Wilfred Bion (1897-1979)

Pictured: Wilfred with his sister in 1903

Wilfred was born in Muttra in the Punjab (now Muthara, Uttar Pradesh), a province that became a British colony in 1847. Like Samuel Beckett, Wilfred’s father, Frederick Fleetwood Bion, was of Huguenot descent. He was a successful civil engineer, and part time secretary to the Indian Congress, and married to Rhoda Salter Kemp. She was supported in caring for their son and his sister, Edna, by an Indian ayah, to whom the children were close. When he was eight, Wilfred was sent away to school in England – a pattern seen in earlier posts about Rudyard Kipling, P G Wodehouse, William Beveridge…

Wilfred Bion’s daughter was to write:

“Bion certainly absorbed a very great amount of Indian culture, much more than most…precisely because of the work that his father did – he was a civil engineer who built some of the first railways in India and very long irrigation canals (1,600 – 1,700 kilometres) whose plotted course, like the railways, often passed through uninhabited areas…

…So the family followed the construction site and moved month by month, as the construction site moved; practically a small European nucleus and a very large number of Indians…A colleague from Bombay told me he heard Bion speaking in the last year of his life, giving a lecture in which he spoke about the Bhagavad Gita: speaking about sacred texts he had a very strong English accent, but when he quoted even a phrase of Hindustani he had no accent; so there was certainly a level, a stratification that had become entirely unconscious, of an Indo European language that had been completely forgotten.”.

Wilfred Bion wrote in The Long Week-End 1897-1919 Part of a Life (1982):

“Poor little green hill; why hadn’t it got a city wall?…

…I went into this question thoroughly – and others like “Is golden syrup really gold?” – with my mother, and later with my father, but without being satisfied by either. I concluded that my mother didn’t really know; though she tried very hard she seemed as puzzled as I was. It was more complicated with my father; he would start but seemed to tire when I did not understand the explanation. The climax came when I asked my question about golden syrup for the “hundredth time”. He was very angry. “Wow!” said my sister appreciatively.

Later, when I wanted to know what “persona non grata” meant, I kept it and similar problems to myself. I developed a sixth sense about the “hundredth time” long before I learnt enough mathematics to count up to one hundred. Even then I seemed to have established such a gulf between applied and pure mathematics that I could not satisfy myself – then or now – of the connection between one hundred and “the hundredth time”.

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