Deconstructing Empire is a collaboration between Poet in the City, St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. A series of youth-led projects and events interrogating the legacy of Empire on modern day Britain, uncovering stories from our past and looking ahead to the future. 

Curated and produced over Autumn 2019 by Poet in the City Producers, Deconstructing Empire: The Great British Fantasy? took place on Friday 6th December 2019 at St Paul’s Cathedral to a sold out audience of 120 people. There was a huge appetite for the event and conversation in person and on social media:

  • 100% audience members rated the event highly 4/5 out of 5
  • 100% would be likely or highly likely to attend a similar event
  • 55% audience members were from Black, Asian, or mixed heritage backgrounds
  • The event attracted an intergenerational audience:
  • 20% 20-24|22.5% 25-34|22.5% 35-49|15% 50-59| 7.5% 60-64| 10% 65+|2.5% unknown
  • All suggested improvements were requests for a longer event or ‘more time’

“'Deconstructing Empire: The Great British Fantasy?' was an illuminating and thought-provoking event held within the beautiful ambience of St Paul’s Cathedral. It felt important to be listening to the speakers and poets in this setting – as though by doing so we were bringing empire and its legacies right to the heart of London, the former imperial centre. As a researcher of colonialism and war, I found it especially refreshing to move away from the language of academic discussion and focus instead on personal, creative responses. I loved Anthony Anaxagorou’s poetry reading - and ended up buying his book!” Dr Diya Gupta, Past & Present Fellow: Race, Ethnicity and Equality in History, Royal Historical Society

Deconstructing Empire: The Great British Fantasy?

An event exploring the colonial nostalgia that has crept into so much of our contemporary debate, from Brexit, to border control, to the (at the time) imminent General Election. This persistent yearning to return to a time when Britain was leading the world has found itself driving a divided nation in crisis, with whitewashed memories of Britain’s imperial legacy distorting the public view on what it means to be British today.

Seminal British poet and artist William Blake’s poem-turned-hymn Jerusalem has often been held up as a symbol of Britain’s colonial ambitions, with his portrayal of a “green & pleasant Land” painting an idyllic view of a nation at peace. But did this time ever exist, and could it ever be returned to today?

Poet in the City Producers presented an evening of poetry, music and discussion in the Wren Suite at St Paul’s excavating these cultural narratives and reclaiming and redefining our own identities at the heart of this British landmark, featuring poetry performance from Imtiaz Dharker, and performance and discussion with bassoonist Linton Wesley Stephens and poet Anthony Anaxagorou, chaired by Dr Sona Datta.

the language around Brexit and British nationalism ... is a pine for Empire 


Imtiaz Dharker is a poet, artist and documentary film-maker. Awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2014, recipient of the Cholmondley Award and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, her collections include Purdah (Oxford University Press), Postcards from god, I speak for the devil and The terrorist at my table (all published by Penguin India and Bloodaxe Books UK), Leaving Fingerprints and Over the Moon (Bloodaxe Books UK). Her poems are on the British GCSE and A Level English syllabus, and she reads with other poets at Poetry Live! events all over the country to more than 25,000 students a year. She has been Poet in Residence at Cambridge University Library, for Thresholds, and has recently completed a series of poems based on the Archives of St Paul’s Cathedral. She has had ten solo exhibitions of drawings in India, London, New York and Hong Kong. She scripts and directs films, many of them for non-government organisations in India, working in the area of shelter, education and health for women and children.

Anthony Anaxagorou
is a British-born Cypriot poet, fiction writer, essayist, publisher and poetry educator. His poetry has been published in POETRY, The Poetry Review, Poetry London, Granta, Ambit, The Adroit Journal and The Rialto. His work has appeared on BBC Newsnight, BBC Radio 4, ITV, Vice UK, Channel 4 and Sky Arts. His second collection After the Formalities published by Penned in the Margins is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation alongside being selected as one of The Telegraph’s best poetry books of 2019. Most recently it was shortlisted for the 2019 T.S Eliot Prize. He was awarded the 2019 H-100 Award for writing and publishing, and the 2015 Groucho Maverick Award for his poetry and fiction. In 2019 he was made an honorary fellow of the University of Roehampton. Anthony is artistic director of Out-Spoken, a monthly poetry and music night held at London’s Southbank Centre, and publisher of Out-Spoken Press.

Listen to an interview with Anthony about Deconstructing Empire

Linton Wesley Stephens was born in Chester and grew up on the Wirral. He began playing the Bassoon at the age of 16. He is the sub-principal bassoon with Chineke! Orchestra with whom he has performed at the proms and Wigmore hall. He also enjoys varied freelance career. Recent appearances include BBC Philharmonic, Hallé Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Clonter Opera, Opera North, European Opera Centre, Northern Chamber Orchestra, English National Ballet, and the South Pacific tour. A passionate advocate for music education and equality within the industry; he regularly runs workshops and coaches ensembles for young musicians throughout the country as well holding a seat on the board for the Musicians Union equality committee.

Listen to an interview with Linton about Deconstructing Empire

Dr Sona Datta is a curator, writer, and broadcaster of South Asian art from Medieval to Modern. She was a 2019/20 Clore Leadership Fellow.

Listen to an interview with Sona about Deconstructing Empire

I think critically because we've got a General Election approaching and the idea of Britishness and what that means is very much on everyone's minds, this is a really really timely event

Words about the partnership:

"Having worked closely with Poet in the City on various poetry events, I know that we are aligned in our passion both for reaching new audiences and for giving under-represented voices, particularly those of young people, a platform. St Paul’s Cathedral is thrilled to be partnering with them again, and is equally excited to be collaborating with Westminster Abbey to jointly examine our shared colonial heritage and continued legacies. We know that this will be challenging but we believe that poetry is a perfect vehicle for tackling these kinds of difficult conversations, and we believe that the involvement of young people in them is essential in helping us imagine a more just future." Donna McDowell, Head of Schools and Family Learning, St Paul's Cathedral

"It's exciting to be working so collaboratively with institutions like Westminster Abbey and St Paul's Cathedral to tackle pertinent issues such as institutional racism and contested heritage, and the impact of this on communities in Britain today. The openness from both organisations to interrogate their own colonial legacies and be guided by young voices has led the way for urgent conversations around the vital role of heritage in creating better understanding of our past and building an equitable future." Sarisha Kumar, Talent and Development Manager, Poet in the City

"We are really excited to be continuing our partnership with Poet in the City and St Paul’s Cathedral through this project. It provides a much needed opportunity for young people to explore Britain’s colonial past and to use poetry to examine how it is remembered at the Abbey. This partnership allows us to have confidence in handing over the discussion, to hear young voices, their responses and reflections and have the results shared with the public in a creative, quality output. Empowering young people to unpick the history enables us to look forward and ensure the stories we are telling are relevant, representative and guarantee genuine welcome for all, taking our Benedictine tradition forward into the future." Grazyna Richmond, Head of Learning, Westminster Abbey