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Why I want to write about the Troubles, by Northern Ireland's veteran editor of Country Living

Susy Smith, who has just stepped down as editor-in-chief of Country Living magazine, was inspired by the glossies her mum used to read in their east Belfast home. Here, she tells Linda Stewart about leaving Northern Ireland to pursue her career and what she's planning to do next

Outdoor life: Susy Smith relaxes at home
Outdoor life: Susy Smith relaxes at home

By Linda Stewart

After 40 years in the magazine business, Susy Smith is preparing to move on. She has stepped down from her 24-year role as editor-in-chief of Country Living magazine on a high, having won Editor of the Year in the Gardens and Country category and the Mark Boxer award at the British Society of Magazine Editors awards.

The Belfast-born magazine queen says she was already planning to move on later this year after her daughters finished university, but with her awards coup and with the company undergoing its latest restructure, now seemed like the perfect time to bow out.

"It's what I've done for the last 40 years and it felt like it was time to do something different and leave at the top of my game," she says.

She's particularly proud of winning the Mark Boxer Award for outstanding services to the industry, a trophy inscribed with household names such as Ian Hislop, Richard Ingrams, Felicity Green and Dylan Jones.

"It feels very humbling to look at that trophy and for my name to be on it, and I kind of thought 'Wow, how fantastic is that - this is definitely the right time to go!'"

Country Living has also been named Media Brand of the Year in the Media Week Awards, the first magazine to receive the accolade.

"For Country Living, a magazine brand, to win was extraordinary - nobody could believe it and I feel like I've gone out on a high," Susy says.

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Proud mother: with twin daughters Hattie and Connie
Proud mother: with twin daughters Hattie and Connie

Life is changing for the whole family. Not only are Susy's twin daughters Connie and Hattie (21) soon to finish university, but her husband Mike (61) has just sold his financial planning business to a bigger company.

"He's always been in finance. He's a financial planner so he's very different from me and that's good - it makes for a very good balance," she says.

"He's in the process of selling the company to a much bigger company with a similar ethos and ideas and that will enable him to have a bit more free time, which will suit me very nicely!"

Susy describes the Belfast family she grew up in as a "bit of a media family" - her older brother Paul Smith is renowned for bringing hit TV quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? to screens across the globe, as well as producing the movie Slumdog Millionaire. And her sister is TV director Claire Michel who mostly covers sport.

The family lived in Cregagh in east Belfast, but Susy's parents had moved to Northern Ireland from England when her father set up a men's outfitters in Howard Street - "It was called Clifford Bryce, that was his first name and middle name".

Susy says: "My mother was a big magazine reader - my father used to buy magazines for her and her favourite magazine was Nova, which is kind of iconic in the magazine business.

Susy with twin daughters Hattie and Connie when they were born
Susy with twin daughters Hattie and Connie when they were born

"It was an amazing magazine - it was talking about things like abortion and drugs, even though it was the Sixties and Seventies when those things weren't talked about in the magazine world. It was seeing copies of Nova that made me think about what a fabulous way it was to make a living."

Susy herself was passionate about magazines as a teenager, poring over the likes of 19 and Petticoat.

"When I was 12, I decided that what I wanted to do was to work for a glossy magazine, and when I told my mother, she said 'That is fantastic and I'm sure you will'. She told me years later that she thought at the time she had no idea how I was going to do that, but never for a moment did she let me doubt that it was achievable.

"It was really our parents' desire to encourage us to follow our dreams as long as they were decent and honest."

Susy successfully applied to a journalism school, but it was the art college that won the day. But despite embarking on a graphic design course at the Art College in York Street, she left after the first year, recognising that London was the place to be if you were searching for a career in magazines.

"Belfast was not a great place to live in then - it was right in the middle of the Troubles," Susy says.

"My father's shop was damaged in an explosion. I used to work in a pet shop and it was damaged in an explosion as well.

"There were explosions all the time, so travelling around and trying to have a social life was not that easy. But London was the place to be anyway - if you were going to work on those kinds of magazines I needed to live in London. So I left when I was in first year and got a place at Central St Martins.

"I graduated with a 2:1 and was lucky enough to find work. We had really good visiting tutors and I had good work experience on a couple of magazines.

School days: from right, at Grosvenor High in east Belfast when Susy Smith was 14 and 18
School days: from right, at Grosvenor High in east Belfast when Susy Smith was 14 and 18

"I got a job on a magazine called My Guy - the one with the photostories - and that was my first job out of college. I was a lay-out artist - there were no computers, so everything was done by licking and sticking. It was all very hands-on. I started as a junior designer which was great fun because all the people there were of a similar age and it was a real laugh."

After that, she moved to another IPC magazine, Ideal Homes, followed by another, called In Store, but was made redundant when it closed down. By then she was working as a stylist, putting together room sets for features, and set up her own business with a friend from college.

"I ran that business for a couple of years, doing styling and writing for a lot of magazines," she says.

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She was approached by the National Magazine Company Ltd, aka Hearst, to become the style editor of House Beautiful.

But when the role of editor of Country Living came up, she was determined to get the job.

"What I loved when Country Living came out was that it broke the mould," she says.

"It did all the fluffy style - home and interiors, health and beauty - but it had quite groundbreaking features. Things like taking care of the planet - nowadays you read about it everywhere but at the time it was really quite unusual.

"I talk about it having a really big USP of featuring everything from soft furnishings to hard issues.

"It was a really eclectic mix that might have gone really badly wrong.

Happy times: Susy with the twins
Happy times: Susy with the twins

"I loved it as soon as I saw it. I thought this is the magazine I would love to work on if I ever got the opportunity to do so.

"Long story short, I got the job, I was there for 24 years and I left in October."

She made numerous changes when she stepped in, concerned that Country Living was starting to lose sales.

"My view was it had become too serious and too worthy. The feedback they were getting from readers was it wasn't a treat anymore - it was too serious," she says.

"There were three key things I felt we needed to be doing - homes and decorating, gardening and food features.

"My view was those are the things that are going to attract the most people and when you had them hooked you did the serious subjects, like closure of village post offices, the lack of decent transport in the countryside, closure of village pubs.

"My view was that nobody should put down a magazine feeling guilty that they haven't done enough. The whole reason people read magazines is for inspiration. Once you inspire people, they are willing to take on information about other subject matter."

And she's proud of how they were able to deliver on the serious subjects - for example, the hugely influential Farmer Wants A Wife campaign, which emerged from stats revealing that the highest suicide rate in the country at the time was among farmers. The magazine ran a small feature on it, received a lot of feedback and began to probe into why the suicide rate was so high.

"It quickly became evident that it's a pretty lonely existence - farmers are out all day in a tractor and they might only have a radio for company. There's not a lot of time for a social life," Susy explains.

"So if you hadn't met your soulmate by the time you left Young Farmers it was pretty hard to meet somebody.

"At the end of the feature we said 'if you are a lonely farmer or your father or brother is a lonely farmer, get in touch, or get in touch if you'd love to meet a farmer'. People wrote in and we got sackloads of mail. It was overwhelming.

"It became legendary and it ran for 10 years in the magazine and was picked up by ITV who decided to do a documentary series. It has appeared in different guises since - there was a fabulous documentary which was nominated for a Bafta and it featured the guys in the magazine.

"We even held a barn dance where people met for the first time," Susy recalls.

"Our claim to fame was that we had 18 weddings and 25 babies and we used to say we had more success than Blind Date."

Susy says they were getting letters years later from people about how they got together.

"In today's shorthand of online dating, it seems unbelievable that it was so difficult for people to meet each other. But it changed hearts and minds and made a lot of people very happy, which was lovely."

Another life-changing campaign was Fair Trade for British Farmers, a local response to the global fair trade movement seeking fair prices for commodities like coffee and bananas.

"Supermarkets were driving down the price of milk and farmers couldn't afford to produce it for the little they were paid," Susy says.

"We held a big conference and the radio presenter Libby Purves did a talk, bringing a serious matter to people's attention. Hopefully we brought a lot of attention to it."

Susy admits glossy magazines aren't immune to problems in the print sector.

"The turning point came in 2006 and the internet really started to get momentum, and it was beginning to become apparent that were going to have to start bringing revenue in from elsewhere," she says.

Country Living was one of the most successful Hearst titles at building on its brand with licensing, with 14 live events a year in Scotland, England and Wales, a gift range with Boots, partnerships with John Lewis and range of Country Living sofas and chairs with DFS.

"Two years ago we launched Country Living Hotels and we now have two, in Bath and Harrogate," Susy says. "What that did was allow us to have other sources of revenue so we were no longer reliant on print."

But now she's stepped down as editor-in-chief, she's itching to get back into writing.

"I'm not completely retired - it's not really me," she admits. "I've rambled on about writing a novel since I was 17 and I want to write about growing up in Belfast and write about my parents' lives. They both led fascinating lives and it was such a different time from how we live now.

"I've signed up for a novel-writing course with Faber and Faber and that's really to give me the discipline to go in and do it instead of talking about it."

And it isn't a total break from Country Living - colleagues have convinced her to take on a regular column.

"They said it would ease the separation anxiety," she laughs.

"My first column is in the February issue. I've written two already and it's fun to get back to writing because the job had become very administrative.

"It's nice to sit down and make myself write. I could write features until the cows come home - it's a formula I know very well.

"But writing a novel is a whole different ball game. It feels like a much bigger hill to climb!"

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