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Dublin: 10°C Monday 19 April 2021

Sitdown Sunday: The holiday village run by spies

Settle back in a comfy chair and sit back with some of the week’s best longreads.

File photo
File photo
Image: Shutterstock/haveseen

IT’S A DAY of rest, and you may be in the mood for a quiet corner and a comfy chair.

We’ve hand-picked the week’s best reads for you to savour.

1. Life with a Russian billionaire

When Alexandra Tolstoy fell for Russian billionaire Sergei Pugachev, their life together seemed like a dream. But soon, it turned into a nightmare.

(BBC, approx 10 mins reading time)

“He’d give me his credit card and I’d go shopping, I could do what I liked,” she says. “I had a private jet. I just had to pack my suitcase and go.” The couple split their time between an array of properties; including a £12m family home in Battersea, a 200-acre estate in Hertfordshire, and a beach-front villa in the Caribbean, worth $40m. But though the good times rolled, back in Russia, the mood had changed. President Vladimir Putin was turning against his former oligarch allies like Sergei Pugachev.

2. Sinéad O’Connor 

A lovely, thoughtful profile of the iconic Irish musician.

(The Washington Post, approx 16 mins reading time)

There are four children, a pair of grandchildren, four ex-husbands and an ex-boyfriend, Frank, who lives a short walk down Strand Road with their son, Yeshua, 13. There is her father, a sister and three brothers, all within a drive. They know her not as the pop star who rose to fame singing “Nothing Compares 2 U,” but as a witty, compassionate, difficult, fearless, playful and unpredictable woman who has struggled, personally and professionally, ever since she ripped up that photograph of the pope on “Saturday Night Live” in 1992. And they remember the last time O’Connor left home.

3. The holiday village run by spies

Arous was a holiday resort in the Sudanese desert, by the Red Sea… and it was also a base for Israeli agents.

(BBC, approx 14 mins reading time)

The Sudanese International Tourist Corporation was also happy. It had leased the site to a group of people introducing themselves as European entrepreneurs, whose venture brought some of the first foreign tourists to the country. The only thing was, unbeknown to the guests or the authorities, the Red Sea diving resort was entirely fake. It was a front, set up and run for more than four years in the early 1980s by operatives from the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. 

4. John Prine

The legendary musician John Prine died this week after contracting coronavirus. Here’s a guide to his greatest songs, in his own words.

(Rolling Stone, approx 10 mins reading time)

Prine has been writing songs since he was 14, a skill that really took shape on his route as a mailman in suburban Illinois. They all pull from his life: 1971’s “Hello in There” was about the lonely people he met delivering newspapers. “Paradise” was about his parents’ beloved Kentucky hometown that was strip-mined beyond recognition. Prine tackles all these subjects with empathy, humor, simplicity, with an eye for “the in-between spaces” – moments people don’t talk about.

5. Tragic deaths

A missionary went to Uganda to save children – but many of those in her care ended up dying. What happened?

(The New Yorker, approx 40 mins reading time)

Twalali was one of more than a hundred babies who died at Serving His Children between 2010 and 2015. The facility began not as a registered health clinic but as the home of Renée Bach—who was not a doctor but a homeschooled missionary, and who had arrived in Uganda at the age of nineteen and started an N.G.O. with money raised through her church in Bedford, Virginia. She’d felt called to Africa to help the needy, and she believed that it was Jesus’ will for her to treat malnourished children. Bach told their stories on a blog that she started. “I hooked the baby up to oxygen and got to work,” she wrote in 2011. “I took her temperature, started an IV, checked her blood sugar, tested for malaria, and looked at her HB count.”

6. Treated for coronavirus

The story of how New Jersey’s first coronavirus patient survived.

(The New York Times Magazine, approx mins reading time)

The hospital had not tested him earlier because the C.D.C. guidelines at the time suggested that testing should be reserved for those who had recently traveled to China or come into close contact with someone believed to have the virus. Cai had not been there for years and to his knowledge had not been in contact with anyone who had tested positive. Now he thought they were just being thorough.


In 1994, John Lahr wrote about Lady Maria St Just, who had a talent for ‘outrageous mythmaking’. A larger than life character, her fantasies took a dark turn towards the end.

(The New Yorker, approx 69 mins reading time)

From the outset, Maria’s survival was problematic. She was born on July 6, 1921, in St. Petersburg, Russia; but thirteen months later, as she tells it, under the threat of famine, her mother, Mary, escaped to England with Maria and her older brother, Vladimir, leaving their father, Dr. Alexander Britnev, apparently to the hands of the murderous Bolsheviks. “Little Mary . . . was so tiny that no one could believe that she was over a year old,” Mary Britneva writes in “A Stranger in Your Midst,” her autobiography. According to Maria in her own book, “Five O’Clock Angel”—primarily a collection of letters from Williams, which I was briefly engaged to compile, and which Maria ultimately decided to put together herself—she arrived in England with rickets.

More: The best reads from every preious Sitdown Sunday>

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