In the well known book by Littlewood (Mathematician's Miscellany, or the later edition called Littlewood's Miscellany) there is a remark made in the chapter 'A Mathematical education', the meaning of which has been complete mystery to me since I read it some years ago and still wonder what Mr. Littlewood meant:

I will say, however, that for me the thing to avoid, for doing creative work, is above all Cambridge life, with the constant bright conversation of the clever, the wrong sort of mental stimulus, all the goods in the front window.

Question: what kind of goods does he mean exactly?

Is this some subtle hint at his drinking problem and he means that he should avoid alcoholic beverages? But then why does he say all the goods. This doesn't make any sense. Can anybody shed some light on this question?

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    $\begingroup$ Just a guess, but I read "all the goods in the front window" as a metaphor meaning that everything is shown, and nothing is hidden. Applied to thought it could mean "having no depth", i.e., everything is on the surface. In a word, superficial. $\endgroup$ – Nik Weaver Jun 10 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ I take it to mean conversation where everyone is trying to show off their cleverness/wit etc. Not necessarily superficial, but taxing if you're also trying to seem clever. $\endgroup$ – Lucia Jun 10 at 21:08
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps you already understand this, but the metaphor refers to a shopkeeper who puts some of the goods they have for sale at the front of the store where they are visible to passersby through the front window. Littlewood's emphasis seems to me to be on the word "all"; normally one places only a selection of one's goods (the most popular or attractive items) in the front window, and not "all" of them. Both Nik Weaver's and Lucia's interpretation of the metaphor seem reasonable to me, but in any case, now you have the information you need to make your own educated guess. $\endgroup$ – Timothy Chow Jun 10 at 21:20
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    $\begingroup$ note that the remark was made in the context of Littlewood's habit to avoid thinking about mathematics throughout Sundays, so that a math problem would appear fresh and new on Mondays; this is what a shop keeper would do with valued items, don't display them in the front window for every passerby to see them, but save them in the back of the store so they will look fresh and new for a really interested customer. $\endgroup$ – Carlo Beenakker Jun 10 at 21:24
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    $\begingroup$ My opinion, based purely on my status as a native speaker of British English, is that there is actually less here than meets the eye. Just reading the sentence through—without deep analysis—I think he is simply saying that in Cambridge there are many easily-accessible distractions that might hinder creative work. I think the allusion to the front window is just to create the mental image of a variety of different distractions temptingly laid out in front of you just as a shopkeeper might lay out a variety of goods in the front window to tempt you in. $\endgroup$ – Gordon Royle Jun 11 at 8:14

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