There are occasions that thankfully have been almost completely exorcized from my memory. But sometimes a split-second vision of what happened can be recalled, and just as quickly, and gratefully expunged.

I remember nothing of the battle for Beirut. It was stormed, among others by an Australian division in which I was serving - heaven only knows why - as a Royal Engineers sergeant. The city was noisily defended by the Vichy French army, which eventually surrendered. But I didn't get there until much later.

I can recall climbing aboard an open troop-carrying vehicle along with a platoon of Aussie infantrymen. I still don't know why.

Then blank . . .

For about fifteen seconds I was vividly aware of being carried on a swaying stretcher into a casualty clearing station.

Another blank. . . .

I came to in a hospital train. But disaster! I was travelling with my back to the engine. Then memories of childhood, when I as many other children probably wanted, was to see ahead, to where we were going rather than back to where we had been. Clumsily, I reversed the position of my pillow. Clumsily, because I could take no weight on my hands or forearms, only on one elbow. This 'window' lasted for perhaps thirty seconds. Then back again to beautiful oblivion.

I never did find out what had really happened. I had passed through too many overburdened hands. It was suggested that the truck in which I had been travelling was hit by a shell or had struck a landmine. But I could find no none who could tell me with any certainty, (and far more likely, I didn't want to know), for I was the sole survivor.

Next stop a base hospital. Lebanon? Palestine? Egypt? I don't remember. But as I awoke a calming English nurse's voice said, "Ah, good, you're back at last. You've been away a long time. You must he hungry. What would you like to eat?"

By then I was fully alert and with typically caustic humour, and knowing something of the paucity of military rations, asked for anchovies on scrambled eggs on toast - and strong black coffee. Imagine my amazement when a short time later that is exactly what I got.

I discovered my chest was encased in plaster of Paris. Damage to my ribs, I was told. My face was heavily bandaged and my upper right arm was also in plaster. But soon I was mobile and with mobility even sergeants had to work their passage. I was given a broom and asked to sweep out the ward.

"Fine. Only too glad to help." Silly me, because I found I couldn't grasp the broom handle firmly enough.

"C'm on sergeant. You're not shell-shocked. Try."

"S'no use Nurse. I just can't grip tightly enough."

So another trip for an X-ray and they discovered I'd been malingering with two undiscovered broken forearms. Hullo again, operating theatre!

Beautiful pentothal wasn't yet available, it so it was probably ether for the knock-out drops so my partially healed bones could be broken again, re-set in correct alignment and forearms plastered. What a circus!

For some reason, I was made a wheel-chair patient; probably because it was feared I might be top heavy with plaster, fall over and cause more damage.

I remember long yarns with a young Aussie infantryman about my age in the bed opposite me. We'd both experienced some of the idiocies of Higher Command and agreed we could probably have handled things much better ourselves. We had books and music in common. Yet strangely his favourite melody was not one of the popular Rogers and Astaire numbers which he agreed he enjoyed, nor Thanks for the Memory, recently popularised by Bob Hope, another favourite with us. His first choice was the somewhat older, wistful ballad, Seventeen come Sunday.

We also shared the unfulfilled sexual appetites afflicting us all, which gave us unlimited scope for hilarious bawdiness. He told me something of his life in Sydney as a printer's devil and teased me with the graphic erotic details of his wedding night; of the ecstasy of the long copulative entwinement, asleep - awake - asleep - awake.

I recall his poignant certainty of being repatriated, as many of his wounded countrymen had been, yet I knew he would die of his wounds. Which, eventually he did. Surely, I thought sadly, he was one of the few men I had met who was totally normal.

My broken bones healed quickly but my face was a mess. I remember a lot of attention was paid to it and on one occasion I heard somebody say, 'skin graft'. But whether for me or someone else I was uncertain.

Altogether a tedious affair, in and out of operating theatres and sedated much of the time. When eventually discharged I was advised to grow a beard for at least a month and was given a medical chit to confirm it.

Surprisingly the new growth became a hideous bright ginger and I was glad when I could shave it off. However carefully I looked in a mirror I could see no actual scar tissue, though my face was definitely not quite as I remembered it, though not disturbing enough to frighten the horses. So you will see no close-up photographs of me taken while in uniform.

(Eventually, back in England the Army sent me to McIndoe's plastic surgery clinic in East Grinstead, where he had achieved fame and a knighthood, treating burns suffered by many Battle of Britain pilots. There my face was thankfully rearranged and given a nose more acceptable for public display.)

In the Middle East my next stop was the convalescence depot on the coast at Netanya, some eighteen miles north of Tel Aviv. A real gem this among Army establishments. The food was excellent and plentiful: no duties, minimal discipline, with the sun and sea whenever we wanted them.

I well remember long walks on the wide sandy beach with a convalescing officer cadet. We had the sands to ourselves except for small red crabs, visible in all directions in tightly packed millions. At our approach they quickly burrowed out of sight, emerging only when we had passed, so we walked in a circular area of featureless sand perhaps sixty feet in diameter.

Dressed only in swimming trunks we sauntered for many miles almost every day, nibbling at the edges of what little philosophy we knew, probing the dilemmas of life and death, the nature of pain and endurance, our religious beliefs or lack of them and of course, women. At this we were both hopelessly ignorant, but endlessly described our own anatomical preferences and fierce erotic ambitions with sixth-form naivety.

Occasionally we would run into the sea to swim and on emerging needed no towels for the Mediterranean sun would dry us in seconds.

Eventually I was discharged but not yet fit enough for active service. With the convoluted logic of the military mind I was sent, not back to my original Field Company in North Africa, but to where I had been wounded. Beirut. And there I was to be introduced to two important factors that would eventually enhance the pleasures of civilization.

First, there is no such thing as bad wine - merely, that some wines are better than others. Second, was to be a glorious introduction to serious music. Things happened like this:

I was posted to a unit of the French Foreign Legion, late of the Vichy French Army but now to serve with the Allies. Maybe there was nowhere else for me to be accommodated. Unlikely.

Perhaps somebody knew I had a happy affinity with explosives and also spoke a passing imitation of schoolboy French. Thus I should be able to tell the Legionnaires what I knew of the hazards of life in North Africa where they were shortly to be posted; of the types of booby trap and anti-personnel devices in use by both sides they were likely to encounter, and how best to deal with them. Regretfully, many of the more explosive French expletives I added to my vocabulary have yet to have the opportunity of being boastfully aired.

I arrived at their barracks in time for dinner and was given a place at a table in their sergeants' mess. Before me sat a glass and a bottle of red wine, similar to those of the other men, waiting to be served. Ah, civilization, I thought!

Since they were already drinking, I filled my glass and took a mouthful. Big mistake. What I hadn't yet swallowed I involuntarily spat out across the table. Raucous laughter greeted this while eager hands reached out for the remaining wine in my bottle. Obviously they'd been expecting this, for they roared at my discomfiture.

Their quartermaster would naturally have bought the cheapest wine available, and as Algeria was still a French colony, the wine whether good or bad had to be the cheapest, hence Algerian. For me, any other drink would have been preferable. Tap water was always unsafe, so in barracks of necessity, I had to drink Algerian plonk though I never managed to enjoy it. And so I learned.

Life with the Legionnaires opened my eyes. These men were nothing like those depicted in the legionary novels of P.C.Wren, like Beau Geste which I had devoured as a boy. Here were intelligent men, good-natured, as smart and as correct in their deportment as the best British regiments, and eager to learn.

In no way had they become brutalised by discipline, as many of us at home must have imagined. All of course spoke French but I was surprised at the large number of Germans in their ranks.

I soon made friends with a young Swiss sergeant who spoke excellent English and admitted to speaking German, Italian, and Spanish. When off duty he took it upon himself to show me Beirut, at the time considered the Paris of the Middle East - and rightly so. He took me to art galleries, museums, concerts and sites of historical interest. I still remember the name of a popular sea-front café, Mansour, where we would order cold beers. These were served with a wide array of hors d'oeuvre delicacies on small side dishes, meals in themselves but designed to increase our thirsts and order more drinks.

So there we relaxed, in the easy companionable ambience of Gauloise tobacco smoke, blue skies, the susurration of waves breaking on the nearby beach and the accommodating sunshine. Forgetting momentarily that it was still wartime, it was easy to imagine we were enjoying a luxury holiday on the French Cote d'Azur. I remember wondering how a country as benign in character as Switzerland could have produced such a young intellectual, desperate enough to join the French Foreign Legion, which for many was a last resort. But of course, one never ever asked.

In due time they moved on and I was transferred to a transit depot. With no duties, I must still have been considered unfit for active service, and had to present myself for a weekly examination by an army doctor.

And then my musical heavens opened. Someone had introduced me to the Dean of the American University of Beirut, from which, at the time, all wisdom and culture in the Lebanon and even beyond appeared to radiate. His name is long forgotten, but never the course in musical appreciation in which he so patiently and generously tutored me.

I had been invited for afternoon tea, and arrived at his house, part of the university campus. In his vast sunny living room I was introduced to his wife and his mother-in-law, a robust Ivy League no-nonsense woman in her nineties.

Our civilized teatime progressed smoothly with the conversation general, but studiously avoiding the current war news: yet they had no inhibitions abusing the tight restrictions placed upon them during the Vichy French regime. In turn I was happy to tell them of my army experiences, of the frustrating gaps in my memory bank and why I was still convalescing.

I learned the Dean had been seconded to the University from the Smithsonian Institute in New York, as was then the custom, which also I believe paid most of the university's considerable expenses.

No, I admitted I had been to no university in England, and indeed my formal education at boarding school had been pretty abysmal. There it was thought that scholastic knowledge was best applied by intimidation: bad marks at maths, French, and physics meant an assured monthly visit to the headmaster for a caning. Though our English and Art masters saved my sanity.

But yes, I enjoyed reading, very much so. And music? Of course, but apart from a receptive ear for popular American dance numbers from their films, my musical appreciation ventured little beyond Gilbert and Sullivan, Weber's Invitation to the Waltz and Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. The Dean's eyes lit up. Would I like to hear more? Of course! And that's how it started.

I had already noted the walls of the huge room were lined with miles of shelving on which sat both books and probably thousands of gramophone records. When the others had left the room, he took me across to a large mahogany record player. No wind-up nonsense here but an expensive electrically driven turntable. I think the first record he played was the last movement of a Beethoven piano concerto and he allowed himself a small smile to see my toes gently tapping to the music's exhilarating tempo.

After that it was music, music, music. He delighted in teaching me, and I delighted in learning.

His home soon became open house for me, much as had Mrs Bryant's in Cairo.

On the occasions when he was busy elsewhere I might be invited to have tea with his mother-in law, usually found in a corner of the sitting room, and there we'd talk of our home-life and often laughingly tease each other on our own countries' differing word pronunciations and spellings.

It was she, I gathered, who not only ran the household, but also did most of the cooking since no Lebanese servants were able for long to withstand her whiplash demands for American efficiency. In her spare time she enjoyed an unusual hobby: wood carving which she had practiced for many years. Surrounded by ankle-deep shavings, she worked with fastidious care at an intricate pattern on the domed lid of a huge wooden trunk, using a wide selection of tiny chisels.

Back to music: my tutor explained why symphonies were usually composed in four movements, concertos in three: these to stimulate first the head, then the heart and finally the feet. He had me laughing at the famous quote by Mark Twain, that 'Wagner's music isn't really as bad as it sounds!' with which he agreed, having none of his records. Then he helped me analyse composers' structures of large orchestral works, smaller ensembles, choral music and string quartets, sandwiched by Mozart, his favourite and soon to be mine. He demonstrated the difference between popular Programme Music, easily absorbed and the more serious pieces, some to my ears then as monstrous cacophonies, but which he assured me, I would learn to understand and love, the more I listened to them. What a priceless education!

Once I expressed my guilt for taking up so much of his time. But this he pooh-poohed, explaining that he was more an administrator than a teacher, rarely taking classes, and actually enjoyed musical sessions with someone so eager to learn as me.

But for how long he was prepared to sharpen my musical wits I was never to know, for all good things must end. Too soon, I was pronounced fit and sent to rejoin my unit in North Africa. But first I had to deliver an appropriate goodbye to the Dean and his family as well as to other university tutors I had met.

Whatever I said would be totally inadequate for all the friendship and generosity I'd received. But I did my stumbling best, and left Beirut elated with the priceless experiences I'd had, which I stowed away in my mental kitbag hoping one day, they'd enhance my own humdrum lifestyle.

Copyright Bob Thwaites, 2007