in the game – however, I didn’t have them during this level!

“Wages Of Sin” also introduces a few new weapons too, some of which are useful.

The stand-out weapons are probably the dual pistols and a plasma crossbow that can be used to either one-shot enemies or as a device for laying timed plasma mines (eg: the crossbow bolts explode after a couple of seconds if they get stuck in the floor or a wall).

There’s also a mediocre flamethrower, a recharging concussion gun, a nuclear rocket launcher (which you get to use three times and that’s it!) and a remote control that fires a burst of about five small missiles. These weapons are cool, but you probably won’t be using them that often. Still, it’s good to see an array of creative new weapons on offer.

Not only does this weapon look cool, but you also get a decent amount of ammo for it too. However, it’s lack of accuracy and the fact that the rocket launcher is a better long-range weapon mean you probably won’t use it that often.

All in all, compared to the original “SiN”, “Wages Of Sin” is a major improvement – it’s fairer, more spectacular and just generally more fun. On it’s own merits, it’s a reasonably solid late 1990s FPS game that takes heavy influence from mid-1990s FPS games (like “Duke Nukem 3D” etc..) in terms of humour, location design etc…

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four.

Review: “SiN” (Retro Computer Game)

Like with “Blood II: The Chosen” and “Shogo: Mobile Armor Division“, “SiN” is one of those games that I first discovered on a magazine demo disc when I was a lot younger – but only got round to actually getting the full version nearly two decades later. If I remember rightly, I thought that the demo was kind of cool, but didn’t really get into it that much. Then again, I was playing it on a Pentium 166 computer, so it was probably a bit slow…

Still, when I noticed that the “SiN Gold” collection (which also contains the expansion “Wages Of Sin” that I’ll review in early April) was on special offer on GOG last summer, I just had to get the full version of this half-remembered game. Although the extras for the GOG version of this game aren’t spectacular, the manual is definitely worth reading just for the hilariously immature 1990s style humour. Yes, even the manual contains comedy!

Plus, although I rarely directly recommend one game site over another, the version of this game that is available on GOG is closer to the original game than the version available on Steam. This is because the Steam version apparently contains some censorship (eg: the removal of suggestive content, marijuana references and/or pop culture references from some of the game’s textures), whereas the GOG version seems to be the original uncensored version.

Anyway, this review has been nearly two decades in the making. So, without any further ado, let’s take a look at “SiN”:

“SiN” is a first-person shooter game from 1998 by Ritual Entertainment, which uses a modified version of the “Quake II” engine. Set in a dystopian cyberpunk future, you play as John Blade – an elite member of a private security organisation called HardCorps (pronounced “Hardcore”, because it’s from the 1990s).

Being from 1998, Blade only looks THIS realistic during the game’s few pre-rendered cutscenes though!

After a report of a robbery at the local bank, Blade goes to investigate – with a sarcastic ex-computer hacker called JC providing remote support for him. Of course, what begins as a routine “shoot the bad guys” mission quickly turns into something much larger and much more menacing…..

One of the first things I will say about this game is that it contains some of the best and some of the worst elements of 1990s FPS gaming. It is a game that you will hate to love, or love to hate or both.

For everything it gets right, it also gets something wrong. For every moment of gameplay that is brilliantly fun, there will be another one that will frustrate the hell out of you. Let’s just say that I’m glad I got another two decades of FPS gaming experience before playing the full version of this game!

Seriously, don’t let the easy on-rails turret segment at the beginning of the first level fool you, this is a challenging game!

Yes, this isn’t an easy modern FPS game! Even on “standard” difficulty, this game is hard. HardCorps, even! Sometimes, this challenging difficulty is achieved in enjoyable and fair ways (which fans of other challenging old FPS games like “Final Doom”, “Blood”, “Duke 3D” etc.. will love). When it is at it’s best, the combat in this game is thrillingly challenging, and well within the traditions of 1990s FPS gaming.

Yay! Late 1990s FPS gaming 🙂 Seriously, there will be very few combat-based screenshots in this review because the game’s combat requires your full attention and reflexes!

Plus, this game contains a proper saving system – with none of that annoying modern “checkpoint saving” rubbish either! So, remember to save regularly! Seriously, save your game once every minute at least! I’m not joking here…

Seriously, you’ll be seeing this death animation (and hearing the accompanying voice-over from JC) a LOT! So, save often!

But, for all of the “good” difficulty, a fair amount of the game’s difficulty is also achieved in all sorts of cheap, borderline unfair and/or annoying ways.

This can include things like placing long-distance snipers directly behind the beginning of a level (and it’ll take you several deaths before you work out where they’re shooting from), sending infinitely respawning waves of henchmen at you during one level, extremely gloomy areas with few to no light sources, a *ugh* stealth level, a (thankfully optional) vehicle segment, occasionally stingy ammo/health/weapon distribution etc…

Yes, a stealth level! One of those boring, frustrating, slow-paced levels that has no place within a thrilling FPS game!

The game’s difficulty curve is also a little bit uneven too – with earlier boss battles being considerably more difficult than the final boss battle at the end of the game, to give one example. Likewise, some of the game’s more difficult levels occur earlier or during the middle of the game, rather than consistently towards the end.

So, yes, you will need the kind of perseverance and determination that can only be gained by playing other fiendishly difficult retro FPS games and/or modern fan-made levels for “Doom II” in order to complete this game. And, yes, it can be completed! Just don’t expect to do it in a single weekend though!

Like a lot of old FPS games, “SiN” is a full-length game! It’s up to you whether you consider this to be either “good value for money” or “Oh my god! This game is so long! I’ll never finish it!“, but it contains something like 20-30 challenging levels – with some larger levels being split into two halves.

However, the quality of the level design is extremely variable. For every great, interesting-looking, thrillingly fun and/or inventively non-linear level – there’s also a level that you will probably get completely and utterly stuck on.

Often, you’ll be able to work out what to do after you’ve spent 10-80 minutes wandering around in circles. But, occasionally, you’ll find yourself so stuck that you’ll actually have to look online for a walkthrough – only to find that the solution is seemingly “obvious”, but implemented in a way that doesn’t make it obvious to the player.

For example, all you need to do to lower this lift is to press a little button. Yes, that tiny little thing shrouded in shadows that is really, really easy to miss if you don’t know to look for it! *shakes fist angrily*

I almost had to check a walkthrough for this bit. Fortunately, I eventually happened to look upwards and notice a crane on top of a tall building nearby that I was supposed to shoot.

Still, that said, some areas of this game look really cool. Yes, there are a lot of generic-looking levels, but this game can get really creative sometimes – including locations such as an oilrig, a vaguely “Goldeneye”-style jungle segment, a surprisingly good underwater segment, futuristic areas with cool lighting, a creepy mansion etc..

Seriously, more of the game should look like this!

Finally! An underwater level that I DON’T hate!

The weapon and enemy designs in this game are acceptable, but not quite as creative as many FPS games from the mid-late 1990s. Although the later levels give you some slightly more interesting weapons and include a greater variety of enemies to fight, many of the early levels mostly involve just fighting almost identical henchmen (who are very vaguely similar to the Strogg from “Quake II” but with different graphics) with the standard pistol, shotgun and assault rifle. *yawn*

Still, there is a certain element of skill to the combat, since this game allows for headshots (which you’re going to have to use regularly, since the henchmen are bullet sponges otherwise). Likewise, in the earlier parts the game, enemies will occasionally shoot your weapon out of your hands.

However, you have to manually pick up any ammo etc.. that enemies drop by pressing the “use” button. Yes, you’ll get used to doing this after a while, but it can be confusing at first.

Even so, the later parts of the game are certainly better, and the monsters on offer include robot spiders, robotic zombies (the Strogg again?), large muscular mutants and even a monster who reminded me a bit of the Bandersnatch mutants from an early 2000s Playstation 2 game called “Resident Evil: Code Veronica X“:

Yay! Survival horror 🙂

“SiN” also comes from an age where FPS games weren’t dreary, “realistic”, ultra-serious things. In other words, this game actually contains some creativity and humour! Whether it’s the numerous sarcastic conversations that Blade and JC have over their radio or lots of silly background details, this game doesn’t take itself ultra-seriously.

For example, the bad guys in the first level quite literally kiss their asses goodbye when they die.

Yes, this humour might not be to everyone’s taste, but it really helps to add some light-hearted fun to the game, not to mention that it also keeps the player’s spirits up during some of the more frustrating and/or annoying parts of the game. For example, whenever Blade kills one of the monsters, robots, mutants or identical henchmen you’ll face throughout the game, he’ll sometimes say a vaguely “badass” line such as “Ha! Schooled ya!” etc… Seriously, this is wonderfully 90s 🙂

However, I should probably also point out that this game is a bit “politically incorrect” by modern standards. I have mixed views about this.

On the one hand, the game’s immature humour can still be absolutely hilarious at times. However, some other parts of the game do seem a little uncomfortable by modern standards – such as the game’s “men vs women” theme (eg: Elexis’ speeches, Blade’s frequent use of the word “bitch” etc..). So, yes, this game can be somewhat eyebrow-raising when played these days.

In terms of music, this game is reasonably good. Although some of the music is kind of forgettable, some of the music – especially in the later levels – is fairly good, and it really helps to add some atmosphere to the game. Seriously, I’m kind of annoyed that GOG didn’t get the rights to include a MP3 copy of the soundtrack for this game as a bonus (like they’ve done with some other games).

The voice-acting in this game is absolutely brilliant too. Whether it’s Blade’s gloriously cheesy “tought grizzled action hero” dialogue, or JC’s constant sarcasm over the radio or Elexis’ melodramatic “sophisticated villain” dialogue, the voice acting is wonderfully fun 🙂

All in all, this is both a great and a terrible game. If you’re looking for 1990s nostalgia, you’ll find it in abundance here. But, don’t even think about playing this game unless you’ve had a couple of decades’ worth of FPS gaming experience! This is a game that demands perseverance, and which will barely play fair with you sometimes. Likewise, the level design is of varying quality too. Still, it’s imaginative and silly and creative and… well… FPS games don’t really do this kind of thing any more.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a three.

Today’s Art (26th March 2018)

Well, this digitally-edited painting was kind of an interesting one. Originally, I felt somewhat uninspired until I remembered a really cool music video/concert video I’d discovered a while earlier and had been watching on repeat. So, I suddenly had the idea to make a music-themed painting.

But, fairly soon after I started sketching, the picture went in much more of a stylised 1980s/90s direction (what a surprise..). Interestingly, this painting originally had a much more detailed background (with a keyboardist and lots of vaguely industrial-looking machinery – you can still see part of it above the green light in the background) but this kind of made the picture look a lot less dramatic or focused, so I ended up using a more minimalist background in the end.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Stage Lighting” By C. A. Brown

Nostalgia Is A Different Source Of Artistic Inspiration For Everyone – A Ramble

A while before writing this article, I found that I was going through more of a nostalgic phase than usual. However, rather than looking for “new” things from the 1990s and early-mid 2000s that I’d never seen before in order to learn more about these familiar, but still tantalisingly mysterious, parts of history – I found that I was much more interested in revisiting “old” things and old memories.

Whether it was old things like Ocean FM, late night channel 4 broadcasts, “South Park”, various audio cassettes, certain old computer games, Youtube videos of the Windows 98 “Maze” screensaver, shouty early-mid 2000s metal songs etc… these were all things that I’d experienced before in some way or another. They were a mildly more “personal” type of nostalgia.

To use a slightly more vague example, when I went out to water a plant in the early evening before preparing this article, the air had a cool yet warm crispness to it and a slight floral/dried grass smell which suddenly made me think of random things from my childhood. It made me think of old kitchens, metal tins, green shoeboxes, a vaguely American-style church in Havant that I saw during the late 1990s, a pair of hideous old curtains, the very first time I ever tried to pull an all-nighter and a whole bunch of things that are personally nostalgic, but not “nostalgia”.

And this made me think about nostalgia and artistic inspiration. Because, most of the time when I try to make “nostalgic” art, it is often based on a highly stylised (and Americanised) version of the time periods that I’m trying to evoke. It’s often more based on the internet pop culture “version” of the decades in question than my actual memories of 1990s and early-mid 2000s Britain – like this:

“From The 1990s” By C. A. Brown

“Future 2004” By C. A. Brown

Of course, this is an easier way to make “nostalgic” stuff for the simple reason that the research material is more easily available. Likewise, it often relies on a commonly-known set of visual symbols (eg: for the 1990s, this would include things like floral prints, floppy disks, sweatshirts worn like belts, backwards baseball caps, audio cassettes, POGs, Tamagotchis, game cartridges, VHS tapes etc..). But, the downside to doing this is that these types of nostalgic art can lack individuality and personality.

Yes, the exact mixture of “nostalgic” pop culture and technology that is alluded to in this type of nostalgic art will vary heavily from person to person. And, to a large extent, this can be a good way of adding some individuality to your nostalgic art. After all, the really cool stuff that instantly makes you think of the 1990s or the early-mid 2000s will be at least slightly different to the things that evoke the same feeling in other people.

But, making art based on actual memories and/or feelings of nostalgia is significantly more difficult. This is mostly because memories can fade or blur over time, which means that trying to make “accurate” art based on them can be next to impossible. Yes, you can make art that sort of vaguely looks a little bit like them, but the exact details will probably be wrong. Like this:

This is based on my vague memories of ferry journeys during the mid-1990s and of how modern and “cool” the duty free shops looked back then. Again, it looks nothing like what actual duty free shops at the time probably looked like.
(“Duty Free 1996” By C. A. Brown)

The exact feeling of nostalgia is also one of those things that is near-impossible to put into words, let alone into pictures. It’s one of those highly complex emotions which can simultaneously exist in several versions and which also varies from person to person too. It is something that cannot be described or depicted fully and will always get “lost in translation” whenever this is attempted.

For example, one of my “nostalgic” moods is heavily based on the mood that childhood memories of visiting my cousins, listening to novelty “South Park” songs and/or looking at Windows 3.1 evokes in me. It’s a wonderfully warm, cosy and reassuring, but understated, mood. It is also a strangely “American” mood (even though I’ve never been to America). It’s a mood that I also experienced slightly when I played this set of modern “Doom II” levels. But, no doubt, this entire paragraph probably won’t tell you a thing about what this mood actually feels like.

So, yes, the less specific and personal nostalgia happens to be, the easier it is to use for artistic inspiration. But, even so, your own version of “pop culture” nostalgia will still be somewhat unique for the simple reason that the exact mixture of commonly-known inspirations you use will probably be slightly different to everyone else’s.

———–

Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Short Story: “Village” By C. A. Brown

It had probably appeared in a film. That is, if films were even known about here. I’d like to think that if anyone showed up with a camcorder, they’d probably have to explain the whole concept of “moving pictures” to the people who gathered in awe around the new-fangled “horseless carriage” that had just ground to a halt on the side of the street.

But, of course, this was just wishful thinking. As Tom brought the car to a halt next to a thatched cottage, he turned to me and said: ‘That hovel probably costs more than we make in a decade, Sally. Rustic chic or whatever. You’ve probably read about it in one of your magazines.

I laughed: ‘Nah. It reminds me of more of a bootleg Sisters Of Mercy record I got from this guy at a concert last year. The cover is this really bad photocopy of a group of uptight Victorians lining up outside a church that looks just like….‘ I pointed through the windscreen at the stone church at the end of the deserted road: ‘Anyway, if this was a posh village, there would be Land Rovers on the street and people with shotguns and tweed jackets.

Tom shrugged: ‘The Land Rovers are probably all in garages and they’re probably rich enough to hire farmhands to shoot their pheasants or whatever. Have you got the map?’

I fumbled through the mess of empty cigarette packets and mint boxes in the glove compartment before pulling out a well-worn OS map. We stretched it out and pored over it for a minute. After finding the nearest large town, we’d tried to trace our route but, no matter how many variations we tried, we still ended up at the same unmarked crossroads. Finally, Tom said: ‘We’re in the rustic village of Lost, population two.

They’ve gotta have a shop around here somewhere. We can ask for directions. That is, if it doesn’t offend your deep sense of tradition.

You’ve been watching too many sitcoms, dear.‘ Tom smirked, before opening the door. I opened mine and stepped out of the car. As I spotted a familiar red phone box standing tall beside what looked like a Victorian school, the faint smell of a bonfire reached my nose. It was one of those old smells that didn’t exactly reassure me. Above us, the sky was pencil grey.

I sighed: ‘On the downside, it’s probably going to rain soon. On the plus side, it won’t take us long to find a shop or something.

Tom smiled: ‘Don’t worry, I think that the pac-a-macs are still in the boot. I mean, I left them in there after that…‘ He wisely let the sentence trail off. A few weeks ago, we’d spent a “romantic” camping weekend in some rainy field in the New Forest that, by the end, had resembled something from a World War One battlefield. How the tent didn’t sink, I’ll never know.

Shrugging, we set off down the street. I was right. It didn’t take us long to find the village shop. It was locked.

Flashing me a lopsided smile, Tom said: ‘It’s probably one of those places that opens at three in the afternoon every other St. Swithin’s Day. We’re better off driving around at random until we find somewhere populated‘.

I couldn’t argue with that. As we walked back to the car, Tom spotted the graveyard next to the church. Spiky iron cages stood in front of the lopsided stones. A spindly, mutant tree towered in the back corner of the field. Tom raised his arms like a zombie and put on an American accent ‘They’re coming to get you…

His eye-rollingly predictable horror movie reference was cut off by the rain. There wasn’t even a rumble of thunder or anything. One second, everything looked normal and then it was like we were standing in the middle of one of those trendy power showers.

Without even thinking, we rushed into the little alcove in front of the church doors. Our way out was blocked off by a solid wall of water. I couldn’t even see the car through it.

Behind me, I heard Tom knock on the door. It was followed by a slow creeeak. For someone who watches almost as many horror movies as I do, Tom really hadn’t learnt anything. He stood next to the dark doorway and smiled: ‘Hey, maybe the vicar can give us directions? Don’t worry. If they didn’t want us going inside, they’d have locked it. Anyway, churches are meant to be open to anyone.

With a nervous sigh, I nodded. We stepped into the gloom. What faint light filtered through the windows showed rows of dark wooden pews, worn memorial plaques and stone pillars. Tom thought about calling out, but the words stopped in his throat. This place made a library seem as loud as a motorway. It was the kind of deep, heavy silence that doesn’t even need sternly-worded signs to tell you to keep it.

Then, I saw him. Against the shadows, something moved. Tom spotted it too. A robed man glided past the bare altar, his face hidden by a hood. We ducked behind a pillar and watched. Another hooded man followed. On some rational level, I knew that they had to be harmless monks. But, in a village like this? This was the kind of place where King Henry VIII’s decree to dissolve the monasteries probably still hung on the local notice-board.

When the third robed man appeared, Tom and I decided to make a break for it. We didn’t say anything to each other. We just nodded and tiptoed. Once Tom creaked the door shut behind us, we ran into the rain. Luckily, the car was directly ahead – but we almost ran straight into it.

Once we’d locked the doors and Tom had revved the engine, I caught my breath. We coasted off into the rain. Finally, I told Tom my thoughts about the monks. He just shook his head: ‘I visited a monastery museum in France when I was a lad. Real monks wear brown or grey robes. Their robes were red.