Ivor Treby’s Sand

Ivor Treby’s Sand Collection (RAMM)

By Lucy Allan-Jones

Born in Plymouth in 1933, Ivor Treby was a gay literary activist whose sand sample RAMM acquired after his death in 2012. He studied biochemistry at Oxford, before becoming a teacher in London where he worked at Paddington College (now City of Westminster College), and other schools. His teaching career was briefly threatened in 1977 when he was arrested for public indecency, as despite the official decriminalisation of homosexuality in England in 1967, discrimination persisted (and persists). 

Before and after his retirement in the 1980s, Treby had success as a poet, publishing at least 400 poems, and occasionally hosting poetry readings in-person or on the radio. The content of these poems was often homoerotic, and he was an early member of the Gay Authors’ Workshop. His interest in queer literature led him to research the life and work of Victorian/Edwardian writer Michael Field, a pseudonym for lesbian lovers Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper. Treby published a book on the two in 1998 with his own de Blackland Press.

It was also in the latter half of his life that he travelled extensively, collecting the sand samples now housed at RAMM. Initially, the museum did not catalogue some of the geologically insignificant sand samples, but they have since been re-incorporated into the digital collections explorer. The queer resonances of this ‘rejected gay sand’ have been creatively explored as part of the Queering the Museum project by poet Caleb Parkin.

Information about Ivor Treby is appropriately granular, scattered across Bristol, Oxford, and Exeter. The Bodleian library holds the largest selection of his journals and papers.

Many of the sand samples come from the U.S.A, but a closer look at some of the locations they are taken from indicates a queer coastal sub-culture running through these rocks. Many of the places from which Treby collected sand – Coney Island, Santa Monica Boulevard, Atlantic Avenue, Provincetown, and Cherry Grove Beach (one of the first gay beaches in the U.S.) – are also famous cruising spots. 

Fire Island
Jacob Riis Park

Without more research it is impossible to say to what extent he participated in the queer communities these beaches had to offer, but his interest in the gay male experience, and own records of cottaging in London suggest that his visits to those areas might not have been purely scientific.

Perhaps because of their secluded nature, beaches remain popular as cruising sites, and as places for other forms of queer world-building too. Time and time again from coastlines as local as Exmouth to those further afield like Paradise Beach in Beirut, and Middle Bay Beach in Hong Kong, the beach offers a covert environment away from cosmopolitan scrutiny where the queer population can commune with one another.

This is far from a new phenomenon, as a record from the Brighton Ourstory Archive reveals:

 In August 1822, George Wilson, a servant from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was accused by a guardsman he had met in the Duke of Wellington public house in Pool Valley of having offered him a sovereign and two shillings to go with him onto the beach to commit an unnatural crime.

While this extract does evidence a time-honoured connection between queer communities and the beach, it should not escape us that this is knowledge acquired through violence, and through gay sex being perceived as an “unnatural crime”. If the beach is a place of queer liberation and union, it is also somewhere that has witnessed the persecution of queer people.

Poet and academic Michael Waters has recently covered the history of this in America in his article, “The Uncertain Future of the Queer Beach” linked below. Beginning with the phrase “These spaces are resilient, but also under threat”, he goes on to trace the vibrant but migratory history of the queer beach in 1950s America. Using examples like Point Lookout, Jacob Riis Park, and Cape May, an unmistakeable pattern emerges whereby a remote part of the beach becomes a queer haven, until the local population become aware of it, and call for police intervention. As this escalates, the queer community must relocate to another beach, until the next time they are forced to move. 

This pattern persists not only in America, but also in places like Uganda and Martinique. Stella Nyanzi explains that in these countries, due to complex colonial legacies, some people perceive queerness as a “foreign imposition from an imagined decadent West, or otherwise from an exotic, erotic East, and it is depicted as sin, crime, psychosis, pathology, or a transient pubescent phase of growth”. Rejecting it either by stigma or legislation is seen to be in line with nationalist values and/or independence. 

In the face of this, since 2011, Uganda has held an annual Beach Pride on the shores of Lake Victoria, even as it is accompanied by counter-protests, civilian arrests, and further legislation like the 2014 Anti-Homosexuality bill. Regardless of how distant the shores are from one another, beaches globally provide queer communities with the space to protest through collective action and celebration. The beach, then, might be a place from which to continue to shore up global alliances within the queer community.

Media representations of the LGBTQIA+ community have further secured the beach as a queer motif, like in Alice Oseman’s graphic novel turned Netflix series, Heartstopper 2022As the final episode draws to a close, we see protagonists Nick and Charlie lying side by side on the beach, confirming to one another their desire to be open about their relationship to other people. The camera zooms out to frame the two of them together, but otherwise alone, on the cusp of newly entering the world together.

In an interview about the scene, Alice Oseman comments:

 “The beach setting is symbolic of the transformation Nick and Charlie go through in the scene. Nick’s decision to come out and them officially becoming boyfriends provides an emotional release for the characters and allows them to move into a new place in their relationship. There is a sense of joy and playfulness to the beach that fits the scene and their relationship.” Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

In 2019 film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, set in France in the late 18th century and written and directed by Céline Sciamma, the beach is similarly somewhere Héloïse and Marianne can safely profess their love to one another, and somewhere they share the first intimate moments of their relationship. 

From the macroscopic to the microscopic, the way sand is composed from diverse geological elements might also affirm the beach as a queer phenomenon. In most of Treby’s samples, the primary element is quartz, but bonded with it are seemingly infinite combinations of rock, from limestone and sandstone to tourmaline and feldspar. Aside from the rainbow patterns revealed when these grains come under a microscope, the vast number of bonds they contain reflects the myriad of ways to be queer that exist. These are often homogenised by a dominant heteronormative gaze that reduces such relations to a homogenous Other, or to extend the metaphor, sees the beach and not the sand. To recognise the individual grains is to appreciate and celebrate the kaleidoscope of identities that come under the term ‘queer’. 


In addition, sand is a product of geological attrition, and prone to re-distribute in ways reminiscent of the queer communities Michael Waters writes on. It is never anchored, but when it does move via longshore drift, no grain is left behind; it takes with it the traces of what it was, even as they adjust to a new landscape. This might serve as a powerful metaphor not just for the power of collective resistance, but also for the ephemeral way queer history is recorded. Oral histories, literary fiction, and music are just some of the sediment queer pasts and futures are built on and from, and that, sand-like, are preserved in every space we occupy. Through these, we acquire traces and imprints that move but are not erased. 

Sand and the beach are central to the queer community, both literally and metaphorically, providing a place for belonging and private liberation, mounting a gritty resistance to heteronormativity. Whether it was an impulse to distil some of this that inspired Ivor Treby’s sand collection we do not know, but sensing out queer resonances like this offers a way to freshly engage with his sand samples today.