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Page last updated at 14:51 GMT, Wednesday, 14 October 2009 15:51 UK
Soldier illustrates the art of war

Sketches from Afghanistan
As well as being an artist Matthew Cook is a corporal in the Territorial Army

By Boc Ly
BBC London

Earlier this year Matthew Cook was sitting in a water-filled ditch in Helmand province trying to shield himself from a surprise Taliban attack. Faced with such danger, Matt did what he was sent there to do: He flipped open his sketch pad and started drawing.

Matt, 45, a professional illustrator, completed two tours of Afghanistan with the Territorial Army (TA) in 2006 and 2009.

His two worlds will be coming together in a forthcoming exhibition at the Ministry of Defence featuring his sketches and paintings.

Now, safely ensconced in his north London home, he talks about his experiences in Afghanistan, being a war artist and how Prince Charles became an admirer of his work.

When did you first join the TA?

I joined the TA in 1991, at the time of the first Gulf War. Ironically it was to get away from drawing; it was to switch off and have a bit of a break. I have since left the TA, and re-joined and then left again and rejoined.

I am now a section commander, a corporal, in charge of about eight people. Both the 2006 and 2009 Afghanistan tours were just drawing trips. They tried to get me out there as a TA solider which would have been easier for insurance and pay but it didn't work out.

What were your initial impressions of Afghanistan?

The first time was 2006 and it was just before all the fighting really started in Helmand. It seemed quite peaceful and calm. The troops were patrolling in soft hats. We were still taking casualties and the occasional shooting but it wasn't everyday. It was once every two or three months.

So it was a bit of a shock going back this year where it was incredibly violent and just a different world. But it was also a different area, I had been to the capital of Helmand before but not out into the dusty desert.

Matthew Cook
They would let me go off somewhere and say 'Come back in a couple of weeks, or whenever you find your way back.'
Matthew Cook

Were there any restrictions on what you could draw in Afghanistan?

I thought there might be but surprisingly once I was on the ground they were fine.

I was handed around from regiment to regiment and because they knew I was in the TA, they would let me go off somewhere and say 'come back in a couple of weeks, or whenever you find your way back.'

So they were quite good at just letting me go off and doing my own thing.

What happened when you came under fire from the Taliban earlier this year?

It was a ground patrol with about 30 British troops and it was a show of force so the locals could see there was a security presence.

We stopped by one of the poppy fields for about 10 or 15 minutes and generally if the locals are around then it means it is quite safe. It is when they have disappeared and it is too quiet that something is going to happen.

This car came to a screeching halt about 50m away and it was packed full of fighting age men but the car was brand new and very clean so it stood out.

A soldier got out of the ditch to say 'Hi, who are you,' but as soon as he jumped up the car just scooted off. In army speak that is known as a combat indicator.

About five minutes later, massive bursts of automatic gunfire came out of the setting sun but I was unaware of this because I was in the middle of rolling into a ditch and getting a stick in my eye!

There was a spray of rounds and dust was kicking up. The Taliban were at different firing points 180 degrees to our front, and each firing point just took it in turns opening up on us. I had to pinch myself that it was real. It was very bizarre.

Did it not occur to you that it was a crazy situation to put yourself in for the sake of a few drawings?

I was too busy trying to do my drawings! That was my defence system kicking in and it's my way of coping with that situation!

But a lot of your images are quite serene...

Sketches from Afghanistan

Yes… I am quite prolific and I do a lot of drawings because there are so many weird and fascinating facets of war but you're right.

There is one drawing, it is of one of these Taliban firing points and it is as the sun sets and there are just puffs of smoke and it looks like a peaceful bonfire but those are the 40mm grenades going off and all the rounds from where the Taliban are firing from.

To me I see it as an incredibly violent scene but my wife sees it as a peaceful sunset! So obviously I am not conveying that sort of violence!

How did the Prince of Wales end up writing the foreword to your exhibition catalogue?

I sent His Royal Highness a sketch I did of the Marsh Arabs because I had heard he was quite interested in them.

I also have a friend in the TA who used to work for the HRH, so those things ticked over and I wrote to him again. This is for a charity and I think he is far more supportive if it is for a charitable cause.

I met him at the Mall Galleries just after he wrote the foreword and he said 'I have been watching your career.'

Are you still in the TA?

I am although I've been reading in the newspapers about them stopping all training.

I think we are supposed to be heading out in 2010 to Afghanistan but now I am not quite sure. Suddenly everything is up in the air. It is mad when you hear about things through the paper rather than through the official routes.

What are you working on next?

I am trying to get out drawing with the United Nations to do drawings of refugees. That could cover conflicts in throughout Africa and opens up the whole globe. My wife is dreading that, but who knows?

Matthew Cook's exhibition, Sketches from Afghanistan, is at the Ministry of Defence from Thursday, 20 October. A 64-page catalogue with a foreword from HRH Prince of Wales is being sold in aid of the Army Benevolent Fund.

In Pictures: Sketches from Afghanistan
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