Wilfred Bion was the first born child (1897) of a family in India. Their home was Mathura, an ancient city with legendary associations with Krishna, Buddhism and later the syncretism of vedantist and sufi mysticism.
His father was an irrigation engineer in one of the vast and intricate networks of canals the British Civil Service were building in Northwest India, then one of the largest engineering projects in the world, a work group synergistic with the railways, transforming and enriching the life of millions.
The Bion family was a hybrid of India and England – neither fully one nor the other, exiles from both groups. The father who had hunted tigers with King George V and the emotionally distant mother seemed more English than the English in their manners and talk but could only really belong in India. This split between two worlds became a pattern in Bion’s life which inspired his group theory. He was always in a group, but never of a group. He became an exile to himself, an observer of his own mind.
He never returned to India after being sent to boarding school in England at eight years of age. He had planned to visit Bombay in 1979 but died 2 months before the arrival date. Maybe he had planned to die in his native land. He was 82.
After he was left in a Prep school in England, Wilfred was not to see his mother again for three years, and when he did, he failed to recognize her.
The new boy was bullied and shamed as was the custom in such schools. Wilfred did not identify with the aggressor and was never a bully himself. At the age of 8, he knew the feelings of other bereft boys.
The function of such exclusively male schools was not primarily didactic. It was to inculcate the mores of the male upper middle class and equip boys for life membership of that group. It gave Bion the correct way of speaking and a bearing that could be recognized instantly as that of a member of the Establishment, equipped for leadership.
Sport was vital to Bion. Bion recollected “games were substituted for sex.” And surely for aggression. Bion became intensely “groupish” perhaps in reaction formation to an inner sense of exile. At senior school Bion became excellent at all games, and a group leader: captain of the first fifteen, captain of the swimming team, aspired to become an International at University.
But the final years of school replaced sport with war. The great war was the group activity to end all groups.