first, finally fixed!!
quick recap for context.
/dev/hda1 none (120GB)
/dev/hdd1 /backup (80GB)
/dev/hdb1 /home (120GB)
drive setup for hda from fdisk was as follows:
Disk /dev/hda: 120.0 GB, 120034123776 bytes
255 heads, 63 sectors/track, 14593 cylinders
Units = cylinders of 16065 * 512 = 8225280 bytes
Device Boot Start End Blocks Id System
/dev/hda1 1 146 1172713+ 82 Linux swap
/dev/hda2 * 147 14593 116045527+ 83 Linux
so it all looked fine. drive bootable, grub where it should be etc etc.
the error i was getting was GRUB GRUB GRUB printed all over the screen infinitely. i first started with grub v0.93 then later (recently) moved to v0.94. i don't think the version made a difference here however as the error was noticed on both (though 0.94 has my splash images working
i had tried the following all with no joy:
from a terminal: grub-install ...
it said all was ok and again it looked fine with relevant files in /boot/grub.
this didn't work.
from a grub terminal:
again it said all was ok but it didn't work.
i then noticed that the geometry reported by grub (and fdisk above) was not what was in the bios. so again from grub i did the following with values from the bios:
geometry (hd0) 57461 16 255
that didn't work either.
i tried the above with varying combinations and switches many many many times over all to no avail. btw, i was getting into the system with a boot disk.
by this time i has also read the grub manual about 5 times and had gone through dozens of forums, mail lists and chats. others had in fact posted similar errors but none saw it through to post the result in the end - if any (which is half the point of this post).
it was determined by this time that grub could not move to stage 2 as was suggested by some yet when running 'find' from grub it found everything with no problem.
for whatever reason grub was not properly installing in the mbr.
anyway, i'll cut to the chase:
i finally started playing with the more complex 'install' command from the grub console. by this point i had also stopped using the grub console from within linux (after i had booted) as i also read in the manual that there may be issues with installing on mounted drives.
i tried many combinations using install - partly because of its complexity and partly because i wasn't really sure what i was doing.
finally this worked:
install /boot/grub/stage1 d (hd0,1)/boot/grub/stage2 p (hd0,1)/boot/grub/menu.lst
the d option tells it explicitly where stage 2 is.
the p option and config file was added after it was finally booting but going to a grub prompt only.
the above would suggest that the grub install (any i had tried so far) was actually not locating or addressing correctly the location of the stage files using the default or simpler installation techniques.
anyway, problem now sorted - for me. the debian installer would perhaps want to cater for this somehow (other distros on same system did not have this problem).
thanks to all those who put in the time to help me out with this. the linux (and especially debian) community is great when it comes to this sort of thing.
anyway, now to actually start using my machine again.
Many thanks to all.